Joe Clark’s words echoed across Canada’s Twittersphere with a resounding thud: Flora MacDonald, the formidable first femme of Canadian politics who blazed a trail for other women in her wake, had died.
“If Flora MacDonald had been born 20 years later, she might well have been Canada’s first female prime minister,” writes The Globe and Mail‘s Patrick Martin.
MacDonald rose meteorically from the ranks as secretary to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to become the first Canadian woman to run for a political party leadership position. She was the first Canadian woman minister of foreign affairs (that badass historical cameo in Argo, tho – amiright?), a fierce humanitarian who played a role in hatching a scheme that ensured refuge in Canada for 60, 000 “boat people” fleeing Vietnam, and who fought for Afghan women’s education and access to health decades before the cause was taken up by much of the international community.
Secretary, political leader, Cabinet Minister, Humanitarian. Feminist?
Not quite. But irrevocably, a radical and a “Red Tory” who rubbed many the wrong way, including current Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
MacDonald played a pivotal role in Canadian politics and for women’s representation in politics, but her relationship with feminism was fraught, giving out “mixed messages on feminism,” says Marcia McClung, granddaughter of activist Nellie McClung.
Maureen McTeer, firebrand lawyer and author (and *oh yeah* wife to former Prime Minister Joe Clark), writes, “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 — and my generation of young women saw her, and the other women parliamentarians she worked closely with, as our role models.
MacDonald wanted more women in office, in Canada as in Afghanistan, but according to Marcia McClung, “she didn’t want to be defined as an advocate for women.”
MacDonald was “ambivalent about being seen as a role model for women in particular,” writes John Geddes. He continues, “MacDonald says her advice to women aspiring to elected office is the same she gives men: Polish your public speaking skills and learn to “relate to the difficulties somebody down the street is having.”
And yet it was her position on abortion (as well as her position on the abolition of capital punishment) – that cornerstone of the feminist struggle – that eroded her chances at political leadership during the Conservative Party’s 1976 leadership convention, reflecting years later, “I believed abortion should be left to the decision of the woman and her doctor – which was very much a minority view in our party in those days. In the eyes of many Tories, I was a little too radical.”
Radical. Yes. And more recently, deeply critical of the Progressive Conservative Party and the erosion of democratic institutions. So much so, that Flora MacDonald was denied a State Funeral, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper issuing a perfunctory, bored tweet (sans the capital D in MacDonald, which reportedly irked the MacDonald family) and a no-show at the Sunday funeral.
It’s unsurprising that Harper wouldn’t bother with MacDonald’s funeral – in all fairness, he was probably busy fluffing out his sweater-vests and electoral-kittens, calling a very expensive election that could financially bankrupt his rivals. And of course, MacDonald was openly a Red Tory. And worse than that, she also held the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to be sacred and inviolable, and particularly those Charter articles pertaining to women’s rights. Writes Maureen McTeer,
Of all the changes Flora helped achieve, certainly the most significant for Canadian women was section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees substantive as well as procedural equality to women and gives Parliament the power to correct past discriminations. For Flora, the Charter and its commitment to human rights was essential. Fighting for justice and fairness was her vocation. She would work for the rights of every person who had been denied them, whether in small-town Canada or in war zones around our troubled world.
And as yours truly has previously waxed until Tory-Blue in the face, the Harper Conservatives specialize in violations of Charter rights, inducing moral panics, fits of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over those inconvenient women demanding to exercise their rights: whether the rights of sex workers to their security of person, Muslimah’s rights to exercise their religious rights by wearing the niqab to their citizenship ceremony, or obstructing women’s access to a well-researched abortion pill.
It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Harper skipped out on the funeral over Charter rights, yes. But it paints a picture of the fundamental difference between Old Guard and New Guard Conservatives.
McTeer once asked MacDonald what women of her generation could to to ensure that her work – and that of other women political leaders – was carried on. She writes, “Her response was blunt. “Just be sure,” she said, “that the fate of women never again rests on one woman’s shoulders.”
Honour Flora MacDonald’s spirit and that radical notion that the fate of women should not rest on one woman’s shoulders – VOTE. Flex that democratic muscle which the Harper Conservatives have fought so hard to undermine. Vote out a government that refers to an inquest into Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women as “not a priority,” that can’t tell the difference between a hockey mask/hijab/bridal veil/niqab, that refuses to stand for sex workers’ right to safety, and that only deigns to speak up for women’s rights when it suits a political agenda (read: fighting against child marriage and maternal death, but not by providing support or funding for abortions, a right of every Canadian woman).
Honour Flora by voting. And ensuring that the fate of Canadian women rests on all of our shoulders.