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Former NDP leader Alexa McDonough died Saturday at age 77

Tributes have poured in for McDonough, who rose to the heights of politics and inspired other women to follow

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Alexa McDonough raises her arms in victory while surrounded by supporters with signs.
caption Alexa McDonough is seen in this file photo at her nomination to run in the 1997 federal election.
Michael Creagen

Nova Scotia has lost a political giant.

Alexa McDonough blazed a trail for women in Canadian politics when she was selected as leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party in 1980. She was the first woman to lead a major provincial political party in Canada.

McDonough died on Saturday morning after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 77.

“She’s a figure of real historic stature,” said Gary Burrill, Nova Scotia’s current NDP leader. 

“But she’s also been a person in people’s hearts.”

McDonough went on to lead the federal NDP in 1995 and served in that role until 2003. She continued as MP for Halifax until 2008, when she left politics.

Burrill looks back fondly on the time he spent canvassing with McDonough.

“She just has a marvelous gift to lock on to that person who’s gone to the door and give them her full sparkling attention in a way that people respond to tremendously,” said Burrill.

Tributes poured in from former colleagues and opponents.

“She dedicated her life to social justice, championed women in politics, and never backed down from a challenge,” said current federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh on Twitter.

“The hallmark of Ms. McDonough’s long career was her respect for the people she represented,” said Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston in a news release.

 “She was a public servant in the truest sense and she will be sorely missed by people across Canada.”

“Alexa was the first woman politician that I really took notice of because she was local; she was here, you know; she was somebody that you would bump into at the grocery store,” said Halifax regional councillor Lisa Blackburn.

“Many (people) and I often refer to her as the best premier that Nova Scotia never had.”

“As you’re following people in their lives, you don’t tend to realize just how important they might be in the larger scheme of history,” said author and retired University of King’s College journalism professor, Stephen Kimber. His recent biography, Alexa!: Changing the Face of Canadian Politics, chronicles McDonough’s life in the NDP.

 “And in her case, you know, she set the bar in many ways for bringing women into Canadian politics,” Kimber said.

McDonough was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2010. She was also given the Order of Nova Scotia in 2012.

Kimber said McDonough never took herself too seriously, but she always took her causes seriously. He remembers a story McDonough told him about when she was first elected to the Nova Scotia Legislature, and there was no women’s washroom for the MLAs.

“S​​o she was forced to go out of the assembly and down the stairs to the public washroom down below,” said Kimber. “But rather than complain about it directly, she tried to turn it into a positive.”

McDonough told Kimber that while she was waiting, she would meet other women who had come to see what was happening at the legislature. It was there that she would learn their stories and what issues they were facing.

As the political community mourns the loss of one of its great figures, many will also remember McDonough for her kind spirit.

“Apart from everything else, a lot of people have lost a real good friend,” said Burrill.

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    Patrick Jamieson

    extraordinary person. to effect recovery in Capr Breton in the mid 1980s we agreed on an adage for members. do one thing each day for the ndp. she liked that notion. i tried to interest Elizabeth May in meeting her but she had that American fear of anything socialist.
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