Alexa in the World: McDonough has been a champion of justice at home and abroad
In Stephen Kimber’s superb biography of Alexa McDonough, the former leader of the Nova Scotia and federal NDP, and the first woman to lead a major Canadian political party, he documents how McDonough—now retired and living with Alzheimer’s—has always worked hard to right wrongs, at home and abroad.
When she was 15, Alexa took part in a church group’s Model United Nations discussion about Africa and learned about the “nascent England-based Boycott Movement intended to pressure the government of South Africa to abandon its racist apartheid policy.” Alexa posed “an explosive question,” asking: “Why are we talking about apartheid in South Africa when we have apartheid right here in Halifax?”
She was referring to the racial divide in a city where “1,750 Black citizens were clustered in two ghettos far from well-to-do neighbourhoods,” one of which was Africville.
Kimber tells of how Alexa and three friends worked with Reverend William Pearly Oliver of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in the city’s North End, and Reverend Donald Skeir whose pastoral territory included Seaview Baptist Church in Africville, to organize a two-week camp for 50 children in Africville in 1961, which became an annual event.
“Alexa’s pointed question might not have led anywhere except for the fact that she was Lloyd and Jean Shaw’s daughter,” Kimber writes. In an interview for Atlantic Books Today, Kimber says McDonough came by her worldview from her family’s commitment to a better world, which involved local politics with a “more global vision.”
Her father Lloyd had a deep, long and public affiliation with progressive causes. In the 1945 election, he ran in Halifax for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor to the NDP.
He was also a “well-known anti-nuclear activist and international humanitarian,” Kimber writes. “The Shaws regularly hosted guests in the thick of global issues, and world affairs featured prominently in their family dinnertime conversations.”
While in high school, Alexa was on a student committee that organized the Third Annual Halifax High-Y Model United Nations Assembly, determining what issues students were to debate.
She once contemplated taking a job in Africa with the international news agency, Inter Press Service. She asked Kimber about it—he had done some freelance speechwriting for her—but he doesn’t recall what he advised. What kept her in Canada to run for the leadership of the federal NDP, Kimber says, is that Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin came along with an austerity budget that she was determined to fight.
As leader of the provincial then federal NDP, Alexa had enough local and national issues to focus on, which she did with stamina and determination in the face of misogyny and opposition that, Kimber says with a laugh, would have made him quit “right away.”
She never stopped challenging injustice and discrimination wherever she saw it.
Just after 9/11, Alexa put forward a motion in the House of Commons that the government table a report “to fight the rising tide of intolerance and racism directed against Arab and Muslim Canadians.”
Kimber says her defence of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who had been detained by American authorities in 2002 and then sent to Syria where he was imprisoned in inhumane conditions and tortured, was “very telling.”
Asked by reporters why she was taking up Arar’s case, Alexa replied: “If Canada can no longer stand up to the Americans, no longer can stand up against grotesque violations of international law, then Canada’s soul is literally withering away.”
Alexa’s successor as leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, appointed her shadow critic for International Development Cooperation and Peace Advocacy in 2006. In 2010, as interim president of Mount St. Vincent University, Alexa organized a four-day peace conference, showcasing more of Alexa’s passions as peace educator, activist and disarmament advocate. Even after politics she remained focused on the local from a global perspective.