By Tori Stafford and Elliot Ferguson
September 6, 2011
As a cabinet minister in the Liberal governments of the 1960s and 1970s, Edgar Benson was on the front lines of some of the defining moments of Canadian history.
The FLQ crisis, the flag debate, tax reform and the introduction of medicare – Benson was involved in them all.
Yet he was content not to draw attention to the work he did during the period when Canada embraced the social reforms many take for granted now.
"I don't think Kingstonians know how important this man was," said Arthur Milnes.
"Kingston itself definitely should be honouring this man. He was an incredible representative during a really crucial time in our history."
Benson died Friday. He was 88.
Those who knew him described Benson as affable, friendly, tenacious and intelligent.
He was a cabinet minister for Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, which proved he had the talent to do the job.
An accountant by trade, Benson found his political calling in the finance and revenue ministries.
In 1966 Benson was among the Liberal ministers who took a public stand when opposition to medicare from within their own party threatened to derail the proposal.
"Every time you go to the doctor, and you think of medicare, you should think of a man like Edgar Benson," Milnes said. "He played a crucial role in the Pearson Cabinet of bringing Canadians medicare. A truly crucial role."
Milnes said Benson's motivation for seeing medicare become a reality was deeply personal for the man, recounting a story Benson told him of how his father was struck with a debilitating illness. Benson's family went bankrupted trying to care for him.
"Many today who criticize Medicare don't have the memories of the people like Edgar Benson or John Diefenbaker, in all fairness, the Conservative, or Tommy Douglas, NDP, of what it was actually like to live in a country where you had to write a cheque to the doctor," Milnes said.
"Well, Ben Benson remembered."
"Mr. Benson was that rarest of animals – a reform finance minister," said Tom Axworthy, who worked as a policy researcher with the Liberal economic ministries in the 1960s.
"I personally remember Ben Benson at the 1966 Liberal party convention," Axworthy said.
"He publicly opposed the attempt by finance to delay or prevent the introduction of medicare. 'Either we will have medicare or we will have one less minister,' he told our young liberal group.
"A great liberal Liberal."
As finance minister in Pierre Trudeau's government he introduced tax reform that introduced a capital gains tax and made for the eventual introduction of RRSPs..
The reform modernized the tax system and made it easier to understand. But the capital gains tax was not popular with business.
"He took an awful lot of abuse for it," said friend and colleague Bob Little.
"I don't think he worried about what people would think about him."
Former Kingston and the Islands MP Peter Milliken credited Benson for getting him interested in politics.
"I went to his first nomination meeting and I found it very exciting. That's what got me working in politics. I hadn't done anything like that before, but having seen that happen and having heard his opening speech and the nomination meeting where he had to get elected," Milliken said.
"I had a great time and it was after that that I started working in elections and participating actively in the political life."
After politics Benson worked for 10 years at the Canadian Transport Commission and then he was appointed Canadian ambassador to Ireland.