Feast of Flora MacDonald (July 24)   3 comments

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Canadian Stateswoman and Humanitarian

Flora MacDonald worked to help the poor and other vulnerable and marginalized people at home and abroad.  This was consistent with her Christian upbringing.


MacDonald, of Scottish descent, was a native of North Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Mary Isabel Royle MacDonald gave birth to her on June 3, 1926.  Our saint’s father, George Frederick MacDonald, was a trans-Atlantic telegraph operator for Western Union.  He was active in community life.  From this example young Flora learned civil responsibility.  The father also taught his daughter that she could become anything she wanted.  That lesson seemed unrealistic when Flora was young, for the horizons of females were curtailed relative to those of males.  Our saint studied at Empire Business College, where she prepared to become a secretary.  She became a bank teller instead.  Then, in the early 1950s, she traveled to Europe and hitchhiked across it.  Next she returned to Canada and became involved in politics.

MacDonald was a member of the former Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.  She was a Red Tory–socially liberal, even radical by certain standards of her times.  At first she worked on the campaign of Nova Scotia party Leader Robert Stanfield in 1956.  He won, and MacDonald became a secretary at the party’s national office later that year.  She worked on the campaigns of federal party leader John Diefenbaker (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963) in 1957 and 1958.  MacDonald held various support positions  in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Progressive Conservative Party until 1963, when Diefenbaker fired her for supporting a leadership review.  That year MacDonald became an administrator in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.  In 1967 she supported Robert Stanfield’s successful bid to become the party’s federal leader.  The following year MacDonald worked on the Stanfield’s unsuccessful federal campaign at the time of Trudeau Mania.


Trudeau Mania had run its course by 1972, the year Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau‘s Liberal Party lost its majority in the House of Commons and emerged from the federal election with a minority government propped up by the New Democratic Party.  1972 was also the year MacDonald won her seat in the House of Commons, representing the riding of Kingston and the Islands, in Ontario.  She won re-election in 1974, 1979, 1980, and 1984, serving until her defeat in 1988.

In 1976 MacDonald sought the federal leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party.  She would have won (and gone on to become the Prime Minister three years later) if many male delegates who had sworn to support her had actually voted for her at the party convention.  Her bid failed because of the “Flora Syndrome,” as it became known.  The party was not yet ready for a female leader.  The successful candidate was Joe Clark, whom I also respect, along with Pierre Elliott Trudeau.  Clark’s government, with its minority in the House of Commons, lasted for a mere nine months in 1979 and 1980, sandwiched between two majorities for Trudeau and the Liberal Party.  Clark has admitted that he erred by governing as if he had a majority government.  What a MacDonald government would have been has become a matter of counterfactual history.

MacDonald and Clark became political allies.  He appointed her Secretary of State for External Affairs, making her the first woman to hold that post.  She also supported Clark during his unsuccessful bid to retain party leadership in 1983.  (Brian Mulroney defeated Clark.)  The Progressive Conservative Party lost its majority in 1993, when it lost its majority and retained only two seats, in contrast to the 169 seats it had won five years earlier.  The party increased its numbers in the House of Commons during the following eleven years, but it never came close to forming another government.  The merger of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada prompted the opposition of both Clark and MacDonald.  Our saint regarded the merger as a betrayal of principles.  In 2003 she wrote in The Star, a newspaper:

My reaction to the agreement (to merge) was first all one of incredulity, then anger.  The Party’s future lies not in some right-wing alliance that would violate the progressive and moderate traditions of its former leaders, but with a renewed emphasis on the values that the great majority of Canadians feel represent their views.

She voted for the New Democratic Party in the federal election of 2004.

MacDonald served ably as Secretary of State for External Affairs in 1979 and 1980.  She facilitated the settlement of more than 60,000 Vietnamese boat people in Canada.  In August 1979, at the Commonwealth conference in Lusaka, Zambia, our saint declined to go shopping with the wives of ministers.  She spent five hours in a refugee camp instead.  MacDonald also played a vital part in the “Canadian caper” of 1980, for she authorized falsified passports for the six Americans the Canadian embassy staff spirited out of Iran.

The Progressive Conservative Party, under the leadership of Brian Mulroney, won a majority in the House of Commons in 1984.  Mulroney had no respect for MacDonald, for he had a profane term by which he referred to her in private.  Nevertheless, he felt obligated to appoint her to the cabinet.  MacDonald served as the Minister for Employment and Immigration from 1984 to 1986 then as the Minister of Communications from 1986 to 1988.  (Joe Clark was the Secretary of State for External Affairs.)  MacDonald opposed the proposed free trade agreement with the United States in private, but, based on the principle of collective responsibility in the cabinet, supported it, although half-heartedly, in public.


The final stage (1988-2015) of MacDonald’s life was also impressive and constructive.  Our saint was a visiting lecturer at Edinburgh University, Edinburgh, Scotland.  She received the Order of Canada and honorary degrees.  She also worked on behalf of charities such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders.  Furthermore, MacDonald worked with the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict and the United Nations.  She and Ed Broadbent, former federal leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, studied transnational corporations in Apartheid-era South Africa for the United Nations.  She and Broadbent became friends.  In 1995, also working with the United Nations, MacDonald confronted the dictatorial regime of Nigeria and convince the British Commonwealth to isolate the regime diplomatically.  In 1989 she visited Palestine, where she danced with one Elias, a wheelchair-bound boy with Down’s Syndrome.  Our saint also served as the Chair of the Board of Canada’s International Development Research Centre from 1992 to 1997 and led the World Federalist Movement–Canada.  From 1997 to 2007 MacDonald led Future Generations, which she founded to help the poor and the vulnerable in their communities.  Some of the projects of the organization were in Afghanistan, which our saint visited twelve times to promote the education of girls and women.


MacDonald, a member of the United Church of Canada, lived her Christian values.  She never married, but she was, according to one nephew, “an incredible aunt.”  She sought to raise up the downtrodden and succeeded.  When news of her death became public, even prominent politicians who disliked her praised her legacy.






Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image.

Grant us to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression.

Help us, like your servant Flora MacDonald, to work for justice among people and nations,

to the glory of your name, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60


3 responses to “Feast of Flora MacDonald (July 24)

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  1. Pingback: Of “Statesman” and “Stateswoman” | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  2. Pingback: Feast of James Montgomery (April 30) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  3. Pingback: Happy Canada Day! | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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