Flora MacDonald (politician)

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The Honourable
Flora MacDonald
Flora MacDonald Canada.jpg
16th Secretary of State for External Affairs
In office
June 4, 1979 – March 2, 1980
Prime Minister Joe Clark
Preceded by Don Jamieson
Succeeded by Mark MacGuigan
Minister of Communications
In office
June 30, 1986 – December 7, 1988
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney
Preceded by Marcel Masse
Succeeded by Lowell Murray (acting)
Marcel Masse
Minister of Employment and Immigration
In office
September 17, 1984 – June 29, 1986
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney
Preceded by John Roberts
Succeeded by Benoît Bouchard
Member of Parliament
In office
Preceded by Edgar Benson
Succeeded by Peter Milliken
Constituency Kingston and the Islands
Personal details
Born Flora Isabel MacDonald
(1926-06-03)June 3, 1926
North Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada
Died July 26, 2015(2015-07-26) (aged 89)
Ottawa, Ontario
Political party Progressive Conservative (1950s–2003)

Flora Isabel MacDonald, PC CC OOnt ONS (June 3, 1926 – July 26, 2015) was a Canadian politician and humanitarian. Canada's first female foreign minister, she was also one of the first women to vie for leadership of a major Canadian political party, the Progressive Conservatives. She became a close ally of Prime Minister Joe Clark, serving in his cabinet from 1979 to 1980, as well as in the cabinet of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1984 to 1988. In her later life, she was known for her humanitarian work abroad.

Early life and career[edit]

MacDonald was born in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, the daughter of Mary Isabel Royle and George Frederick MacDonald. She was of Scottish ancestry.[1]

Her grandfather had been a clipper ship captain who sailed around Africa and South America. Her father was in charge of North Sydney’s Western Union trans-Atlantic telegraph terminus.[2]

In her youth, Macdonald trained as a secretary at Empire Business College and found work as a bank teller at the Bank of Nova Scotia. She used her savings to travel to Britain in 1950 where she got involved with a group of Scottish nationalists who stole the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey and brought it to Scotland.[3]

After hitchhiking through Europe, she returned to Canada and became involved in politics, working on Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield's campaign which won an upset victory in the 1956 provincial election.[3] Later the same year, she hired to work in the national office of the Progressive Conservative Party under leader John Diefenbaker, as secretary to the party's chairman, and worked on Diefenbaker's 1957 and 1958 election campaigns.[2] In 1959, she was working as a secretary in the office of Prime Minister of Canada John Diefenbaker.[4] She continued working for the party in various capacities but grew disillusioned with Diefenbaker and was fired by him when he learned of her support for party president Dalton Camp's campaign for a leadership review. Macdonald then worked for the Department of Political Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario while continuing to support the anti-Diefenbaker camp and worked on Robert Stanfield's successful campaign during the 1967 Progressive Conservative leadership election and worked for him during the 1968 federal election.[3]

Member of Parliament[edit]

MacDonald was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1972 general election as the Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for the riding of Kingston and the Islands. She remained in parliament until her defeat in the 1988 election.[5]

At the 1976 PC leadership convention, she became the third woman to mount a serious campaign for the leadership of one Canada's major parties. In this, she had been preceded by Rosemary Brown who came in second in her 1975 bid for the leadership of the New Democratic Party, and by Mary Walker-Sawka, who won two votes at the PC leadership convention in 1967.[3] Although she was perceived as a strong candidate for the position, MacDonald fared worse than expected, winning just 214 votes on the first ballot despite having over 300 pledged delegates in her camp. This led pundits to coin the phrase the Flora Syndrome[6] for the phenomenon of a female politician's promised support failing to materialise. MacDonald dropped off after the second ballot, and encouraged her supporters to vote for Joe Clark, the eventual winner.[7]

Minister of External Affairs[edit]

Clark and MacDonald, both moderates, became allies throughout their careers. When Clark became Prime Minister of Canada in 1979, he made MacDonald the first female Secretary of State for External Affairs in Canadian history, and one of the first female foreign ministers anywhere in the world.[3][8][9]

During MacDonald's tenure, she had to deal with the Vietnamese boat people refugee crises that followed the end of the Vietnam War. MacDonald and Immigration Minister Ron Atkey developed a plan in which the Canadian federal government would match the number of refugees sponsored by members of the general public, allowing more than 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to enter Canada.[3]

The Iran hostage crisis was also a major issue during MacDonald's term. Six American diplomats had escaped the seizure of the American embassy by radical Iranian students and had sought refuge in the Canadian embassy in Tehran. MacDonald authorized the issuance of false passports and money to the six as part of a plan to rescue the escapees that had the Americans pose as Canadians and leave the country with Canadian staff when the embassy was closed on January 28, 1980, although she was not able to discuss her role publicly.[3][9] The successful operation became known as the Canadian Caper, and it was later dramatized in the Academy Award-winning film Argo.[10]

MacDonald's tenure as foreign minister was short-lived, however, as Clark's minority government was defeated on an amendment to the budget in December 1979, while MacDonald was on government business in Brussels.[11] The PCs were voted out of office in the subsequent federal election held on February 18, 1980, although MacDonald held her seat.[3][12]

Return to Opposition[edit]

The Conservatives returned to the Opposition benches in 1980. MacDonald served as critic for External Affairs, her old cabinet portfolio.[13] While Clark continued as party leader, his position was challenged by calls for a leadership review which ultimately led to the 1983 leadership convention. MacDonald supported Clark in his campaign to regain the leadership, but Clark lost to Brian Mulroney.[14]

Return to government[edit]

MacDonald returned to government after the PC victory in the 1984 federal election, serving first as Minister of Employment and Immigration from 1984 to 1986, and then as Minister of Communications from 1986 to 1988, under Prime Minister Mulroney.[9][13] A Red Tory, MacDonald, within the federal cabinet, argued against Mulroney's push for free trade with the United States but publicly supported the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement in the 1988 federal election. While the Progressive Conservatives won the election, which was fought on the free trade issue, MacDonald lost her seat to Liberal Peter Milliken.[3][15] "I thought I deserved better than to be defeated after working so hard," MacDonald later stated.[3]

After politics[edit]

After losing her seat in 1988, MacDonald quit politics and devoted her time to international humanitarian work. She served as Chair of the Board of Canada's International Development Research Centre from 1992 to 1997, and was also president of the World Federalist Movement-Canada.[16] In 2003, she briefly re-entered the political scene to oppose the merger of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance, but was unable to prevent the folding of the PCs into the new Conservative Party of Canada. According to journalist Thomas Walkom, she voted for the New Democratic Party in the 2004 federal election.[17]


MacDonald died in Ottawa on July 26, 2015 at the age of 89.[18] Her death met with an outpouring of praise from figures across the political spectrum in Canada. Peter Milliken, who defeated her in the 1988 election, hailed her as a trailblazer for women in politics and said she did an "incredible job" as the country's foreign minister.[15] Rodney MacDonald (no relation), a former premier of Nova Scotia, said she inspired generations of Canadians and was widely respected.[19] Joe Clark, her onetime rival for leadership and later ally in PC politics, said she "changed lives across our country" and "around the world".[5]


Ribbon bars of Flora MacDonald

Honorary degrees[edit]

Country Date School Degree
 Nova Scotia 1979 Mount Saint Vincent University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL) [33]
 Ontario May 1980 McMaster University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [34]
 Ontario 1981 Queen's University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [35]
 New York 8 May 1988 Potsdam College Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL) [36][37]
 Ontario Spring 1989 York University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [38]
 Ontario 18 May 1990 Royal Military College of Canada Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [39]
 Ontario 1996 Carleton University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [40]
 North Carolina 1996 St. Andrews University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL) [41]
 Ontario 12 June 1998 Brock University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [42]
 Newfoundland and Labrador May 2003 Memorial University of Newfoundland Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [43]
 Nova Scotia May 2003 Cape Breton University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [44]
 Nova Scotia 23 May 2003 Saint Mary's University Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) [45][46]
 New Brunswick 2004 Mount Allison University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [47]
 Ontario 2006 University of Waterloo Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [48]
 Ontario 12 June 2007 University of Western Ontario Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [49]
 Ontario 2008 Trent University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [50]
 Nova Scotia 2 May 2010 St. Francis Xavier University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [51]
 Ontario Fall 2010 University of Windsor Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [52]


MacDonald’s bid to become the first female leader of the Progressive Conservatives was the subject of Peter Raymont’s 1977 National Film Board of Canada documentary film Flora: Scenes From a Leadership Convention, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.[53]


  1. ^ McDonell, J.K.; Campbell, R.B. (1997). Lords of the North. General Store Publishing House. p. 271. ISBN 9781896182711. Retrieved December 3, 2014. 
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  10. ^ "Iran hostage 'Canadian Caper' 1979 rescue no secret to some". CBC News. 19 August 2013. Retrieved 27 July 2015. 
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  53. ^ Rankin, Andrew (27 July 2015). "Noted filmmaker recalls a hero in Flora MacDonald". The Chronicle-Herald. Retrieved 28 July 2015. 

External links[edit]