Alexa McDonough, the first female leader of a mainstream Canadian political party who helped transform Nova Scotian and Canadian politics, passed away this January after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Alexa grew up in Ottawa, ON. She became involved in social activism at a young age and carried that passion throughout her career; first as assistant to the director of Social Planning Department at the City of Halifax in 1969, then as Nova Scotia New Democratic Party leader in 1980, federal NDP leader in 1995, Member of Parliament in 1997, and more.
“Alexa led, not only by blazing her own trail as a female politician, but also by her ongoing efforts to encourage others — women, people of colour, those without privilege — to take their own rightful place in politics and the world. She made room for them.” (Alexa McDonough, Obituary)
Her family has asked that those wishing to honour Alexa’s memory do so by donating to a local charity of their choice or to the Alzheimer’s Society of Nova Scotia, St. Andrew’s United Church, the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender and Social Justice at Mount Saint Vincent University, the Women in the Legislature Fund, The Africville Museum, or the Alexa McDonough Women’s Leadership Centre at the Douglas Coldwell Foundation.
Below you’ll find accounts from those who worked with Alexa, taken from her authorized biography. They speak to the kind of impression she left on those around her. We cannot begin to fathom the number of lives she touched, but we know that she paved the way forward for so many women.
“I’ve never voted for anybody who won before,” a stunned partygoer marvelled to Halifax Daily News columnist David Swick, summing up the general mood of “happy shock” that evening. Close to one thousand New Democrats gathered in the ballroom of the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax — scene of generations of funereal election-night moral victory parties — and “celebrated the incredible. . . . The NDP was leading in Halifax West, in Cape Breton, in New Brunswick, in Bonavista, Newfoundland. Cheers exploded with each new report. Then came the first Halifax result — with Alexa on the road to a landslide. Cheers turned to foot-stomping. . . . The room picked up a delirious buzz, with fists punching the air and screams of ‘Yes!’ and ‘Omigod!’ Someone in the room let loose a peal of maniacal laughter.”
Alexa McDonough hadn’t just won her Halifax riding. She’d captured a remarkable 50 per cent of all the votes cast — and won 180 of the riding’s 193 polls — in what the experts predicted would be a too-close-to-call four-way race.
Her party not only swept all four metro Halifax ridings, but its candidates also picked up both Cape Breton seats too, defeating David Dingwall and Vince MacLean, the former provincial Liberal leader who’d served as mayor of Sydney. Alexa’s regional coattails proved far stronger than even her most ardent supporters could have hoped, adding two more seats in New Brunswick and almost another in Newfoundland.
“Well, friends,” Alexa had to shout to be heard over the ballroom din as jubilant supporters continued to chant her name, “the very first thing I want to do is welcome you to the NDP riding of Halifax.” She was joined on stage by Justin and Travis, who’d shared this same stage with her seventeen years and another lifetime ago, and by her mother, Jean, now eighty-two. She was especially “delighted” her mother was there to share the moment with her, Alexa told reporters later, “considering that she and my dad went to a political convention on their honeymoon sixty years ago this summer, and she’s worked ever since to make that federal breakthrough in Halifax and in Nova Scotia.”
By its own ambitions, the party had dramatically overachieved. Alexa had won her place at the parliamentary table. She would be joined by twenty more New Democrat MPs, whose elections from coast to coast offered the party at least the image of being truly “national.” Their numbers not only restored the NDP to official status and, with it, public funding and visibility, but also created the critical mass necessary to hold the government accountable.
Alexa was just as proud of the fact that 40 per cent of the NDP’s new caucus would be women, and more generally delighted to see that there would now be sixty-four women in the new Parliament, up from fifty-three in 1993. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women released a statement, saying it was encouraged by the number of women who’d won a seat in the Commons, but singling out the NDP and its leader for special praise. “The successful campaign run by Alexa McDonough . . . is a victory for women’s groups across Canada.”
And yet, for all the election-night jubilance, there were troubling canaries hidden in the numbers. The NDP’s share of the national vote was still an anemic 11 per cent — better than its 7 per cent in 1993 but barely half of the 19 per cent the Ed Broadbent-led party had won in 1988. Although the party had experienced its first-ever breakthrough in Atlantic Canada and managed to hold its own in the face of a Reform sweep through Western Canada, electing MPs in three of the four Western provinces, the NDP found itself completely shut out in seat-rich Ontario. Its highest-profile candidates — Jack Layton, Olivia Chow, and David MacDonald — all went down to defeat.
While the party had hoped to capitalize on voter frustration with the spending cuts imposed by Prime Minister Chrétien and Ontario Tory premier Mike Harris, the Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom found a villain closer to home — Bob Rae’s one-term NDP government. “The most common reaction to the Rae years among voters who refused to come back to the NDP was that his government had somehow just blown it,” he wrote. “Some of these criticisms are justified. Some aren’t. No matter. The ironic result of the NDP’s one-term of government in Ontario is that it has left voters with a bad taste in their mouths, a taste that McDonough will find hard to dispel.”
But that was an issue for a future day. For tonight, it was enough to be surrounded by celebrating New Democrats. “Tonight, friends, is about making history,” proclaimed Alexa. “The next four years are going to be about making a difference. The New Democratic Party is back!”
Even before he and Alexa met for breakfast the morning after the election night celebration, Dan O’Connor knew what was coming. Back in Ottawa in mid-campaign, he’d accidentally walked into a meeting and overheard a staffer ask, “Well, has she given us any idea who she might want as chief of staff?” He remembered going home and telling his wife, “‘I think I’m going to be fired.’ She didn’t believe it.” He spent the rest of the campaign wondering when the axe would fall. On election night, he’d been with Alexa. “I wrote her statements. I was the main liaison with her, so we were together for all the celebration and seeing the victories and how they were happening and what it all meant, and what’s to be said about it, working as closely together as we possibly could . . . and I knew I was gone.”
Years later, he said he still wasn’t sure why. Alexa didn’t explain her decision beyond saying she wanted to go in a different direction. He put it down to “Alexa’s restlessness.” No matter. “I wasn’t going to fight it. I told her I thought it was a mistake, but she had every right to do it.”
A few years later, Alexa called O’Connor out of the blue. “We hadn’t had a lot of contact,” since his firing, he remembered, and they were never personally close in the ways she was with some of her women staff, but she told him now she wanted to set up an educational trust for his young son William. Though he hadn’t said so, she had to know he had taken a huge financial hit when she fired him. “We had just bought a house in Ottawa. I had to sell that house, buy one here.” In the process, he’d racked up close to $40,000 in added expenses. “So, she just stepped up in the nicest way,” he remembered.
Anne Marie Foote stared out at the empty parking lot. Where was everyone? It was February 1998 and Foote, a former civilian employee with Canada’s Department of National Defence, had just been hired as Alexa McDonough’s new federal constituency executive assistant.
Alexa was scheduled to attend a one-hundredth birthday celebration for a constituent at a local church hall in South End Halifax. Foote, who’d made the arrangements, chauffeured Alexa to the venue. But the church was deserted. Foote got out, checked all the entrances. No response. She walked back to the car. “I have no idea what’s going on,” she told her new boss. She pulled out the itinerary. “See, this is the church, here’s the civic address . . .”
Alexa looked at the piece of paper. “Except the event is tomorrow, not today.”
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ My first week on the job, and I’m going to be fired!”
Instead, Alexa laughed. “She’s lived to be a hundred years old,” she joked, “so I’m sure she’ll be around for her party tomorrow night. We’ll come back.”
Now Foote can laugh too. “What a way to make a new staff person feel like she’s not such a big screw-up.”
For the next decade, until Alexa retired in 2008, Foote would continue as her executive assistant. “It was never like you were staff who worked for her,” she recalled. “You were a colleague who worked with her. And then you became a friend.”