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For most of her time in politics, Grace McCarthy was regarded as an optimistic, ever-smiling politician who loved her province deeply.

That view, however, overlooked just how tough this woman was, how strong she needed to be in order to survive in politics at a time when women were not drawn to this line of work or particularly welcomed.

Sexism in politics was rampant in the sixties, seventies and eighties – the three-decade period during which Ms. McCarthy represented the Social Credit party in the B.C. Legislature. Yet she fiercely battled through it to thrive in the job.

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Her legacy from that epoch is enormous. She changed the course of the province's history, and the city of Vancouver's in particular, when she fought to bring a world exposition to British Columbia.

And what a perfect host for Expo 86 she would be, with her easy charm and evident style. When the lights on the Lions Gate Bridge she crusaded for were dubbed "Gracie's pearls," she loved it. She never tried to hide or disguise her femininity – she relished it in many ways – but you crossed her at your peril.

If Ms. McCarthy's turn as host of Expo 86 represented arguably the highest point of her political career, it was soon followed by one of its lowest ebbs.

Amazing Grace, as she was dubbed, doyenne of the Social Credit party, lost her 1986 bid to lead the storied political institution of which she had, in many ways, become the public face. Delegates at the convention in Whistler fell to the easy charms of the populist Bill Vander Zalm. It would be a fateful decision.

Mr. Vander Zalm was an early-day Donald Trump. His office was in chaos from the outset.

He was at the root of some controversy nearly every day, to the frustration and anger of his cabinet. His inexperienced chief of staff, David Poole, alienated members of the executive council, including Ms. McCarthy, who was upset the premier seemed to be trying to give his friend, Peter Toigo, the inside edge in the sale of the enormously valuable Expo lands.

Mr. Vander Zalm didn't understand the notion of conflict of interest.

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When Mr. Vander Zalm tried to demote Ms. McCarthy in a cabinet shuffle, and refused to fire Mr. Poole, she'd had enough. Her announcement that she was resigning from cabinet over differences with the Premier's office hit the party like a bomb. It cost Social Credit thousands of members.

After her decision, Ms. McCarthy cooled her high heels at her Shaughnessy home, her loving husband Ray by her side. I went to visit her.

Her living room was a broad expression of the woman herself: ornate with lots of colour, mementoes of all manner and description crowding shelves. And, of course, there were fresh flowers. There always had to be wherever Grace McCarthy was; it was a love affair that began early in her life, and which led to her first career as a successful florist.

On this day, however, Ms. McCarthy was preparing to show me a side rarely observed. She was heartbroken by what she saw happening to her party. She portended terrible things if Mr. Vander Zalm was allowed to continue as leader. She was right.

At one point, tears began running down her cheeks. She seemed to be instantly embarrassed at this open display of emotion, discomfited that she was revealing a vulnerability for which she was not known. In front of a reporter, no less.

"I'm sorry," she said, grabbing some Kleenex.

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I'm sure they weren't the last tears she shed over the party she cherished, the party she personally revived after its devastating defeat in 1972 at the hands of the NDP. By the time she finally won its leadership in 1993, it was too late. Social Credit had become a shell of its former self, aching to be rendered to the dustbin of political history.

Ms. McCarthy's defeat in a 1994 by-election was a final humiliation she didn't deserve. Someone who had meant so much to the province, who had been so vital to its development, warranted a more dignified departure from politics.

A more graceful exit.

Her death this week at 89 presents an opportunity to remember a unique, inspiring person. No, she was not perfect. In a political career as long as hers, drawing some controversy was bound to happen.

What's remarkable is she didn't attract far more of it given the length of time she spent in the game.

Grace McCarthy will go down as one of the most compelling and significant figures in the political history of British Columbia. She truly was amazing.

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