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Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil announces that he is stepping down as party leader and premier at a news conference in Halifax on Aug. 6, 2020. McNeil will stay on until a new leader is picked.Stringer/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil surprised his caucus Thursday by announcing that he is leaving public life, barely a week after his government flip-flopped on a controversial decision not to hold a public inquiry into Canada’s deadliest mass shooting.

Mr. McNeil, who spent 17 years in provincial politics and won two majority governments, said his exit announcement was delayed by the pandemic and that he wanted to step down before a second wave hits his province. He said he would stay on as Premier until a new Liberal leader can be chosen.

His announcement comes just days after his government reversed course on a plan to hold an in camera review of the April rampage in rural Nova Scotia that left 22 people dead. Nova Scotians petitioned the government and protested in the streets, demanding a full public inquiry into the killings. The request was granted, as both the provincial and federal governments tried to calm the backlash.

Mr. McNeil acknowledged that it has been a difficult period in his political career, with the mass shooting and a pandemic that, at its peak, kept him away from his family for five weeks. His province has reported more than 1,070 cases of COVID-19 and 64 deaths, more than any other Atlantic province.

“These last five months have been hard on our province – not just me, but everybody,” he said. “There’s been a lot of sadness. We’re finding our way through it, but it’s taking a toll on the entire province.”

His time as Premier was marked by some polarizing decisions, including the imposition of contracts on public sector unions that he said were required to maintain balanced budgets – something Nova Scotia had done until COVID-19 hit. His government has faced constant criticism from opposition parties over a chronic shortage of physicians and for using a public-private partnership to rebuild some of the province’s largest hospitals.

Mr. McNeil has also been criticized for refusing to recall the legislature as the COVID-19 crisis subsides in the interests of accountability and democracy. He has often been accused of governing in a highly centralized, secretive fashion.

He is leaving as Nova Scotians await the results of investigations into two tragedies that have shaken the province: a review of the 53 deaths at the Northwood nursing home in Halifax, which will examine the government’s handling of long-term care, and a public inquiry into the role of police and emergency officials in response to the April mass shooting.

“There’s a lot of controversies swirling around that would make the decision to leave much more attractive,” said Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University. “He was facing a lot of criticism, and I don’t think it’s going to go away.”

The Premier deserves some credit, however, for honouring a promise to end pollution from the Northern Pulp mill and for his government’s apology to victims of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, an orphanage where many Black children experienced physical and sexual abuse, Prof. MacKay said.

Mr. McNeil said he was most proud of his achievements promoting growth in Nova Scotia’s private sector, increasing immigration levels, slowing the rise in public sector wages and introducing an additional year of kindergarten.

First elected Premier in 2013 and re-elected in 2017, he said he had planned to announce his retirement in April but delayed that decision when the pandemic hit. The announcement caught many off guard, as he had previously said he expected to attempt a third term.

“Many people are surprised today that I work with, and I’m sure many Nova Scotians are surprised,” he said.

The Premier told reporters he wanted to spend more time with his family and felt a change in leadership is “the right thing for the province.”

“Seventeen years is a long time – and it’s long enough,” he said. “I’m not leaving because I don’t like the job. I love the job, as a matter of fact, and I’ve had tremendous support.”

One of his main political rivals, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston, congratulated Mr. McNeil for his longevity in politics.

“Stephen McNeil put his full faith and efforts toward building what he believed to be the best possible version of Nova Scotia,” he said.

The Nova Scotia Liberals hold 26 of the 51 seats in the legislature.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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