Alexa McDonough and the cost of blazing trails

Trailblazing isn’t easy, but those who knew her say Alexa McDonough had the character and resilience to do it with grace, earnestness, and always a sense of humour. 

Since her recent death, McDonough has been described as a “role model,” an “icon,” and the reason many women in politics who came after her were able to envision a role for themselves in Parliament and legislatures across the country. 

As former female caucus colleagues of McDonough recount, the trail she blazed for women in politics was often filled with the pitfalls of misogynistic remarks, sexist media coverage, and systemic discrimination. 

McDonough died Saturday, Jan. 15 at the age of 77 after struggling with Alzheimer’s. 

Alexa McDonough, pictured on Feb. 13, 2006, on the MPs’ bus on the Hill. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

McDonough was one of the first women to blaze trails when she took the helm of the Nova Scotia NDP in 1980. Thérèse Casgrain led the Parti Social Démocratique du Québec from 1951 to 1957. It wasn’t until 1989 that the NDP’s Audrey McLaughlin became the first woman to lead a federal party when she succeeded Ed Broadbent. McDonough—who was often referred to simply as “Alexa”—was elected federal NDP leader directly following McLaughlin’s tenure in 1995. As Susan Delacourt pointed out on Jan. 17, having two successive female leaders was, and continues to be, a rarity. 

Alexa McDonough on the cover of the Canadian Labour Congress Newsmagazine in 1985 with Stanley Knowles. Photograph courtesy of Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

What was, and continues to be, more common, was the daily sexism McDonough encountered during her political career. 

“When we got into Parliament in ’97, it was clear that she was going to have a hard time in a very, very combative, chauvinistic legislative arena,” said former Winnipeg NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who was also NDP caucus chair from 2006 through 2009. 

Wasylycia-Leis and Libby Davies, who was also first elected as the NDP MP for Vancouver East in 1997, both recalled an environment of intense and at times cruel heckling in the House of Commons. 

“[McDonough] was heckled by many for being too emotional or too soft, or ridiculed as we all were,” said Wasylycia-Leis. 

But McDonough was tough, said Davies and Wasylycia-Leis, and had an admirable ability to not let the bastards get her down.

“[She would] stand up and defend [her]self, and show it hadn’t cut through or prevented her from going any further in terms of work but, [she was] able to carry on, despite those attacks, with pride, and with self confidence,” Wasylycia-Leis said.

In so doing, McDonough led the women in her caucus by example.

“Slings and arrows sometimes really get to you,” said Wasylycia-Leis. “You just have to go away and cry a bit, and question whether you wanted to really be doing this. And the way she handled things, I think it especially gave the women in the caucus the sense that yeah—some of it comes with the territory. But how we handle it will make a difference for future generations of women coming forward.”

It got worse as time went on, she said. 

Both she and Davies recalled when McDonough’s fellow Nova Scotia MP Conservative Peter MacKay told McDonough to “stick to your knitting.” The remark was made during the election campaign of 2006, when MacKay and McDonough were on the radio together. (MacKay apologized after the interview.)

Alexa McDonough with Ed Broadbent at an NDP convention in 1985. Photograph courtesy of Judy Wasylycia-Leis

Wasylycia-Leis herself recalls being heckled in the House at that time on the basis of her gender, describing a remark made by former Liberal MP Scott Brison in 2007, in which he said she couldn’t even balance her own chequebook. (At the time, Brison denied the comment had anything to do with gender). 

Davies, who went on to become House leader and deputy leader for the NDP, also described the daily micro-aggressions, double standards and outright sexism that she felt as a woman MP and that she witnessed McDonough experiencing as well. 

“Everything we do [as women], particularly if you’re a leader, gets questioned all the time,” Davies said. “Every day there’s this invisible standard you have to meet. I do think that’s part of the era of the politics that Alexa was a part of,” she said, describing how McDonough would be on the receiving end of media coverage that focused too intensely on how she dressed. 

Looking back, Davies said she wonders if she and her fellow women caucus members at the time could have done more to stand in solidarity with McDonough during her time as leader. 

“I feel concerned that we didn’t support her enough,” said Davies. 

It wasn’t until a few years into McDonough’s leadership that the female members of the NDP formed a women’s caucus, which provided a safe space to discuss such matters of discrimination, Davies said.

Group of 21: The 1997 NDP caucus in the House of Commons of 21. From front left: Svend Robinson, Lorne Nystrom, Alexa McDonough, Bill Blaikie; Second row: Judy Wasylycis-Leis, Chris Axworthy, John Solomon, Nelson Riis;
Third row: Gordon S. Earle, Bev Desjarlais, Michelle Dockrill, Libby Davies; 
Fourth row: Yvon Godin (over to the far left in a separate row), Peter Mancini, Wendy Lill, Rick Laliberté, Louise Hardy;
Fifth row: Angela Vautour, Peter Stoffer, Dick Proctor, and Pat Martin. Photograph courtesy of Judy Wasylycia-Leis

But in 2007, the women’s caucus itself came up against systemic discrimination. According to a 2007 letter from NDP director of policy and operations Diana Bronson to Allan Glenns, the director of finance services for the House, the women’s caucus was told a policy paper it had prepared could not be printed using House of Commons funds. Bronson wrote in the letter that she had been told verbally that “the House could not pay for such materials since the House would not pay for items that were written by the spouses of Members of Parliament.” 

The policy paper in question featured a summary of what the NDP caucus was doing on behalf of women in the House of Commons in six priority areas. Forty per cent of the NDP caucus were women at the time, and the letter emphasized that “MPs’ spouses (other than Jack Layton and Olivia Chow who happen to be married to each other) had nothing to do with the document.”

Wasylycia-Leis, who was caucus chair at the time, said the experience opened her eyes to the notion of systemic bias. 

Trails continue to be blazed

Then NDP leader Alexa McDonough, pictured on April 10, 2006, at the Women are Persons statue on the Hill. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Nearly 25 years since McDonough first arrived in Ottawa as an elected MP, too many of these same issues persist, particularly for racially marginalized politicians; especially for Black and Indigenous women. 

Davies and Wasylycia-Leis both pointed to the experiences of former MPs, Liberal-turned-Independent Celina Caesar-Chevannes and NDP Mumilaaq Qaaqaq, as evidence that systemic discrimination of underrepresented communities persists on Parliament Hill.

Caesar-Chevannes, who is Black, and Qaaqaq, who is Inuk, each spoke about the discrimination and racism they experienced during their time on Parliament Hill. In her farewell speech in the House of Commons, Qaaqaq said parliamentary security guards would frequently follow and stop her in the halls to ask for ID, despite Qaaqaq wearing the pin all MPs are given as identification of their positions. 

“I don’t belong here, but my presence—I hope—is starting to crack the foundations of this very federal institution that started colonizing Inuit barely 70 years ago,” Qaaqaq said in that speech.

Caesar-Chevannes has described similar racial profiling by Hill security as well as experiences of racism within the Liberal Party, for whom she was a member, in her book Can You Hear Me Now?

When speaking of the sexism McDonough faced as leader, Davies said she has “mixed feelings” about whether things have actually improved or not. 

“I still stay in contact with people and some days, I think, ‘Oh, this has gotten a lot better. At least we’re all talking about it and it’s more acknowledged.’ And then there are the other days, I think, ‘God, not much has changed,’” Davies said. 

It wasn’t until the most recent federal election in 2021 that women barely surpassed 30 per cent representation in the House of Commons. Thirty per cent has long been considered by the United Nations to be the minimum amount of representation a group needs to form a “critical mass” and be able to make substantial change to the style and content of politics.

Alexa McDonough and Dennis Bevington, pictured on the Hill in 2007. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Davies, Wasylycia-Leis, and the many other women politicians who paid tribute to McDonough last week would indeed give her credit for changing the game, and for increasing the number of underrepresented voices in the House of Commons. To see more of that positive change, Wasylycia-Leis hopes for future politicians to bring a spirit of community to their pursuit of power. 

“Alexa reinforced [to me] that politics is the route to power and power determines whose interests will perish and whose will flourish,” said Wasylycia-Leis. 

“That was sort of her mantra, her raison d’être. I think if we can figure out a way to bottle that and keep it going, in terms of permeating all of our different political institutions, it will amount to something. People are really desperate for that kind of positive, proactive, selfless involvement in politics,” said Wasylycia-Leis.

But, in order to attract and retain more diverse members, political institutions must change the way they operate, Davies said.

“We need to view Parliament as a workplace,” she said. “[In] no other workplace in the world would heckling, harassment, bullying, dominant behaviour, aggression—it wouldn’t be tolerated,” Davies said.

“And yet, somehow in the political arena, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what we do. And if you can’t stand it, well, you know, you’re not cut out.’ ”

Alexa’s legacy: memories and mentorship

In the 1997 election—her first as NDP leader—McDonough made party history when she became the first NDPer to win her home riding of Halifax in the 1997 election. She and seven other Atlantic Canada NDP MPs were elected in a region in which the NDP had a historically poor showing. 

Davies said the expansion of the NDP in Atlantic Canada was part of McDonough’s legacy for the party. The late Jack Layton, who succeeded McDonough in 2003, built on the foundation she had laid, Davies said, accumulating support where McDonough never could in regions like Quebec. 

Karl Bélanger, who worked for McDonough as her press secretary from 1999-2003 on the Hill, wrote in L’Actualité  that McDonough’s importance has been underrated in Canadian politics. He said without McDonough, the NDP may not have come back from the 1993 debacle and re-establish itself as a national force. He said her 1997 campaign almost reduced the Liberals to a minority, and her breakthrough in Atlantic Canada showed the New Democrats could win anywhere. By winning a majority of seats in Nova Scotia in 1997, she paved the way for the Dexter provincial government and winning the Atlantic seats established the NDP as a true national party, he said. “When she passed the torch to Layton, the NDP was a national voice, which would eventually lead to the Quebec Orange wave,” Bélanger later told The Hill Times.

Karl Bélanger, who worked as NDP leader Alex McDonough’s press secretary from 1999-2003, pictured in a scrum with her on the Hill. Photograph courtesy of Karl Bélanger’s Facebook

Famously, McDonough took on advocating for Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was wrongfully detained by the U.S. government while on a layover in New York on his way home from a family visit in Tunisia. Arar was then sent by the U.S. to Syria, where he was tortured and interrogated for a year. 

Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, recalls the first time she spoke with McDonough when McDonough called her up and told her she would be fighting for her husband’s release. 

“She called me and she said, ‘This is Alexa McDonough. I’m the leader of the New Democratic Party.’ I was so shocked. She shared her outrage with me,” Mazigh said in an interview with The Hill Times. The two women became close friends and McDonough later encouraged Mazigh to seek political office and run under the NDP banner in Ottawa South. 

“She loved campaigning. She had such a natural way to talk to people…as if she knew them for a long time. Watching Alexa really gave me confidence because she knew [how to talk to people] and she did it for years,” Mazigh said. 

Mazigh, Davies, and Wasylycia-Leis all recall McDonough as a hard-working, collaborative, and thoughtful leader who led by example. She took the time to have discussions and dialogue with both her political allies as well as those with whom she disagreed. 

In an interview with CBC radio’s Piya Chattopadhyay, former Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie who succeeded McDonough in that riding, said this was something she admired about McDonough which made her realize that politics could be done differently. Leslie recalled how McDonough disagreed with her partner on a political point, but would still often invite him to speak with her on the matter and, indeed, invite him to express his point of view in discussion groups. 

Alexa and her black pen take on the very last question she asked in the House of Commons. Photograph courtesy of Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

McDonough was known to some as “the lady of the black pen,” as she would often be carrying a big felt tip pen with her which she would use without reservation as she edited every speech and question that was drafted right up until the last moment before she was to get up and deliver it in the House.

“She’d still be crossing things out putting another word in and you could see her kind of going over it in her mind,” Davies said. “She was someone who was very industrious and was always preparing and making herself ready and doing her homework.” 

McDonough’s collegial and collaborative spirit was something those who knew her remarked upon. 

As Wasylycia-Leis recalled, McDonough made the NDP caucus feel like a family and remembers her parties after at her rental house in Ottawa after skating on the Rideau Canal. 

“We would go and buckle up our skates and go for a skate and come back and sit together and talk and drink,” she said. “She always combined …building family and community in the thrust of a crazy political world.” 

This sense of family was extended beyond the caucus, too, as Mazigh also described McDonough, who invited Mazigh, Arar, and their young children to visit her in Halifax, like family. 

Davies said McDonough’s arrival in the federal NDP “really solidified the presence of women in our caucus in a very significant way.” 

Davies points to McDonough’s encouragement, support, and mentorship as one reason there are so many women and other underrepresented groups in the NDP today. 

Tributes from all stripes:

In the wake of Alexa McDonough’s passing, politicians across party lines expressed how the former leader had inspired their own pathways into politics.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel-Garner. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.): “I was born the year Alexa became the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada. I was 15 when she became leader of the federal NDP. She showed a generation of women like me that we have a place in politics. My condolences to the entire NDP.”

Former Conservative MP and cabinet minister Lisa Raitt.

Lisa Raitt, former Conservative MP for Milton who grew up in Sydney, Nova Scotia: “I wouldn’t have grown up in NS with the belief that women belonged in politics but for Alexa McDonough. She was a role model for many, including me. My condolences to her family and friends.”

Defence Minister Anita Anand. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Defence Minister and Liberal MP Anita Anand (Oakville, Ont.): “I am deeply saddened by Alexa McDonough’s passing. She was an icon when I was growing up in Nova Scotia, and showed me that strong women have a role in our politics. As a young girl, I bathe her with admiration & was incredibly inspired by her leadership. May she Rest In Peace.”

Former NDP MP Megan Leslie. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Megan Leslie, former NDP MP for Halifax and McDonough’s successor in the riding: “What a sad day as we learn about the death of Alexa McDonough. The collective sadness we feel today is testament to the kind of life she led and her impact on so many of us whether we knew her personally or not. My deepest condolences go to her family. In the leadership books you read how a good leader will reach back & offer a hand up to those behind. This is the kind of leader that Alexa was. She reached back from her positions of power to pull up other leaders, especially from groups historically not given power by our society – women, youth, people of colour, people from the queer community. This is how I will always remember her: creating space for new people and diverse perspectives while at the same time letting them lead in their own way. She did this for me when I succeeded her as the MP for Halifax, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.”


The Hill Times

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