Alexa McDonough, former NDP leader and trailblazer, dies at 77

NDP leader Alexa McDonough waves to supporters during a breakfast meeting in Toronto May 27, 1997. McDonough, the former leader of the Nova Scotia NDP and the federal NDP, died at the 77 years old.Moe Doiron/The Canadian Press

Former federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough, a political pioneer who paved the way for women in politics, died Saturday in Halifax at the age of 77.

His family confirmed McDonough’s death after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

McDonough became the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada when she was elected leader of the Nova Scotia NDP in 1980. She became leader of the federal NDP in 1995 and served as the party’s highest office until 2002.

But in an interview on Saturday, Justin McDonough said his mother was a consensus builder who won respect across partisan political lines.

“I think the one thing I really learned from her is that you can have brave conversations and you can disagree with someone, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to be respectful and that you’re not going to appreciate their advice,” he said. “His political life resonated with that.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston paid tribute in a statement calling McDonough a historic figure in provincial and federal politics.

“The hallmark of Ms. McDonough’s long career was her respect for the people she represented,” Houston said. “She was a public servant in the truest sense of the word and will be greatly missed by people across Canada.

Known affectionately to many across the country as just “Alexa,” McDonough was a former social worker who cut her political teeth in the Nova Scotia Liberal Party before moving to the provincial NDP in 1974. .

After taking over as party leader, she became the first New Democrat from mainland Nova Scotia to sit in the provincial legislature when she was elected in a Halifax-area riding in 1981. She was the party’s sole voice in the Legislative Assembly for the next three years.

“These are truly historic achievements,” said Gary Burrill, the current leader of the Nova Scotia NDP. “She’s a big person on the landscape in the history of the province.”

Burrill said the Nova Scotia New Democrats have suffered a significant loss and are a “mourning party.”

McDonough resigned as provincial leader in 1994 and then made the leap into federal politics, where she challenged for the national party’s top job in 1995. She won the leadership of the federal NDP in a upset against favorites Svend Robinson and Lorne Nystrom.

She was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1997 federal election, when her party’s seat count rose from nine to 21. That total included a breakthrough in Atlantic Canada, where New Democrats won six of Nova Scotia’s 11 seats.

“It was a moment that broke the mold of Nova Scotian politics that had been in place for over a century,” Burrill said.

McDonough has made her mark at the federal level as a champion of strong social programs and gender equality. She retired from politics in 2008.

Born Alexa Ann Shaw in Ottawa on August 11, 1944, she adopted the name known across the country when she married Peter McDonough in Halifax in 1966.

McDonough was an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Member of the Order of Nova Scotia and former President of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

She is survived by her sons, Justin and Travis, and seven grandchildren.

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