Flora MacDonald 1926-2015
There aren’t many people you can call pathfinders, but Flora MacDonald was certainly among them. Born in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, she worked her way up through the ranks of the Progressive Conservative Party in an era when women were not accepted as equals to men in political back rooms. Flora achieved great heights because she was smart, hard-working, principled and a consensus-builder. Of all the people in the party over the years, she’s one among a very small number who was known to everyone by her first name alone.
Hired to work as secretary in the national office of the party, Flora ran afoul of the then leader John Diefenbaker because she supported the views of Dalton Camp, the party president who launched an effort in 1966 to oust Dief. For that treachery, as he saw it, Dief fired her as a Camp follower, as he liked to call the supporters of his nemesis. As is often the case with such disruptions in an individual’s life, that event only propelled Flora forward.
In 1972 Flora was elected MP in the Ontario riding of Kingston and the Islands and was reelected four times. She also ran for leader of the PC Party in 1976 and had the best floor display in the run-up to her speech of any of the candidates. It was all for nought. Dozens of the delegates who wore her pin, and promised they would vote for her, did not. Undeterred, she carried on and served with distinction in the cabinets of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney who were also candidates at that same convention.
The elegant obituary in today’s Globe by Patrick Martin is a fine piece of work but I would pick a bone with the statement that Diefenbaker “told her how proud he was of her campaign” for leader. Such praise was unlikely from Dief who neither forgot nor forgave any enemy. After all, Dief revelled in describing her as “one of the finest women ever to walk the streets of Kingston.”
Once Flora left politics she worked in international development, never seeking anything for herself, always working for others as was her wont. A friend of mine, Tom Hopkins, who treks where few would follow, was in northern Afghanistan five or six years ago. He was clambering up a narrow mountain path when who should he meet coming down but Flora MacDonald, riding on a donkey. She had been visiting elders in local villages, trying to convince them to allow young girls to attend school.
Not for Flora the high-profile fund-raising campaign nor the vanity of her name on some hospital wing. Flora MacDonald always preferred to be out on the working end of the pontoon bridge of history where one caring and passionate person can make a difference in the lives of many.