Alexa McDonough, the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada and an inspiration to generations of New Democrats even after retiring from politics 14 years ago, has died. She was 77 years old.
The former leader of the federal and Nova Scotia New Democrat parties died Saturday in a Halifax nursing home after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, his family said.
Known affectionately as just Alexa, McDonough changed the face of politics in Canada and paved the way for other women to take their place at the pinnacle of political power.
The former social worker’s passion for social justice first led her to the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, where she helped craft the party’s social policy platform in the 1970 provincial election. But in 1974, disenchanted with the government of then Prime Minister Gerald Regan, she found a new home in the NDP and never left.
McDonough was never shy about a challenge, twice failing 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 that she had no seat in the provincial House of Assembly, nor much support in Cape Breton, where his leadership rivals live, have not hampered his efforts.
She easily beat both to become the first woman in Canada to lead a major political party.
Almost a year later, in the provincial general election, she won a seat in the riding of Halifax Chebucto, the party’s first victory in mainland Nova Scotia. It was a stunning upset, especially for the incumbent Liberal candidate who had laughed off the possibility of a McDonough victory on Election Day.
For the next three years, she was part of one and only woman at Province House, the seat of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly.
The NDP did not meet the two-seat threshold to trigger additional public funding or gain recognized party status, so McDonough did not have time to savor his first political victory. She had to keep fighting to hold the PC government of John Buchanan accountable with a small staff and a shoestring budget.
Although she was the only voice in her first three years in the legislature, McDonough was firm in her criticism of the “old-timers’ club”, patronage and the way members of the House behaved. She said she was the victim of sexist and misogynistic personal attacks.
Female MPs paid so little attention to female MPs that there were not even separate toilets for female MPs at Province House. McDonough had to queue to use the public restroom one floor below the bedroom while his male colleagues had access to a restroom just steps from their seats.
Although enjoying personal popularity, McDonough was unable to lead the party beyond the three-seat mark it reached in 1984 and again in the 1993 election. November 1994, she resigned as leader without any definite plan for her future.
“It is very, very important to me that you understand that I am doing this with total joy and without any regrets,” she told her supporters the day she announced her decision.
John Holm, his caucus colleague who would take over as leader, paid tribute to him at a party later that year: “Over the years I have learned not only to love and respect Alexa, but also to admire her immense courage and integrity.”
Just a year later, McDonough’s burning desire to affect change, especially for women, led her to a new challenge, federal politics. She threw her hat into the ring in an attempt to win the leadership of the New Democratic Party of Canada, in what was widely seen as a long-term challenge for perceived frontrunners Svend Robinson and Lorne Nystrom.
Once again she defied odds and was elected leader in 1995.
In the House of Commons, as she had previously at Province House, McDonough championed the need for strong social programs, more caring and compassionate government, and gender equity.
She made greater electoral gains while leading the federal party than during her 14 years leading the provincial party. The year she won her first seat in the House of Commons, 1997, the New Democrats more than doubled their number of seats, from nine to 21.
She called this election a fight for a better Canada.
“This campaign will be about a real debate between what kind of Canada we are going to build, what kind of services will be provided to workers and working families,” McDonough said.
But the next election brought a disappointing result and in 2003 McDonough resigned to serve 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 where she launched her political career 29 years earlier.
“It’s time for the torch to be passed to future 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 mother, Jean MacKinnon, were active in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, precursor to the NDP.
Coming from a prominent Nova Scotian family, the Shaws, McDonough’s political rivals sometimes dismissed her as having been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, fighting causes in a privileged position.
However, the reviews 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 received the Order of Canada in 2009 and the Order of Nova Scotia in 2012, the same year the Association of Former Parliamentarians presented her with a lifetime achievement award.
His health has been a problem for more than a decade. She was treated for breast cancer and was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Through it all, she was surrounded and helped by her closest family and friends, some of whom were political allies and close confidants.
McDonough leaves behind two sons, Justin and Travis.