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Hundreds bid farewell to Buchanan in moving celebration of life service

Mavis Buchanan places a hand on her husband's casket during a celebration of life for former premier John Buchanan on Friday at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax.
Mavis Buchanan places a hand on her husband's casket during a celebration of life for former premier John Buchanan on Friday at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax. - Ryan Taplin

It’s hard to imagine a farewell tribute more fit for one of Nova Scotia’s longest-serving  premiers.

The celebration of life for John Buchanan on Friday featured a rendition of his personal anthem, Out on the Mira, a fiddle tune written especially for the occasion and a handful of touching homages from old friends and colleagues.

“God bless and keep you, John,” Rollie Thornhill, a longtime Progressive Conservative cabinet colleague of Buchanan’s, said in the deep baritone voice that’s probably familiar to anyone who visited the provincial legislature in the 1970s and 1980s.

“My friends, we should resolve never to forget him because I’m going to tell you, we’ll never again meet another one like him,” Thornhill told the crowd of more than 600 at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium on the Dalhousie University campus.

Buchanan, who won consecutive majority governments in 1978, 1981, 1984 and 1988 before resigning to join the Canadian Senate in 1990, died Oct. 3 at his Spryfield home. He was 88.

Thornhill described Buchanan as the “finest street politician I have ever seen” and the best Nova Scotia ever produced. 

“He mixed his politics with pragmatism and common sense. He believed in the politics of decency and the right of anyone to talk to the premier without being talked down to.”

The afternoon began with sombre music from the Stadacona Band of the Canadian Forces, before an honour guard of eight Royal Canadian Mounted Police members clad in dress uniform led the casket to the front of the auditorium. That was followed by a fiddle tune by another former Tory premier, Rodney MacDonald, who played the mournful Premier’s Farewell, a lament just written the night before.

Tim Houston, elected Progressive Conservative leader one year ago, said Buchanan will be remembered as a statesman, a friend, colleague, father, husband, grandfather, skilled politician and master campaigner. 

“We have lost a great Nova Scotian, a great man,” Houston said. 

“His is a legacy of an ability to connect with people. He was often late for events and we know why, because he was stopping to talk to people. His genuine interest in people meant he never forgot a name, he never forgot a face and his warmth was a true magnet.” 

Shortly after being named PC leader, Houston said he talked with Buchanan, who brought up the four majority government victories.

“He reminded me of that accomplishment and he said, ‘Tim, I hope you win three.’”

Dr. Ernest Johnson remembered Buchanan, who was born in Sydney and maintained a love for Cape Breton, as a dear friend and a patient for more than half a century. 

“We spent thousands of hours together,” Johnson said, including political campaigns and road trips that brought the Buchanan and Johnson families to different locations, including the “Boston states.”

More than one speaker said that Buchanan, above all, cherished his wife of 65 years, Mavis, and their five children -- Murdoch, Travis, Nichola, Natalie and Natasha.

Johnson said Buchanan did something in his dying days that touched him deeply. Mavis Buchanan was always at her husband’s side in the final weeks and would often call Johnson with medical questions, he said.

“He (Buchanan) would say, ‘why are you bothering that man. He’s too busy. I’m fine.’ And then he would take the phone and apologize. This occurred more than once. That is the most selfless act I have ever witnessed from a man on his deathbed. It was never about himself. It was always about somebody else.”

Stanley (Nipper) MacLeod, lead singer of the Men of the Deeps coal mine choir, performed a moving rendition of the former premier’s Out on the Mira theme song before the sitting premier took the stage.

“Nova Scotia lost, I believe, its greatest champion,” Stephen McNeil said. “John loved this province, not because he was the premier, not because he served in the Senate for 16 years but because he loved every inch of it. When you saw him interact with its citizens, the people of this province, you saw a genuine belief and caring for the person he was speaking to.”

McNeil said he met Buchanan in the early 2000s and was asked five questions about his grandfather and former Bridgetown residents. 

“In those five questions, he knew things about me that perhaps I didn’t even understand about myself.”

McNeil applauded Mavis Buchanan and the couple’s five children.

“Whatever happens in elected office, in the highs and lows, and we all have them in our journey, in the highs, there are many people standing beside us and in the lows, it’s the front row, it’s you.

“On behalf of all the people of Nova Scotia, we are celebrating John’s life today but I want to thank you for your public service because this is a team sport and it was you who stood beside him in the valleys of his political journey who are standing in the front row today that I know John would  like me to acknowledge."

To Mrs. Buchanan, McNeil said, “while we lost as a province our greatest champion and you lost the love of your life of 65 years, heaven has gained a tremendous storyteller and a beautiful soul and spirit.”

The Nova Scotia flag was removed from the casket, folded and presented to Mavis Buchanan, who carried it as the procession left the auditorium.

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