In Memory of my Father
Leo F. McKay spent most of his working life fighting for the rights of other people - mainly the little guy. He passed away last night in his sleep, in his comfy chair at home. He was born in the late 1920s, and left school in his teens in the early 40s, when he went directly into the workforce as a labourer. I cannot say with certainty what his first job was, but I do know that he spent a great deal of time at the Car Works in Trenton, where he helped make rail cars. It was here where he first got involved in the labour movement which would consume his entire life. In fact, a few weeks ago after he found out he had terminal cancer that would soon take his life, Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, had heard about my father’s condition and phoned him in the hospital to thank him for a lifetime of hard work fighting for the rights of regular working people. That call meant a great deal to my father.
Even though I think a lot of my rebellion as a teenager was against my father for various reasons, I still held the utmost respect for him, and consider it his influence that has molded me into the person I am today. When we found out 5 or 6 weeks ago that he did not have much time left, I called him up on the phone to tell him something that was very important to me. I asked him if he remembered an incident way back when I was about 12 years old. He took me aside one time and said something like “Pal, I want to ask something of you. I want to ask that when you are out chumming around with your friends, that you never refer to me as ‘The Old Man’”. He did remember that, and when I called him that day I told him that not once in my life did I ever call him “The Old Man”. I always remembered that and never once did it. Even when I was rebelling against him, I had the utmost respect for him, and always honoured that wish of his.
The single most important thing my father ever taught me is something I hope I will be able to pass on to my kids. I remember I was in my mid teens the first time he talked to me about it, and told me that in this world the one and only thing I have is my good name. That’s it, that’s all. My father strove his entire life to do things the honest way, and to set a good example for his kids. I’d like to share a few examples of this which stick out in my mind. I’m sure there are numerous more I’m missing.
When I was quite young - maybe only 6 or 7 years old - a friend of my father’s offered to jack into his cable TV, and run a pirate wire from the downstairs TV, to the one upstairs. Initially my father let his friend do this, probably to allow the friend to have the feeling of having helped him. And that wire stayed there for some time, but the whole time it must have been weighing on my father’s conscience, because one day out of the blue he tore it out and called the cable company to come install cable to the upstairs TV - something that would raise his cable bill.
Once when I was 10 or 11 years old we were walking through the IGA parking lot in Antigonish when I found a 20 dollar bill on the ground. My father convinced me that this money could possibly be the last 20 dollars of some person who really needed it, and that we should take it to the police station just in case anyone went looking for it there. He told me that if nobody claimed it in a month, it would be mine anyway. We went back a month later, and sadly it appeared that someone at the police station was not as honest as my father, because there was no trace nor record of what happened to the 20 dollars.
There was another incident a year or two later, concerning a pair of hockey skates. My brother had gone to Canadian Tire to buy a pair of CCM Tacks, but when he got home he realised that the clerk had mistakenly given him a pair of CCM Super Tacks, which were a bit better, and more expensive. They checked over the receipt to find that they’d only been charged for the less expensive skates, so had essentially gotten a “free upgrade”. Naturally, my father suggested to my brother that he take the skates back and get the ones he paid for, since there are no free rides in life. So that’s what my brother did.
My father worked a good number of years as a labourer, and got involved early on with the labour union there. Our community of Pictou County had two main industries - coal and steel, and it was the latter where my father worked. Although most of his family were coal miners. In the first several decades of the 20th century, coal miners in Nova Scotia had a pretty hard life, working for really low wages, living in company houses, shopping at company stores. Their entire lives were ruled by the company, in a form of 20th century serfdom. My father grew up in one of those company houses, watching this all around him with all of his uncles, and friends in the neighbourhood. He was born only a few years after the infamous Bill Davis incident in nearby Cape Breton, and he would have heard the Davis story many times as he was growing up. Later in life my father was involved in the annual Davis Day memorial in my home town. In fact, here is an interview with my father from two years ago, talking about that annual event.
In the mid to late 50s, Pop was on the front lines in the fight for public healthcare in this country, and he recently told me that during this time he got threatened by several doctors, who told him that "If you keep this up Leo, you won't be able to find a doctor anywhere in this province". But he was never one to be threatened in face of what was right, and he pushed forward and eventually helped win that epic battle. His hard work in the labour unions around Pictou County started to earn my father a reputation throughout the province, and this eventually sometime in the mid 60s landed him a job as the Executive Secretary of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, where he would continue to work until retirement in the early 90s.
But even at retirement Leo McKay was not done helping people. Even with his meagre retirement income, he managed to find a way to hire a friend for various jobs around the house. It was not so much that he needed to have these jobs done, but rather that the friend was a recovered alcoholic who was in need of a hand up, and he figured there was at least a little be he could do to that end. But he knew there was even more in him to give, so in his mid seventies he ran for town council, and spent a number of years in that role after winning.
My father fought his own battle with alcohol, but fortunately won it when I was very young - only 5 or 6. He gave up booze cold turkey one day in the early 70s, and never touched a drop of alcohol again until the late 80s when he finally figured he could enjoy a small glass of wine with his dinner from time to time. A few years after he quit drinking, he also quite smoking cold turkey. The story he always told us is that it was not long after he saw a documentary on TV that showed what the lungs of a smoker look like. My brother and I were asleep upstairs one night, and he said to himself “Nobody is ever going to be able to say that those boys grew up without a father because of my smoking”. Always thinking of others before himself. He told my mom he was quitting, and went to flush all his cigarettes down the toilet. My mom of course mocked him and said “quitting again, eh?”. But this time it stuck. He never smoked again.
I told my brother once some 20 years ago now that the important thing I learned from my mother was how to love unconditionally, because heaven knows she had to do that with me a lot when I was growing up. I certainly did not give her much of a reason to love me sometimes. From my father I learned the importance of always being honest, and putting others before yourself. It is my biggest job as a parent to pass these lessons on to my own kids.
My father is well known in Pictou County for the lifetime he spent helping others. When my mother passed away two-and-a-half years ago, I joked to myself that Pictou County better start working right away on a huge arena, because when pop passes away they won’t have a venue big enough to host his funeral. As it turns out he does not want to have a funeral - but wants us to have a reception for him at the town fire hall.
I am very proud to say that Leo McKay was my father, and I hope that some day I can look back on my own life and feel I’d done at least half the good with it that he had done with his. I'll miss you pop. Rest in Peace.