Alexa McDonough (1944-2022)

Perhaps the best way to understand the vital personal role Alexa McDonough — the first woman leader of a recognized political party in Canada — played in changing Nova Scotia and Canadian politics for the better is to remember those days in the early 1980s when she was the only New Democrat, the only woman, in a hostile Nova Scotia legislature. In this excerpt from ‘Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics,’ Stephen Kimber recounts the 1983 debate she sparked over secret fees being paid to MLAs for serving on mostly non-existent committees.

woman in the legislature
Alexa McDonough takes her seat as the only woman among 51 men in the Nova Scotia legislature, circa 1981.

“The honourable member for Halifax Chebucto,” intoned the Speaker. It was the afternoon of Wednesday, March 30, 1983, and opposition MLAs were in the midst of introducing a series of notices of motions of resolutions and house orders. Most of the time, the resolutions were tabled. A few might eventually be debated; most just disappeared into the pages of Hansard, never to be spoken of again.

Resolution 120 was to be very different. “Mr. Speaker,” Alexa began, “I hereby give notice that on a future day I shall move adoption of the following resolution:

“Whereas members of this House are paid in advance for sitting on committees; and whereas none of the Liberal members of the Human Resources Committee were present at today’s meeting . . . Therefore, be it resolved that all members of this House take seriously their committee responsibilities rather than appearing to be indifferent to the committee system.”

Cape Breton Liberal Vince MacLean jumped to his feet, declaring his party “would only be too pleased to waive notice and [immediately] debate that resolution.” The request required unanimous consent. Consent given. Just like that.

The fact was Alexa’s fellow legislators had been spoiling for this fight since even before the House opened. During her first legislative session the year before, Alexa had discovered the politicians’ dirty little secret: for years, MLAs had quietly topped up their official $28,000 salaries with committee fees that added an average of $9,000 more to their pay packets. Under the system, “unique in Canada [and] devoid of logic,” members received extra pay—from $1,500 to $3,000—for each committee they sat on, whether they attended the meetings, whether the committee even met. There were twenty-four such committees, most with ten or more members.

When Alexa, who earned $8,700 for her committee assignments, understood exactly how the system worked, “or, I might say more accurately, malfunctioned,” she privately took her concerns to an “independent” commission, whose members included a former Liberal cabinet minister and now judge. The commission had been set up to make “binding” recommendations on MLA pay. But when Alexa discovered the commission “chose not to deal” with her concerns,” she began looking for other ways to raise them, both privately and publicly.

Earlier that day, she’d written to the chair of the human resources committee to complain about the failure of other members to show up for its meeting. She had been “appalled,” she said, to learn the committee had to cancel four meetings the previous session because of the lack of a quorum. During the entire legislature session, there had been only one nineteen-minute committee meeting, which had cost taxpayers $15,000 in committee fees. “It seems to me, Mr. Speaker, that it has to be recognized that the present system is wide open to this kind of inefficiency and wide open to abuse.”

Her fellow MLAs were not amused. “For two-and-a-half uninterrupted hours,” provincially syndicated columnist Parker Barss Donham reported in the Kentville Advertiser, “the fifty-one male members of the legislature—Liberals, Tories and Labour—heaped scorn on McDonough with an air of personal rancor rare even in this acrimonious forum.”

They claimed she was playing to the press. The CBC-TV program Inquiry, they noted, had scheduled a segment on the committee system for later that night. It included an interview with Alexa. They argued they were underpaid and that committee fees were simply a reasonable way to bring their incomes closer to elected officials in other provinces, without explaining, of course, why those fees needed to be kept secret. And they accused Alexa of attacking them personally—while attacking her personally for having been born with “a silver spoon in her mouth.” As McDonough herself put it, “they thought only a little rich kid could be a spoilsport like that.”

“Not only am I hurt, but I am angered,” declared Tory MLA Malcolm MacKay. “But I do not really get emotionally angered when it is somebody from the opposite sex that is chastising me. . . . I better be careful what I say now because I consider myself to be a gentleman.” Looking at Alexa, he added, to laughter from his colleagues, “I would not feel comfortable holding you up by the scruff of the neck.”

Alexa’s nemesis, Paul MacEwan [a former NDP MLA thrown out of the party and now sitting as a Labour Independent], was delighted. “This afternoon’s discussion, Mr. Speaker, comes as close as I have seen, in my thirteen years in this House, to the censure of a member of the House, without the act of censure being specifically so stated.”

The reason for the vituperation seemed obvious. “McDonough had broken the code of silence that shrouds the perks of legislative life,” Donham wrote. “She violated the rules of the old boys’ club, and so she was punished. . . . The anger McDonough aroused with this issue proves only that she touched a raw nerve. MLAs have been caught at a sleazy bit of deception, and they know it.”

It had been another good week, not to mention a much better legislative session for Alexa, who’d begun to master the ways and wiles of the House of Assembly. She’d learned from her first session as an MLA when, as she admitted to Canadian Press reporter Elaine McCluskey, she’d sometimes come off as “sanctimonious and holier-than-thou. I worked so hard at distancing myself from the old boys’ club that I made it hard for anyone to be even slightly friendly.”

Years later, in a conversation with journalist Sharon Fraser, she tried to put her approach in context. “I was really driven by the notion that I had to be strong, that I couldn’t appear to be weak in the face of these fifty-one male adversaries,” she explained, adding, “I think it wouldn’t have taken such a toll on me if I had learned to . . . depend upon more people for emotional support. . . . But when people say, ‘Oh come on now, lighten up,’ they don’t understand the passion that I feel about the issues, the passion that fuels my involvement.”

That passion, leavened at least slightly by what she’d absorbed in her first session as MLA, helped her in her second session, she told McCluskey. “I sort of feel that I have my feet on the ground and some little bit of confidence about being able to stand on my own.”

The key now was to keep pushing, keep the pressure on the government and the opposition. Which was what brought her back to the NDP’s downtown office on Saturday, April 2, 1983, to plan strategy for the next week in the House.

One moment, Alexa would remember years later, she was standing in her office talking to a member of her staff. The next moment, “I passed out cold.”

***

At first, doctors at the Victoria General Hospital believed she was suffering from a simple sinus infection. They examined and then discharged her, advising her to take it easy for a few days. Easier said than done, of course, for a one-person political party in the middle of a hectic legislature session. A week later, she was back at the hospital, complaining now of horrific headaches, and it soon became clear this was not just a simple sinus infection. But what was it? Meningitis? A brain tumor? A… ? She was admitted.

During her first days in the hospital, Alexa would dictate daily news releases and open letters to government officials from her bed. In one letter that attracted national attention, she called on Premier Buchanan to demand curmudgeonly Attorney General Harry How’s resignation for having written a dismissive letter to the Indo-Canadian Association of Nova Scotia. How had defended Acadia University’s decision not to hire Dr. M. K. Jain as the college librarian. “Many of those kind of people,” he complained, “frequently write a letter to politicians complaining of discrimination when they’re passed over for a job. . . . Other things being equal,” he added, “we ought to give native Canadians a preference” in hiring at publicly funded universities. But Jain was, in fact, a Canadian. Buchanan attempted to argue the letter—on government stationery— was just How’s personal opinion. But the point had been scored.

But as Alexa’s condition worsened and her concentration waned, the party began designating surrogates to speak on specific issues. It rarely worked. Ray Larkin, a lawyer and the NDP spokesperson on labour and economics issues, understood the problem. “We’re not quite as glamorous,” he told the Globe and Mail.

Meanwhile, there were tests and more tests. Her hospital days turned into weeks, the weeks approached a month. Alexa lost weight, became eerily silent, and seemed “totally traumatized,” recalled her brother Robbie, who visited her every day. “There were no tears, no ‘woe is me.’ But I knew she was in really bad shape. She looked, spoke and acted as if she might die. . . . I thought she was going to die.”

Finally, Dr. Jock Murray, the chief neurologist at Halifax’s Victoria General Hospital, took charge. After examining her, he contacted colleagues at University Hospital in London, Ontario, where more sophisticated testing was available to confirm his suspicions.

While that was being organized, Alexa, eager to make clear she was still functioning, organized a hospital-bed news conference for the afternoon of May 8, 1983. Instead, her condition worsened that morning, the news conference was abruptly cancelled, Peter and the boys were called, and Alexa found herself being bundled into an air ambulance for an emergency flight to London with Peter at her side. “I remember saying goodbye to my kids and not knowing if I would see them again,” Alexa said years later. “It was really scary, not knowing what it was.”

Rumours that Alexa might actually die sparked a variety of heartfelt responses across the province. In Cape Breton, John Arthur Murphy and his wife, long-time NDP supporters, named their newborn daughter Lindsay Alexa after the NDP leader. A union made plans to plant a magnolia tree in her honour at Conrose Field near the McDonough house. In the provincial legislature, members pressed pause on their usual partisan rancor long enough to unanimously approve a get-well resolution: “Whereas while members of this House may disagree, even profoundly, on political matters,” it began, “when it comes to health, surely none of us would wish ill to one another. Resolved that this House asks Mr. Speaker to convey to the member for Halifax Chebucto all of our sincere wishes for a speedy and successful recovery.” The resolution had been introduced by none other than Paul MacEwan.

Luckily, it didn’t take doctors in London long to diagnose—and begin to treat—what ailed Alexa McDonough. She had an intra-cranial infection, a brain infection probably brought on by sinusitis that had caused her brain to swell. It could easily have been fatal if not treated in time. That diagnosis notwithstanding, it was hard not to acknowledge there might also be truth in Alexa’s own later assessment. “I just literally burned myself out, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I was unable to fight back when I got sick.”

She returned home a week later, on May 16, to rest and recuperate, returning to work, in the words of a party press release, “as her health permits.”

But, just two weeks later—having missed seven weeks of the spring session—she was back in her seat in the legislature. She rose “reluctantly,” as she put it, “trying to obey doctor’s orders and make a slow re-entry,” in order to participate in a debate on the government’s new Canada-Nova Scotia Oil and Gas Agreement Act, which she complained was “virtually substance-less” and “will confirm the worst fears of Nova Scotians about the whole way in which this government has been approaching the handling of offshore development matters.”

Alexa McDonough was back in the business of making life uncomfortable for John Buchanan’s government.

Other excerpts:

The worst thing…

From the Prologue

— From Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics
by Stephen Kimber (Goose Lane Editions, 2021)

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