Alexa McDonough, the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada and an inspiration to generations of New Democrats even after her retirement from politics 14 years ago, has died. She was 77.
The former leader of both the federal and Nova Scotia New Democratic parties died at a care home in Halifax on Saturday, after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, her family said.
Known affectionately as simply Alexa, McDonough changed the face of politics in Canada and paved the way for other women to take their places at the pinnacles of political power.
The one-time social worker’s passion for social justice carried her first to the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, where she helped craft the party’s social policy platform in the 1970 provincial election. But by 1974, disenchanted with the government of then-premier Gerald Regan, she found a new home in the NDP and never left.
McDonough never shied away from a challenge, failing twice to win a seat in the House of Commons before launching a bid for the leadership of the Nova Scotia NDP in 1980. The fact she didn’t have a seat in the provincial House of Assembly, nor much support in Cape Breton, home to her leadership rivals, did not hinder her efforts.
She handily beat the two to become the first woman in Canada to lead a major political party.
Nearly a year later, in the provincial general election, she won a seat in the district of Halifax Chebucto, the party’s first win on mainland Nova Scotia. It was a stunning upset, particularly for the Liberal incumbent who had laughed off the possibility of a McDonough win on election day.
For the next three years, she was a party of one and the only woman at Province House, home to Nova Scotia’s legislative assembly.
The NDP didn’t meet the two-seat threshold to trigger extra public funding or earn recognized party status, so McDonough had no time to savour her first political victory. She had to carry on the fight of holding the PC government of John Buchanan accountable with a skeleton staff and on a shoestring budget.
Although a lone voice during her first three years in the legislature, McDonough was steadfast in her criticism of the “old boys club,” patronage and the way members of the House conducted themselves. She said she was subjected to sexist and misogynistic personal attacks as a result.
MLAs gave so little thought or consideration to women representatives that there wasn’t even a separate washroom available for female MLAs at Province House. McDonough had to line up to use the public washroom one floor below the chamber while her male colleagues had access to a washroom just steps from their seats.
Although she enjoyed personal popularity, McDonough was not able to lead the party past the three-seat high-water mark it achieved in 1984 and again in the 1993 election. On Nov. 19, 1994, she resigned as leader with no definitive plans for her future.
“It’s very, very important to me that you understand I do it with total joy, and with no sense of regret whatsoever,” she told supporters the day she announced her decision.
John Holm, her caucus colleague who would take over as leader, paid tribute to her at a party event later that year: “I have, over the years, grown to not only love and respect Alexa, but to admire her tremendous courage and integrity.”
Barely a year later, McDonough’s burning desire to affect change, particularly for women, drove her to a new challenge, federal politics. She threw her hat into the ring to try to win the leadership of Canada’s New Democratic Party, in what was widely seen as a long-shot challenge to the perceived front-runners, Svend Robinson and Lorne Nystrom.
Once again, she defied the odds and was elected leader in 1995.
In the House of Commons, as she did previously at Province House, McDonough championed the need for strong social programs, a more caring and compassionate government, and gender equity.
She made bigger electoral gains during her time leading the federal party than she did during her 14 years at the helm of the provincial party. The year she first won her seat in the House of Commons, in 1997, New Democrats more than doubled their seat count from nine to 21.
She characterized that election as a fight for a better Canada.
“This campaign is going to be about a real debate between what kind of a Canada we’re going to build, what kind of services are going to be there for working people, for working families,” McDonough said.
But the next election brought a disappointing result, and in 2003 McDonough resigned to sit as a member of the team rather than its captain. She left politics for good in 2008, choosing to do so surrounded by family, friends and former colleagues at the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax, in the same room she had launched her political career 29 years previously.
“It’s time for the torch to be passed to the upcoming generations,” she told reporters and supporters on June 2, 2008.
Born in Ottawa in 1944, McDonough grew up in a home where her father, Lloyd Shaw, and her mother, Jean MacKinnon, were active in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a precursor to the NDP.
Coming from a prominent Nova Scotia family, the Shaws, McDonough’s political rivals sometimes dismissed her as having been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, fighting for causes from a position of privilege.
Criticism, however, seemed to spur her on rather than discourage her.
Watch Alexa McDonough speak in 2013 about her breast cancer diagnosis:
After politics, McDonough served as president of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax for a year when it needed an interim leader. The university is now home to the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender and Social Justice.
She has since been recognized for her long and distinguished political career. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 2009 and the Order of Nova Scotia in 2012, the same year the Association of Former Parliamentarians gave her a lifetime achievement award.
Her health has been an issue for more than a decade. She was treated for breast cancer and was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Through it all she has been surrounded and aided by her family and closest friends, some of whom were political allies and close confidants.
McDonough leaves behind two sons, Justin and Travis.