Skip to main content

Flora MacDonald, former Canadian foreign minister and trailblazer for female politicians

If Flora MacDonald had been born 20 years later, she might well have been Canada's first female prime minister. As it was, the Cape Breton-born politician, who died early Sunday morning in her 90th year, broke down the invisible door that barred women from high office in Canada.

The political path she blazed led her to become the first woman in the western world to serve as foreign minister and the first to challenge for the leadership of Canada's Progressive Conservative Party.

In her post-parliamentary years, she travelled the developing world empowering women as she fought poverty and injustice.

According to long-time friend and aide, David Small, Ms. MacDonald died at 4:30 a.m. in Ottawa.

"She inspired a whole generation of young people to get involved in their communities and politics," said Mr. Small, who was the youth chair of Ms. MacDonald's leadership campaign.

Her slogan when she first ran in 1972 was "Flora power," he said. "That was her slogan and she never let up."

For many Canadians, a key moment in her career happened in February 1976 when she made her entrance at the leadership convention in Ottawa. She was one of 12 candidates vying for the party's top job.

When her name was called, the room fell silent and a lone bagpiper began playing the Skye Boat Song, which eulogizes the first Flora MacDonald, who saved the life of Scotland's Bonnie Prince Charlie. Forty-eight more pipers gradually joined in and Ms. MacDonald walked regally to the stage.

She told the audience: "I am not a candidate because I am a woman. But I say to you quite frankly that because I am a woman, my candidacy helps our party. It shows that in the Conservative Party there are no barriers to anyone who has demonstrated serious intentions and earned the right to be heard."

Growing up during the Depression in one of Canada's poorest areas, Ms. MacDonald knew the hardship people faced. Her father took her to her first Conservative party meeting at age 11. As a teenager during the Second World War, she watched the ships set sail from Sydney harbour carrying coal and munitions to the allied forces in Europe.

Her enduring interest in world affairs was instilled during this period.

Ms. MacDonald's father was a trans-Atlantic telegraph operator who returned home daily with news reports from around the world. "It was a much better education than I ever got in school," Ms. MacDonald told Maclean's magazine in November, 2014.

For a girl in North Sydney in the 1930s and 40s, school after grade 10 meant the Empire Business College where Ms. MacDonald learned the skills of a secretary.

She worked as a teller for the Bank of Nova Scotia, lived frugally and saved enough money to travel to Britain in 1950. Ms. MacDonald bounced around England and Scotland, and hitchhiked across war-torn Europe.

"Flora was daring," said John Meisel, an eminent political scientist at Queen's University who met MacDonald in 1957. "She tackled things other people didn't have the guts to try."

She even fell in with the group of four Scottish nationalists who stole the ancient Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1950, and brought it to Scotland.

Ms. MacDonald returned to Canada and plunged into politics.

She worked in Robert Stanfield's victorious 1956 campaign in Nova Scotia; then landed a job at PC party's national headquarters in Ottawa.

She helped John Diefenbaker, the prairie populist, win a minority government in 1957 and the largest majority ever in 1958. As secretary to the party's chairman, MacDonald became, effectively, the Tories' national director.

"Flora impressed me a great deal," said Mr. Meisel, who was writing a book on the 1957 election. "Clearly she was meant to be more than just a secretary."

In the course of numerous election campaigns, "she got to know everyone in the country," said Lowell Murray, a long-time Tory activist and eventual senator.

She also learned that many in the party had lost faith in the rather mercurial Mr. Diefenbaker as leader.

When "the Chief" learned that Ms. MacDonald was supporting a fellow maritimer, Dalton Camp, in his effort to become party president and to seek a leadership review, Mr. Diefenbaker had her fired.

Mr. Meisel quickly brought her to Queen's as an administrator in the department of political studies.

There, she rubbed shoulders with some of the brightest political minds in the academy and worked to advance the anti-Diefenbaker movement in the PC Party. She helped Mr. Stanfield capture the party leadership in 1967 and was with him throughout the 1968 election.

She even helped establish the Committee for an Independent Canada that railed against foreign takeovers and led to the Foreign Investment Review Agency.

In 1971, Ms. MacDonald became the first woman to participate in the year-long program for senior public servants and promising laypeople offered by the National Defense College in Kingston. The students travelled the globe and met many world leaders.

It would be one of the most formative experiences of her career. She no longer saw herself in a supporting role, said Mr. Meisel. She was a player.

The course hadn't even finished when Ms. MacDonald captured the 1972 federal Tory nomination in Kingston and the Islands, the riding represented by Sir John A. Macdonald a century before.

She won the seat – the only woman among the 107 Tories elected and one of only five women in Parliament during the minority government of Pierre Trudeau. She won again in 1974, when another Trudeau victory spelled the end of the line for Ms. MacDonald's role model, Robert Stanfield.

Then, with barely three years as an MP under her belt, she sought the party leadership.

"In my view, the party needed a leader who could carry on where Stanfield left off, who would emphasize progressive values and continue his efforts to appeal to Canadians of moderate views," she wrote with former Ottawa columnist Geoffrey Stevens in her still unpublished memoir. "I could not see anyone who would be as comfortable as I wearing the Stanfield mantle."

"When Flora gets committed, she really locks in and pours all her energy into whatever the cause may be," said Mr. Stevens. "She was always determined not to let being a woman in a man's world stop her, especially not in politics."

True to form, Ms. MacDonald travelled cheaply and minimized costs at the convention. People volunteered their services. Instead of serving liquor at her hospitality suites, Ms. MacDonald served coffee and cookies baked by friends. Supporter David Crombie, then mayor of Toronto, hosted soup kitchens in Ottawa church basements, inviting delegates to join the homeless and hear about Ms. MacDonald.

She even raised money through something called the Dollar for Flora campaign.

Wherever she went, people had been pressing one or two dollar bills into her hands, saying: "take it for your campaign."

So her organization announced a national appeal for small donations. Nearly 20,000 people responded; many had never contributed to a political party.

"There was something in Flora that inspired people from all walks of life," said Hugh Hanson, former deputy to the cabinet of John Robarts in Ontario, who had met Ms. MacDonald on the Defense College course, and joined her leadership campaign as political adviser.

Ms. MacDonald also insisted the campaign make public the source of all contributions over $20 and before the convention, the first Canadian leadership campaign ever to do so.

"It reinforced the perception that I was not in the pocket of any special interests, that I was a populist," she wrote. Even John Diefenbaker told her how proud he was of her campaign.

Ms. MacDonald, however, was in for a shock on voting day at the 1976 convention.

Delegate tracking by her staff and surveys by various television networks had found 325 delegates who insisted they would cast ballots for her. That would be enough to put her in third place on the first ballot, ahead of the other progressive candidate, Joe Clark, and in position to face-off with the right-wing Claude Wagner from Quebec.

However, when results of the first ballot were announced, Ms. MacDonald received only 214 votes, 63 fewer than Mr. Clark, who sat in the third spot.

It was no mistake. Some 325 delegates entered the polling booths wearing Vote-for-Flora buttons, and 111 of them cast ballots for someone else.

The phenomenon became known as the Flora Syndrome.

(Joe Clark would defeat Claude Wagner on the fourth ballot 1,187 to 1,112.)

"I was very much in the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservative party – a Red Tory, and proud of it," Ms. MacDonald said later. "I was opposed to capital punishment when most Conservatives were in favour of retaining it. I believed abortion should be left to the decision of the woman and her doctor – which was very much a minority view in our party in those days. In the eyes of many Tories, I was a little too radical," she reasoned.

Hugh Hanson put it more bluntly: "The Progressive Conservative party proved that day it hadn't the balls to elect a woman leader," he said.

Perhaps, but from that moment on, the party and the country took Ms. MacDonald more seriously.

"From being the person who used to take dictation, she became the one who dictated," said Mr. Meisel. "From being a secretary, she became Secretary of State for External Affairs."

When Joe Clark formed his minority government in 1979, he made Ms. MacDonald foreign minister, even though diplomats in the department of External Affairs didn't know quite what to make of her.

The department biography omitted the section on the new minister's education, since they deemed the Empire Business College not fit to include.

"Flora was adamant," recalled Michel de Salaberry, a diplomat and close friend who met Ms. MacDonald at Queen's. "She insisted on including the school – she was very proud of it."

Ms. MacDonald faced two major foreign crises during the short-lived Clark government and distinguished herself in both.

The first involved the flood of refugees fleeing Vietnam in the wake of North Vietnam's victory over U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

Together with Ron Atkey, another Red Tory who held the Immigration portfolio, she launched a scheme whereby the government allowed Canadians to sponsor refugees to Canada and then matched the public's total with an equal number of unsponsored refugees.

In that way, more than 60,000 "boat people," as they were known, came to Canada, the highest per capita refugee influx of any country during the crisis.

The second issue concerned the small group of U.S. diplomats that escaped capture in Tehran when radicals took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 and were hidden by Canadian diplomats in the Iranian capital. Behind the scenes, Ms. MacDonald secretly authorized false Canadian passports and money transfers to the group, while in public she couldn't say a word about it.

As Minister of Culture and Communications during the first Brian Mulroney government, Ms. MacDonald found herself at odds with the leader's position on free trade with the United States.

She lost that battle and lost her seat in the 1988 election after 16 years as MP. "I thought I deserved better than to be defeated after working so hard," Ms. MacDonald later admitted.

"She could have had any appointment she wanted," recalled retired senator Murray. "But she turned everything down."

"She found new life in international development," said Mr. de Salaberry. "She became more fulfilled, more genuinely happy."

As former foreign minister Ms. MacDonald found herself in demand to travel the world on behalf of charities such as Oxfam, CARE and Doctors Without Borders.

She was appointed by the UN Secretary-General as a member of the Eminent Persons Group studying transnational corporations in South Africa and travelled to Pretoria with former NDP leader Ed Broadbent with whom she became friends.

The work that gave her the greatest satisfaction, however, was with the NGO she founded: Future Generations Canada. As director from 1997-2007 she sought to educate women in places such as Afghanistan and to introduce participatory systems that make development durable.

"We got all the villages we were working in to elect their own local council," Ms. MacDonald told the Senior Times in 2010. "Before, everything was run by warlords, or run from the capital ... We started with one village, and others saw what this council was doing, and they began to copy it."

"In the villages we're in, the women and girls participate alongside the men and boys — that's different from most other places in Afghanistan," she recalled.

During those years, Ms. MacDonald made a dozen trips to Afghanistan, staying in mud-brick village homes.

"I could see that she was more satisfied from this international work, than anything she did in [Canadian] politics," said Mr. Broadbent.

"Flora gave out mixed messages on feminism," noted Marcia McClung, granddaughter of activist Nellie McClung and former spouse of Mr. Hanson, MacDonald's closest adviser.

"She wanted more women in office" in Canada as well as in Afghanistan, she said, "but she didn't want to be defined as an advocate for women."

"She was a great dame," said Ms. McClung, "and a great example for others." From those three female members of Parliament in 1972, Canadians elected 76 women MPs in 2011.

In her Ottawa apartment, overlooking the canal on which she often speed-skated to her parliamentary office, Ms. MacDonald kept a photograph of the gravestone of the woman for whom she was named:

Flora MacDonald, preserver of the life of Prince Charles Edward Stewart. Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.

Ms. MacDonald wished for nothing more.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story online and in Monday's newspaper incorrectly said Flora MacDonald was one of three female MPs elected in October, 1972. In fact, there were five: Ms. MacDonald, Grace MacInnis, Jeanne Sauvé, Monique Bégin and Albanie Morin. This version has been corrected.

Interact with The Globe