Published July 27, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Please forgive me if today’s column becomes personal.
A great woman, a great Canadian and a great figure in Canadian public life died early Sunday morning. Flora Isabel MacDonald – “Flora” to millions of Canadians even if they had never met her – died early Sunday morning in Ottawa. She was 89 and had suffered from multiple illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, in recent years.
Flora and I worked together to write her memoirs, which for a variety of reasons we were not quite able to finish. Hers is quite a story – quite a life.
Born and raised in Cape Breton, Flora was the daughter of a Western Union telegrapher, Fred MacDonald, who decoded top-secret messages sent by cable between London and Washington during the Second World War. There was no money to send Flora to university, so after high school she went to business college.
I first encountered Flora in the 1960s when she was working as a secretary at Progressive Conservative headquarters in Ottawa. She had become the liaison between rank and file Tories across the county and the party’s headquarters and leadership. She knew everyone. The grassroots loved her, the leader – John Diefenbaker – not so much. He fired Flora (for suspected disloyalty), which may have been the worst mistake he ever made.
Her dismissal was the flashpoint that ignited a “dump Diefenbaker” movement. A canny Scot, she took a copy of the party membership list with her when she left headquarters and delivered it to Dalton Camp, the party’s national president who would lead the movement to choose a new leader. The drama played out at the PC national conference in Ottawa in the fall of 1966. Camp won re-election as party president, delegates voted to hold a leadership convention – and Flora was elected national secretary of the party.
She went to work to help make Bob Stanfield, then premier of Nova Scotia, national leader in September 1967. Flora took an administrative job at Queen’s University; in 1972, she won the Conservative nomination and was elected to Parliament in the Liberal seat of Kingston and the Islands.
It’s hard to realize today, but she was the only woman in a Tory caucus of 100-plus MPs. As she wrote in her memoirs: “Politics was then (and to a considerable degree still is) a man’s world. Women were tolerated as candidates and as members of Parliament, but the encouragement they received from their male peers was often half-hearted. … [T]hey did not see any compelling reason to go out of their way to enlist more female players.”
The promotion of women in all walks of public life became one of Flora’s passions. In 1976, following Stanfield’s resignation, she decided to run for the leadership herself.
She knew she faced three obstacles. The first was her gender. Although Margaret Thatcher had become Conservative leader in Britain the year before, most Canadian Tories had never contemplated being led by a woman. Second, she did not have what she called a “conventional political résumé.” She was not a lawyer, businessman or professor; she did not even have a university degree. Third, she was a “Red Tory, and proud of it.” She campaigned against capital punishment ; on abortion, she championed a woman’s right to choose – both radical positions to most Conservatives in the 1970s.
Flora did not win the leadership. After the second ballot, she threw her support to the other Red Tory, Joe Clark, who made her his foreign affairs minister when he became prime minister in 1979. Later, she served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet as, among other things, immigration minister. Her signal accomplishment in that post was persuading a reluctant Conservative cabinet to admit tens of thousands of Southeast Asian boat people to Canada following the Vietnam War.
That grand humanitarian gesture was perhaps Flora finest moment. Yes, she could be stubborn – and she needed to be in the man’s world she set out to conquer. We have lost an exceptional Canadian.