The incomparable Flora MacDonald
To borrow from the title of a landmark political history by Dalton Camp, this is a book about gentlemen, players, and politicians. But in this case, the consummate political player happens to be a woman. Flora! A Woman in a Man’s World is a captivating tale of hopes and dreams, schemes and crushing disappointment.
Flora MacDonald was Canada’s first female external affairs minister (under Joe Clark) and the first woman to run for the leadership of a major federal party. She held two additional cabinet posts, as immigration minister (also under Clark) and as communications minister (under Brian Mulroney). She worked on thirty-eight campaigns, ran the national office of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada for nearly a decade, and was later elected national secretary of the party.
A proud Red Tory, Flora would not be at home in the Conservative Party were she alive today. She was a progressive who fought for the abolition of capital punishment, lobbied for prison reform, and lent her support to the Committee for an Independent Canada. These are just some of the reasons that the political historian and former Liberal member of Parliament John English has dubbed her a “Pearsonian Conservative.” After retiring from politics in 1988, Flora began working in international development. Over the course of her storied career, she travelled to over 100 countries, including Afghanistan, where she was held at gunpoint, emerging unscathed.
This fascinating book has an unusual genesis. Before Flora — she is always called by her first name — died in 2015, she had been collaborating with the veteran journalist Geoffrey Stevens on a biography that morphed into a memoir. But then the project languished. Using her journals and diaries, and drawing on interviews and research of his own, Stevens has now finished the book she started. His decision to maintain the first person — writing as Flora might have — lends authenticity and intimacy while dispelling any ideas that this is a purely objective account. What emerges is a proud, private person with fierce determination, a commitment to social justice, and a strong sense of self.
Flora Isabel MacDonald was born in 1926 to a solid working-class Methodist family on Cape Breton Island, a family descended from Scots driven from their homeland during the Highland clearances. She was an excellent student, but girls like her did not go to university in Depression-era Nova Scotia. After she completed high school, she took the bus to Sydney to attend the Empire Business College, where she trained to be a secretary. That led to a job with the Bank of Nova Scotia, where she worked for the next nine years, until she resigned in 1952 to go hitchhiking through the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States with a couple of adventurous friends.
In 1956, Flora returned to Cape Breton to work on the provincial election that would end twenty-three years of Liberal rule and make Robert Stanfield premier. (The two would become lifelong friends.) After that, Flora got a job at the Progressive Conservative Party’s national headquarters, where she would transform herself into a skilled political operator over the next decade.
Flora arrived in Ottawa in time to witness the phenomenon that Peter Newman later described as the Tory Tornado: John George Diefenbaker. A prairie lawyer from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Dief the Chief burst onto the national scene in June 1957 and ended the Conservatives’ five-election losing streak by winning a minority government. The following year, he turned that into a landslide victory, taking 208 of the 265 seats in the House of Commons in a grand feat of populism. An unsurpassed orator, a great civil libertarian, and a fervent Canadian nationalist, Diefenbaker could also be small-minded, divisive, and parochial. From the beginning, Flora had her doubts about the great man, and she felt the majority win only “inflated Diefenbaker’s already healthy ego.”
When he failed to win a second majority, in what Flora calls the disastrous election of 1962, dissatisfaction with his leadership grew. Diefenbaker’s dithering during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the precipitous cancellation of the Avro Arrow, the Coyne Affair, the Bomarc Missile Crisis — it all led to internal power struggles and the disintegration of his cabinet. It also didn’t help that Diefenbaker saw enemies, whom he called “termites,” everywhere. “He was just paranoic,” Dalton Camp would later say of the prime minister. “He imagined things that never happened. He didn’t want to see people.”
Two months after the 1963 election, which brought in a Liberal minority, Flora was passed over for the top job at party headquarters — and not for the first time. So she resigned: “I cleaned out my desk and took off for Europe, determined not to return to Canada or Conservative politics any time soon.” But a career change was not to be, at least not yet. She eventually reached Paris only to find a telegram from Camp. “The election has just been called in Nova Scotia and we need you,” the political strategist wrote to his friend.
Flora returned from Europe to work on “a terrific election.” On voting day, in early October, she and a fellow organizer, Rod Black, visited “one old fellow who lived in a basement apartment in Halifax.” He refused to go to the polls until someone from the Victorian Order of Nurses came to give him a bath. “I just happen to have the VON nurse with me,” Black told the man, before Flora gave him that bath. “The things I did for my party and my country!” she recalls. “And, yes, we got his vote.”
Stanfield won the 1963 election — his third in a row — and Flora returned to national headquarters “with misgivings.” Early the following year, Camp was elected national president of the party, which positioned him to challenge the leadership. That fall, he organized a “thinkers’ conference” in Fredericton that brought together the pro- and anti-Diefenbaker factions. The keynote speaker, Marshall McLuhan, began by asking the audience a question: “What is purple and hums? An electric grape was the answer. And why does it hum? Because it does not know the words.” McLuhan went on to explain the nature of language and communication in the modern world. Flora and some others thought he was brilliant, but Finlay MacDonald, a seasoned Tory from Nova Scotia, summed up the opinions of most: “This is the price we have to pay for losing the election.” Diefenbaker, for his part, had no use for such gatherings and attended only briefly.
The conference marked a turning point. Flora supported the anti-Dief movement, and in April 1966 the party leader had her sacked from her job at headquarters. She was furious. When she left her office, she “scooped up lists of names and addresses of Conservatives whom I had known and worked with over the years.” She proceeded to write to two thousand people, expressing how much she had enjoyed working with them and making “no reference to the reason for my departure.” Many of them would become part of Camp’s leadership review campaign and would help elect Flora as national secretary in November 1966.
The 1967 leadership convention was held in September at Maple Leaf Gardens, in Toronto. Diefenbaker was humiliated when he placed fifth on the first ballot. The eventual victor, four ballots later, was Stanfield — often called “the best prime minister Canada never had.” But his election coincided with that of Pierre Trudeau as leader of the Liberals. Trudeaumania swept the country, and in 1968 he led his party to a majority government.
After she was fired in 1966, Flora took a job as an administrative assistant in the political science department at Queen’s University, though she remained active in the party by working on provincial campaigns with Camp and establishing a base in Kingston, Ontario. In 1972 and again in 1974, she was elected as a member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands. When Stanfield stepped down as leader, having lost three federal elections to Trudeau in six years, Flora decided to run for his job. She was forty-nine, a seasoned campaigner, and an MP. She also had many friends among the delegates who would gather at the Ottawa Civic Centre in spring 1976: “I have been told that nobody before or since knew as many people in the party as I did.”
She had a strong team behind her in Ottawa, including Lowell Murray, Richard Hatfield, Eddie Goodman, and Murray Coolican. David Crombie, the “tiny perfect mayor” of Toronto, nominated her. Together, they came up with a strategy: Flora would place third on the first ballot, and then supporters of John Fraser and Joe Clark would bring their votes to her. The progressives would be united, and the conservatives would be split between Claude Wagner and Brian Mulroney. Flora would walk up the middle.
The filmmaker Peter Raymont produced a brilliant documentary of that 1976 leadership convention for the National Film Board. He captured extraordinary behind-the-scenes moments, as well as shots of intense-looking men smoking cigarettes and young Tories with long hair wearing bell-bottoms. At one point, Hatfield, at the time the premier of New Brunswick, warned that even though Flora had the support of most of the delegates, they were “being pressured.” Indeed they were: the results of the first ballot stunned many the next day. Flora placed last. “The disappointment, the feeling of betrayal, was almost too much,” she later recalled. “People say they love you. They promise to vote for you. They even wear your campaign button into the polling booth. Then they vote for someone else.”
In a recent discussion, Joe Clark reflected on that day forty-six years ago. “We were all surprised,” he said of her low vote count. “She had a lot of friends in caucus. . . . Her conduct as a member of Parliament, her conduct as a colleague won the respect of a lot of people in that caucus.” Nonetheless, Flora also had a poor showing on the second ballot. Defeated, she threw her support behind Clark, who went on to become prime minister three years later.
In that NFB documentary, one of Flora’s supporters, Eddie Goodman, can be heard saying, “The country was ready for a woman, but the party wasn’t.” Hugh Hanson, Flora’s friend and speech writer, would put it more bluntly: “The Progressive Conservative party proved today that it hasn’t got the balls to elect a woman leader.”
The drama that played out at the Ottawa Civic Centre gave rise to the phrase “the Flora Syndrome.” No one knows exactly what happened in the privacy of the polling booths, of course. Did she lose her supporters because she was a woman, or was it because party members thought Clark was the candidate better able to fend off Wagner and Mulroney? “The best analysis I can offer is that I was let down,” Flora writes, “not by men delegates deciding at the last moment that they did not want a woman leader, but by older women delegates who could not quite bring themselves to accept that one of their own gender really could lead a national political party or government.”
In the 1970s, a woman who wanted to be a political player in Canada was alone in a man’s world. And even though she had good friends among those men, she was always something of an outsider. “I never felt that I was ‘one of the boys,’ ” she says of her political circle. “Nor was I ever one of the boys who met to eat, drink, plot, and gossip in smoke-filled offices on Parliament Hill or in hotel rooms at the Château Laurier Hotel. Politics was still a closed society in those days — closed to anyone who was not of the male persuasion.”
When Flora died at the age of eighty-nine, the lawyer Maureen McTeer wrote a tribute to her that appeared in several newspapers: “I never heard Flora describe herself as a feminist, as if the term was too narrow for her world view. Of course, she supported women’s equality — indeed she embodied it.” McTeer (incidentally, the wife of Joe Clark) once asked Flora “what women of my lucky generation could do to ensure all her work, and that of other political women leaders, was carried on in the future.” The response was a blunt one: “Just be sure,” Flora answered, “that the fate of women never again rests on one woman’s shoulders.”
In the last federal election, 103 women were elected — 30 percent of the House of Commons. Half the members of Justin Trudeau’s current cabinet are women. Two hold senior portfolios, and all of them stand on the shoulders of the few like Flora who came before. Yet recently John Meehan, who directs the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, asked his University of Toronto students if they had ever heard of Flora MacDonald. Not a hand was raised. Geoffrey Stevens has finished a valuable book. Here’s hoping that the next time the question is asked, more than a few will say yes.