Alexa McDonough is remembered for her dedication to social justice, leading the way for women

Canadian politicians from across the political spectrum are paying tribute to Alexa McDonough, who died Saturday at the age of 77.

McDonough died in Halifax after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, her family said.

During his long career, this politician was leader of the New Democratic Party of Nova Scotia and leader of the federal party.

McDonough became the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada when she became leader of the Nova Scotia NDP in 1980, a position she held until 1994, when she resigned. She was elected leader of the federal NDP in 1995 and served in that role until 2003, but continued to serve as an MP for two more terms, until 2008.

Leader of the Federal NDP Jagmeet Singh tweeted on Saturday that McDonough will be sorely missed.

“She dedicated her life to social justice, stood up for women in politics and never backed down from a challenge,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called McDonough’s death “an extraordinary loss to our country,” saying in a tweet that “the impact she had, the history she made and the barriers she broke down for women cannot be overstated”.

Former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, who grew up in Sydney, Nova Scotia, also tweeted his condolences.

“I wouldn’t have grown up in NS. with the belief that women had their place in politics without Alexa McDonough. She was a role model for many, including me,” Raitt said.

“A civil servant in the strictest sense of the term”

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said the hallmark of McDonough’s political career was the respect she had for the people she represented.

“She was a public servant in the truest sense of the word and will be greatly missed by people across Canada,” Houston said in a statement Saturday.

“Alexa McDonough was a trailblazer whose name will be mentioned in the same breath as Agnes Macphail and Gladys Porter,” Houston said. Macphail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons in Canada and Porter was the first woman member of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly.

McDonough is greeted by supporters as she attends a rally in Corner Brook, NL, in 2000. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

In a statement, Nova Scotia NDP Leader Gary Burrill said people still talk to him about McDonough when he knocked on doors in Halifax Chebucto, his former riding.

“In her glory on her doorstep, Alexa loved people, and people loved her back,” he said.

Skilled at finding common ground

Former CBC reporter Peter Mansbridge, who has interviewed McDonough countless times over the years, said she was good at finding common ground with colleagues and opponents.

Mansbridge noted that McDonough’s roots were in the Liberal Party. She helped shape the Nova Scotia Liberals’ social policy platform in the 1970 provincial election, but left the party in 1974 after becoming disillusioned and joined the NDP.

“She was always viewed with some suspicion by the left of the party,” Mansbridge said. “However, she managed to bridge those differences for most of her tenure.

How a rookie MP was inspired by McDonough

Halifax Citadel and Sable Island MPP Lisa Lachance said she was inspired by something written about McDonough in a book.

When McDonough was first leader of the provincial NDP, there were no separate toilets for female MPs at Province House. Initially, McDonough had to use a public restroom one floor below the bedroom, while his male colleagues had access to a restroom a few steps from their seats.

When Lachance was elected last summer, they noticed that there were men’s and women’s washrooms.

“Recalling that story, I felt comfortable enough to ask, ‘What about gender neutral bathrooms for someone who identifies as gay?'” LaChance said.

“And it happened really fast. When someone starts it really hard, it makes it easier for the rest of us.”

WATCH | Remembering Alexa McDonough:

WATCH: Remembering Alexa McDonough, the first Canadian woman to lead a major political party

Through archival documents compiled over the past 40 years, McDonough describes his beliefs, motivations and visions for Canada. 3:57

“She was going to speak truth to power”

Former NDP premier Darrell Dexter said McDonough never shied away from having a controversial opinion. He said politicians can be cautious and can dance in speaking out for fear of backfire – and he included himself in that category.

“Alexa never did that,” he said. “It didn’t matter to her how controversial or unpopular something might be, but she was going to speak truth to power.

“The political consequences of that meant less if that was what she believed in her heart.”

Dexter said McDonough’s legacy will be that “she was a tireless warrior on many fronts: social and economic inequality, women’s rights, just the fight against poverty in our province.”

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