By Andrew Macdonald

Former MP Elmer MacKay chatted with The Macdonald Notebook over the dreary wet weather of Canada Day weekend on the controversial Inverness airport project being touted by Cabot Links/Cabot Cliffs.

Now an elder statesman at 82, and ever the consummate politician, during my 25-minute chat with Elmer, he carefully choose his words on the Inverness project. But he did say it would be “mindless” to expend federal and provincial money at what he terms a “single-use” airport proposal in Inverness.

Brian Mulroney was PM from 1984-1993. He spoke about his beloved Free Trade, Donald Trump and Nelson Mandela at ST FX last fall. Photo by Brendan Ahern/The Macdonald Notebook.

He added, he would be saddened if an airport an hour’s drive from Inverness, the Port Hawkesbury airport would have to close, as feared by Caper politico Billy Joe MacLean, and Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton  if taxpaying dollars build an Inverness airstrip for international golfers.

MacKay tells me he is concerned for the survival of the Port Hawkesbury airport, which was opened by MacKay political foe Allan J. MacEachen in 1973. He sees it under threat as the Trudeau and McNeil governments consider directing $18 million in taxpayers money to what would be a competing airport in Inverness’ Cabot Links/Cabot Cliffs golf courses.

Political Giants: The men of Central Nova, Elmer MacKay, left, Brian Mulroney, and Peter MacKay. The Notebook photo.

MacKay was a powerful and influential cabinet minister and Nova Scotia’s federal minister in the Tory Brian Mulroney regime, from 1984 to 1993. The Lorne, Pictou County lumber baron, who still prefers to call the July 1 holiday by its former name of Dominion Day, is the father of Harper Tory political legend Peter MacKay.

In our chat, Elmer MacKay suggests that if Ottawa is intent on spurring economic development activity, it direct infrastructure money to ensuring an LNG plant can get built in Goldboro. He also suggests the Trudeau government would be better to spend funds to aid a rocket launch project in Hazil Hill’s, Canso.

A jet at the Port Hawkesbury Allan J. MacEachen Airport.

He suggests Trudeau shy away from directing taxpayers dollars to a single-use project such as that represented by the Cabot Links airport.

MacKay in 1988, as a key Mulroney cabinet minister, saw to the extension of his riding’s airport in Trenton, building a 5,000-foot runway, to handle Challenger and Lear jets. That airport is now owned by the Sobeys family, serving the number two nation wide grocery chain of the same name, and also serving its national commercial landlording entity, Don Clow helmed Crombie Reit.

MacKay, who was a key player in the Mulroney regime’s vision for a Confederation Bridge, does suggest federal government infrastructure projects are important to a region like Atlantic Canada.

“We need all the economic development that we can get down here,” MacKay tells The Notebook. “That’s because we have never received a square break from Confederation. We were the losers at the time, and you don’t disparage help from the government to develop the economy here.

“That is, provided there is a business case to be made. But, on the other hand you don’t want to use precious economic development dollars or funding dollars if there is not a need or business case. I think for example, we need to look at more assistance for LNG developments down around Melford and Goldboro. We need to look at maybe (supporting) this aerospace (rocket launch) project over around Hazil Hill, in Canso.

“And then you look at recreational stuff like a golf course. Stowe in Vermont for New England, Baddeck in Cape Breton could be developed into a vacation centre because of its location,” he adds. “And then you look at golf courses, and again, you wonder if there is a lot of common good involved that develops a need for a public funding.”

MacKay says the region needs people like billionaires Galen Weston and the late Tim Hortons titan Ron Joyce.

“Let’s look at the golf course Joyce did in Tatamagouche. This is a textbook case where a guy with a lot of money wanted to something for an area that he liked on the North Shore’s Northumberland Strait.”

Ron Joyce 20 years ago built a $40 million four-star resort, 18-hole golf course, and an airport at Fox Harb’r, spending the $40 million out of his own pocket.

“If we had wealthy people like Ron Joyce, who was prepared to make a big commitment themselves, and put up infrastructure around it like Ron did — he put up an airport himself, and he also built some very expensive condos there,” says Elmer.

“Cabot Links looks like it is a more unique and world-class golf course, because of the geography there,” surrounded by seas and the Cape Breton Highlands, and the famed Cabot Trail road network.

Should Cabot Links get 100 per cent government money for the Inverness airport project, or should they also put some of their own money into building it, I asked Elmer MacKay.

MacKay says the federal government has to ensure it does not spur on a business environment “where people tend to eat each other’s lunch. If you start a little business in a small town in Nova Scotia, and you are lucky enough to strike upon a product that is in demand, it is no time until one of your buddies starts another same business across the corner from you, and you will then both be struggling.

“In Port Hawkesbury, that little airport there seems to have a niche. It’s an all-weather airport, and it can be used in a more comprehensive way. In other words, it makes more sense as a multi-use airport than the one up in Inverness which would be seasonal as best, because of the climate (and seasonal nature of a golf course),” observes MacKay.

“I would think, being an ex-politician, that you should take a few steps before you run.”

MacKay hopes that Cabot Links continues to develop, but he suggests a helicopter shuttle service from Port Hawkesbury’s airport to Inverness makes more sense to develop than building an Inverness airport.

“I would think a helicopter service would be an interesting bridge between both Port Hawkesbury and Sydney to Inverness, if you had a modern and well run helicopter service. A nice little helicopter service to cater to the (billionaire) Warren Buffets (who has golfed on at least two occasions at Inverness) and others would make more sense to go ahead with that development,” MacKay tells The Notebook.

“I want to see more development in private capital before I would want to see the Port Hawkesbury airport impaired by a mindless application of federal money to the Inverness airport — until it developed a little more.”

Liberal political titan Allan J MacEachen looked at supporting an airport for his beloved Inverness, and in Margaree before building the airport in Port Hawkesbury in 1973.

Allan J. MacEachen, left, with Pierre Trudeau. Allan J built the Port Hawkesbury airport in 1973.

According to a political aide who recently spoke to The Notebook, and who worked with Allan J. In 1973, MacEachen favoured the Port Hawkesbury location because it was safer than an airport in the Cape Breton Highlands, and also because of the industries then popping up in Point Tupper on the Canso Strait, near Port Hawkesbury.

“I think Allan J was absolutely right, and let’s not forget his father worked as an Inverness coal miner, and know doubt Allan J had a great love for the area around Inverness, Margaree and the Lake Ainslie area,” notes MacKay. “But he didn’t let sentiment blind him to the practicality of a little bit of economic development being key to the proximity of an airport.

“That Port Hawkesbury airport was put there for a good reason. The fact it has survived all these years, indicates it has a future.”

But the former Mulroney cabinet minister says he fears for the Port Hawkesbury airport, which is being run by commercial pilot, and now small business entrepreneur, Dave Morgan, of Celtic Air Services. “I would be very sad to see that Port Hawkesbury airport of Allan J’s be under too much stress, just as I would be sorry to see operations close at Trenton’s airport. Little airports are very important to industrial developments.”

Elmer MacKay Recalls Dominion Day in 1983 On The Campaign Trail

Brian Mulroney on the campaign trail in Belleville, Ontario in 1988. (Andrew Macdonald Photo)

“You know, Andrew, it is funny. You know how you get old like me, an anniversary will come up – such as it just occured to me this morning as I was having coffee, that in 1983, Brian Mulroney and I were out in Westville on Dominion Day campaigning in this byelection we had in 1983,” recalls Elmer.