Oration honouring Flora MacDonald
May 28, 2003
By Shane O'Dea
You will notice that political life is not the subject of handouts on school career days. That is because politicians are generally regarded by the public as free-range chickens: gutless creatures, they get their pickings where they can but we wring their necks when we want. So why do some choose it? The cynical would say for power and for purse. But there are many who do it for principle and for people and this woman is one among them. Flora MacDonald came to politics because of her past and for our future. Her past makes her one of our own for she comes of two islands with much in common: Cape Breton and Newfoundland. Her father's people were Scots who quit the highlands for Nova Scotia and a life on the high seas. Her great-grandfather was lost in the wreck of his ship off St. George's on our west coast. Her grandfather saw the sea as a refuge which he needed when he, a Catholic, married a Presbyterian and to avoid local complications took his wife to sea with him for ten years. This Scottish emotionality was blended with English rationality when her father married a Newfoundlander, Mary Isabel Royle. Mary Isabel ,born to William Royle and Julia Earle, was named after the principal of the St. John's Training School where her mother had taught. Further back our candidate's great-grandfather was the builder, Henry Earle, who lived up off Gower Street on British Square.
Flora MacDonald is one of the few people who ever understood and put into practice what it means to be a Progressive Conservative. Many of her colleagues take their cues from Margaret Thatcher or the American right. Not this woman whose progressiveness is built on a sense of the future and of the place of people in it, whose conservatism is founded in the past and on a respect for what has gone before. She is then someone committed to tempered change; someone certain of what is right, but never righteous. In 1957 she took her first political job with the Progressive Conservative party in Ottawa and proved so competent and so valuable that she was soon made national Executive Director. Nine years later, seen as one of those looking for a review of Diefenbaker's leadership, she was improperly seen as disloyal and was fired. While hurt, she still campaigned for the party and, later that same year, was elected National Secretary. Diefenbaker, unsurprisingly, was not happy and he described her as “the finest woman ever to walk the streets of Kingston.” Then, Vice-Chancellor, if you would dip further into her past, you will discover that she is also a George Street girl. However, she is not one of those who are swept up with the broken glass at 5 am. She comes from an older time when George Street was a residential street and her Newfoundland grandparents, the Royles, lived in a large house on its north side.
But she is not someone who lives in the past, nor one who would let nostalgia or regret govern her future. After being fired by the PCs she was brought to the attention of an influential group very concerned about US dominance of the Canadian economy. That group eventually became the Committee for an Independent Canada and Flora MacDonald became its first executive director. So, in 1972, when she sought election as a Tory to the House of Commons, one of her posters showed an eagle attacking a beaver. She helped bring economic nationalism to the fore and onto the floor of parliament where it was seen as an assertion of Canadian development and not converted, as it so often is nowadays, into anti-Americanism.
Apart from bringing Canada back to Canadians, she also wanted to bring politics back to the people. Once elected she immediately opened the first constituency office in the country. It was run out of her own pocket until, a couple of years later, the federal government made it a standard part of a member's expenses. Among the constituents she served were inmates at the women's prison, women who never saw a visitor from one year to the next. In 1976, when she broke new ground for women by running for the Tory leadership, these initiatives inspired considerable support among ordinary people. Nowhere was this better demonstated than when her campaign organization - in a losing competion against Mulroney's salmon and quiche hospitality - was invaded by a group of formidable females. These were parolees from the women's prison who came in from a catering course to offer their services to Flora. In the Clark government she served as the first female Secretary of State for External Affairs and, under Mulroney, as Minister of Communications. But, for a Red Tory and a Canadian nationalist, this was not a comfortable time. With free trade, Canadian values were under threat as never before and she had to fight hard to get a cultural exemption clause into the agreement.
Defeated in the 1988 election, she was subsequently - as it appeared to the world at large - ignored by her Prime Minister. Offered no ambassadorship or UN appointment or Senate seat (the latter might have been a little tricky as she had proposed its abolition); she embarked on another life of public service. As chair or board member of numerous national and international organizations she has been deeply involved in the improvement of human rights and of human development. Made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1993, she was elevated to Companion in 1999 and given the Pearson Peace Prize in that same year. Vice- Chancellor, if Canadians were asked to select a person who represented the best in political life - to select a person who served, rather than one who was served by, that life - it is likely that many would name her whom I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws (honoris causa), Flora MacDonald.