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I’ve long been a fan of the documentary work of Peter Raymont, so was delighted to find an extraordinary NFB production by him of Flora MacDonald’s leadership bid for the Conservative party in 1976. The film captures her confidence, eloquence, and determination to change direction for her party. For instance, when asked about women’s labour in a debate on the economy, MacDonald took the opportunity to advocate for valuing the unpaid work of women in the home (this is 1976 in the Conservative party!). She was the first woman to run a full election campaign for leadership of the Conservative party. She didn’t have corporate backers to bankroll her, and as a result came up with the ingenious idea of inviting people across Canada to send in $1 to support her campaign (crowdfunding before the internet?). As a result she generated more individual supporters than any other candidate — and more than the party itself had in the previous year.
Flora Macdonald died last week, on July 26, at the age of 89. Despite her high profile in the Conservative Party, and her political breakthroughs (for instance, she was Canada’s first female Foreign Minister — one of the first women to occupy this position in the world), MacDonald wasn’t a politician we heard a lot about. Her Conservative political background combined with her progressive views (for example, she didn’t hide the fact that she voted NDP in recent elections) is perhaps a combination that makes partisans feel uncomfortable. This may explain, in part, Stephen Harper’s snub this weekend: he has announced that he is not attending her funeral.
She was a Red Tory — a socially progressive MP at a time long before the Harper-style Conservatives. She fought for equality and inclusiveness. Following her political career she turned to her passions for women’s rights and international humanitarian work — spending much of her life traveling to work on women’s issues internationally.
I had the honour of spending part of day with her at her Ottawa apartment several years ago, as research for Ten Thousand Roses, a history of Canadian feminism by Judy Rebick.
Following are never published excerpts from that interview: on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women; on women and politics; and on her work to limit election spending — the latter a timely reminder as Harper is rumoured to be launching the most expensive election in Canadian history today.
Whether or not you share her political philosophy, Flora MacDonald broke new ground for women in Canada, and her story sheds a different light on some key moments in Canadian history.
On the Royal Commission on the Status of Women
There wasn’t anything in the way of a women’s organization in the 1960s. I’m talking now other than in political parties. In political parties women were always looked at as adjuncts, you know, to help out when the time came, but not to make the decisions. But Laura Sabia headed the Canadian Federation of University Women and they, every year, met with Cabinet, and brought recommendations to Cabinet. They were a non-partisan organization who represented a great swath of women, women’s groups, all across the country. They were the leading women’s organization. Among other things, they were always lobbying for better representation of women in Parliament, but particularly in Cabinet.
At the time, in the late 1960s, when Lester Pearson was still Prime Minister, before Trudeau, Mr. Pearson had one woman, Judy Lamarsh, in the Cabinet. Laura and the CFUW were lobbying for greater representation in Cabinet. Mr. Pearson had said to them, “you know, I have a woman in the Cabinet.” Laura said, “well, we want a Royal Commission on the Status of Women to find out where women stand.” It was refused and he wasn’t at all willing to listen to what she said. So, she said, “well, then I’ll have two million women march on Parliament.” And it was really due to the threat of that, that reconsideration was given to set up the Commission to look at where women stood at that point in Canada. Not just in politics, but in a much broader spectrum. So, as a result of that we got the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
Anne Francis was set up to head the Commission. Monique Bégin became the Secretary of the Commission. I was then working at Queen’s University, and I had a call from Anne Francis saying they would like me to write the section on women and politics. There wasn’t much to write about in Canada, as up until that point, there had been very few women involved in active politics, you know, not more than a dozen. In 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to Parliament, and in 1971, 50 years later, there was still only one woman in Parliament. It really, really was incredible.
At the time, I had been traveling in India and had been doing a lot of work on the way women had become involved with Ghandi in the protest movements against the hold of the British government over India. What interested me was the way women had marched equally, had been jailed equally. When India gained independence, one of the things that happened was that the government of Nehru wanted women in Parliament, but they weren’t nominated and they weren’t chosen. So he set up what were called Women’s Constituencies. They divided the country into large constituencies and then had women stand to represent them. They were in addition to the members of Parliament… Eventually that was done away with because there were enough women being elected. I think that India has regressed since that period, but it was a bright shining period and there were a number of very important women who came to the fore at that time.
I remember doing an analysis of what had happened [in India]. I submitted this, but Anne Francis was much more conservative in that respect than I was, and she didn’t want to accept anything quite as radical as that. So she accepted the paper but took out what I thought was the guts of it. It came out, I thought, much weaker than I would have liked to have seen it.
About her own role in an elected Parliament
This was 1971. I was nominated to be the Progressive Conservative candidate. I was in Hong Kong with a class when I got a cable from friends at the university, saying we think we are going to put your name forward as the candidate. Now this was a seat held by the Minister of Finance, Ben Benson. So, you know, everybody thought well, what is the harm, there is no way she’ll ever get it. But actually when I got home for the last three weeks before the nomination meeting, I went and arranged to speak to any number of women’s groups in Kingston and said, look, if you really think it would be good to have a woman in Parliament, why don’t you come to the nomination meeting, join the Conservative Party and vote for me.
The turn out was amazing. It was incredible. When I got up there, on the platform, against a man who was a well known lawyer; whose family had been there for many generations; who was president of the board of trade, I saw all of these women. I thought, well isn’t that great! So that is how I got nominated. These women became a tremendous force in my campaign, and I won.
I was the woman in the Opposition. The only woman. I was named as a critic: the single woman who was on a front bench. On the other side there were three women. Monique Bégin who at that point was still a backbencher, Albanie Morin, and Jeanne Sauvé who was named to Cabinet. And there was Grace MacInnis — from BC in the NDP.
Has the situation for women in Parliament has changed with time?
One of the things that a number of us worked on early in the 1970s was getting the electoral rules changed to limit the amount of money that anyone could spend during an election campaign. The way it was then, you put your money into the election campaign, you didn’t do an awful lot of advertising at the local level before the election was called. It was just senseless, nobody knew who the candidate was going to be or whatever. But there was always a lot of money put in during the election campaign by those who could afford it. Well, women couldn’t. So we had a limit on spending put in place. It enabled others, from different cultural backgrounds, from different ethnic backgrounds to run, as well as women.
That was one of the main things that I contributed. It was a major achievement of the political make-up of the early1970s. As a result women have benefited. But it took a lot of hard work to get it done. Now there is a much larger number of women in the House. I’m glad to see that there are more in Cabinet, though not nearly enough. But, I don’t hear much about forwarding women’s rights. It is almost as if we’ve arrived, and I don’t think we have. I’m also worried that I don’t hear a great deal from younger women, from people in university. There is not the clamor that there was in the 1960s and 70s. That was a very heady time to be involved in politics.
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