John (Lofty) MacMillan


John Francis (Lofty) MacMillan was born in Harbour View, Inverness County, Cape Breton, N.S. on July 26, 1917. MacMillan was seldom referred to by anything other than “Lofty.” He was given the nickname because of his height—he stood six-foot-six.

MacMillan was the son of John A. MacMillan, a proud, egalitarian Scottish highlander. This was something that Lofty proudly inherited and would carry with him the rest of his life. His mother was a MacDonald. She died at the age of thirty-six, when Lofty was only three years old.

In 1933, Lofty’s father took sick, and he was forced to leave school and become the breadwinner. His first job was working on the railway, laying down a track from Port Hawkesbury to Port Hood. He worked ten hours a day for twenty cents per hour. That fall, he secured a job in the mines at New Waterford and quickly became involved in the trade union movement. At the tender age of seventeen Lofty was elected recording secretary of Local 7101, of the United Mine Workers of America and, also, became involved in their contract negotiations. In 1935, he was elected as the Local’s delegate to attend the United Mine Workers convention, which was being held in Washington D.C. There he met the legendary president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis. Lofty would claim that he never washed his hand for a week.

During the Second World War, Lofty served in the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1941, he was transferred to HMCS Captor II in Saint John, New Brunswick, where he spent the next two years. In 1943, he was transferred back to Halifax. In August of 1945 he was discharged from the Navy and returned to Saint John, where he secured a job as a policeman.

It was not long before Lofty was involved in the Saint John Policemen’s Federal Protective Association, No. 61 (TLC). In December, 1947, he was elected president of the association, on a platform to run the association like a union. He was subsequently re-elected president of the association for the next ten years. In July, 1957, he resigned from the police force to take a position as the Atlantic Region representative for the National Union of Public Employees. This was a demanding job, requiring extensive travel and long hours. Nevertheless, he decided to get involved in municipal politics.

In 1958, he ran as one of the official labour candidates for a seat on the Saint John City Council. Lofty had been a popular policeman, was a drum major in the New Brunswick Scottish Pipes and Drums and was well known throughout the city as a spokesman for the Police Association. The results were that he was elected with more votes than any of the other elected councillors. This would have normally resulted in him being automatically appointed Deputy Mayor. However, during his years in Saint John he had been active in the CCF party and certain powerful people in the city did not like the idea of a socialist becoming Deputy Mayor. As a result of some political manoeuvring at city hall, another councillor was chosen for the position. Lofty was re-elected to council in 1960. In all, he served as a Saint John city councillor for four years.

Following the 1963 merger that created the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Lofty became CUPE’s Director for the Atlantic Region. In 1964, he was elected President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and held that position until 1967, when he moved to Ottawa to become Director of Organization for CUPE. He held that position until his retirement in 1982. During his fifteen years as Director, the union grew from a membership of 86,000 to 286,000.

As the Director of Organization for CUPE, Lofty travelled extensively throughout the country and became one of the most prominent labour leaders in Canada. He was never comfortable as a manager in the office. His heart was always with the membership. An excellent orator, he attended most of the provincial Federation of Labour conventions, where his speeches were an inspiration to thousands of rank and file union members.  In 1976, he challenged Joe Morris for the presidency of the Canadian Labour Congress. Following his defeat, he said he did not expect to win, but wanted to expose some unfavourable constitutional amendments that the Congress was proposing. During his years in Ottawa he was active in the NDP and was a member of the federal council. In the 1981 Ontario provincial election he ran as the NDP candidate in the riding of Ottawa-West.

When Lofty retired, he and his wife Clara choose Campbellton, N. B. as their home. He immediately got involved in the community, running as the NDP candidate in the 1982 provincial election. Later, he entered municipal politics and was elected as a Campbellton city councillor and served for three years. When the next election came around, he unsuccessfully ran for Mayor. He also was involved on the executive of the local Legion Branch, serving for five years as Branch president.

Lofty cherished his Gaelic roots and following his retirement got involved in the Clan MacMillan. He became president of the Clan MacMillan Society of North America and founded the New Brunswick Chapter of the Society.

He also continued his role as an activist, speaking publicly in support of workers who were on strike or supporting campaigns for social justice. When he ended up in the Saint John Regional Hospital with a broken hip, he called a news conference and, from his hospital bed, challenged the provincial politicians to eat the pre-heated, privatized food that he was being served. “If you’re going to a hospital in New Brunswick, buy yourself a lunch pail,” he cautioned. He also continued to write letters to the newspapers concerning the social issues of the day. Confined to a nursing home for the last few years of his life, he remained a trade unionist to his last breath. When the nursing care staff of his veteran’s home in Campbellton went on strike, he joined their picket-line in his wheel-chair, as rebellious as ever.

In 1999, Lofty was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New Brunswick, “for years of working to improve society’s conditions.” In 1992, the New Brunswick Federation of Labour made him an “Honorary Life Member.”

Lofty passed away on January 15, 2006. He was remembered as a man who commanded respect wherever he went and as someone who never lost the common touch. At his funeral service, the Anglican Rev. Chris McMullen described him as, “fearless and colourful throughout his career, a non-drinker and a devout Catholic, who could express himself with the best of them.”

John Francis (Lofty) MacMillian was laid to rest in his hometown of Port Hood, Cape Breton, N.S. At the time of his death he was survived by his second wife Clara, two sons, one daughter and two step-daughters.