“It is Alexa McDonough calling…” Those words still resonate in my ears, almost 20 years after I heard them, following the first click and the brief silence that accompanied every overseas long-distance phone call.
Alexa was the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada. I was the young mother whose Canadian husband was deported by U.S. authorities to Syria. I was in Tunis, my hometown, looking for answers on the inaction of the Canadian government in this case. Alexa was in her Ottawa Parliament office promising to help me find some.
This is a glimpse of who Alexa McDonough is. Throughout the 286 pages of the book that author and journalist Stephen Kimber wrote about her, I discovered and understood better the daughter, wife, mother, and most of all, the politician Alexa was.
Not only did Alexa stand by me when many let me down, fearful of my husband’s alleged “terrorist” ties, she also encouraged me to run for politics, a thing that I never imagined myself doing.
But what Kimber’s book made me understand the most is that I wasn’t the only person whose life was impacted by Alexa’s actions. There is a pattern of behaviour. She was a “dangerous” recidivist. A woman who never stopped believing in people and changing the world around her — starting with her own self.
A daughter born to a wealthy and well-established family in the deeply conservative and men’s-club-dominated circles of Nova Scotia in the period after the Second World War, she could have easily become a “good girl,” raising funds for charities, or travelling the world, or pursuing a ballet career. She could have become a good wife and filled her time with noble social causes.
But that simply wasn’t Alexa. Those were not good enough objectives for the teenager who, with some school friends, ran summer camps in Africville, a community where Black Nova Scotians were dumped with little support from local politicians and in total disregard from the mainly white Halifax population.
Later, when she entered the political arena in the late ’70s, she could have been a Liberal candidate, and perhaps gained more votes by conforming with the norms of her time, but she looked at her roots and they were undeniably “socialist,” or, rather, as she came later to describe them, “socio democratic.”
Even if today it is laudable and somewhat easy to qualify someone as a feminist, Alexa wasn’t shy about fighting battles to gain rights for women when no one wanted to give or acknowledge their rights — starting with some staunchly conservative men’s club politicians, or deeply religious groups, or simply with a system that didn’t think of women as deserving.
Alexa fought for pregnant woman to get maternity leave while she was still a social worker working for the city of Halifax. She fought for women’s right to choose when Dr. Henry Morgentaler was threatened with prosecution and deemed unwelcome by the government of Nova Scotia. She fought for disadvantaged men and women to get dignity and respect when the government showed bias at every instance toward the poor and blatant favouritism for the rich and powerful.
Donald Marshall was a Mi’kmaw man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1971. In 1983, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia acquitted him of murder but absolved the local police of any blame. Alexa, who was an MLA in Halifax, was one of the few politicians who advocated on his behalf.
“Alexa had been quietly working behind the scenes…to pressure the Buchanan government [in Nova Scotia] to deal fairly with Marshall and to appoint a royal commission to investigate the miscarriage of justice,” chronicled Kimber about this sad episode of the Canadian justice system. In 1989, a royal commission on Marshall’s prosecution concluded that the justice system was really a two-tier system, with one justice system for the poor and one for the wealthy.
About two decades later, Alexa, now a federal politician, became one of the strongest voices pressuring the Canadian government to launch a commission of inquiry into the arrest, deportation, and imprisonment of my husband Maher Arar.
It paid off. In 2004, an inquiry was reluctantly ordered by the minority government of Paul Martin. Alexa and I hugged each other when we heard the news on TV.
The same year, I run for politics in Ottawa South, representing the colours of the NDP.
Alexa came and campaigned with me, knocking on doors. She was always cheerful and optimistic. I remember the image of her: pamphlets in her hands, a big smile on her face, and a long talk to convince the hesitant voter to cast their vote for a woman, let alone a Muslim woman in hijab, after 9/11.
And I wasn’t the only candidate Alexa recruited. She did it with many others — especially young women who sometimes doubted themselves or looked down at their chances to win. Women candidates, who some newspapers would qualify as “a sacrificial lamb,” like they did to me, or others who they would evoke with a “new, stylish haircut (that) has brightened her greying hair to an attractive blond,” as a Toronto Star columnist described Alexa when she run for the leader of the federal NDP, as Kimber reminds us in his book.
Alexa knew about sexism in politics and encouraged other women to make the jump. Several succeeded, including herself. But the success came with a huge toll.
On a personal level, Alexa found herself several times without a long-term partner. The strong commitment to politics and staunch desire for independence from a woman seems to attract men at the beginning but later make them fearful and distant. Despite those setbacks, Alexa continued her journey while still believing in social justice and, of course, politics.
Kimber’s book is a wonderful and detailed account of Alexa’s rich life, that Nova Scotian woman who broke a glass ceiling of her time, just for being a woman.
Her political career is a role model for any woman looking for true stories of struggles and success. Alexa, in her cheerful, graceful and stubborn way, moved heavy bureaucracy, proved her critics wrong, and most of all, made her way as a feminist, politician, and trailblazer.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog.