THE HONORABLE FLORA
Toes ripened by the shower, the minister of state for external affairs walked barefoot through the torn and thrown newspapers, stepped up onto the chesterfield, sighed, then settled contentedly over a nest of congratulatory headlines. Flora MacDonald was back in Ottawa from July’s conference on refugees, back from taking the first stride in what now appears to be a race to return Canada’s foreign policy to its former glory. She was hungry, with nothing but stale bread in the apartment refrigerator, but she was also at complete peace with the present, a state of mind surely rare enough in a cabinet minister to commemorate with a stamp.
Only hours earlier her plane from Geneva had flown directly over her Cape Breton past: her mother’s home in North Sydney, the United church where the missionary offering box—not graduate courses in political science—had formed her ideas on foreign aid, the Bank of Nova Scotia where she went to work at 17, her schooling decided more by gender than potential, her career hopes in 1943 no more promising than an overdrawn account. Little wonder then that now, at 35,000 feet and some 36 years later, the Honorable Flora MacDonald—with a government jet at her disposal, more than 5,000 employees at her command and a $300-million budget at her discretion—had pressed her forehead tightly to the window and waved. Partly in greeting and partly in farewell.
Below she could trace the east coast of Cape Breton, where the steel mills give the sky the appearance of blood thinning in water. It was here that Flora MacDonald’s own grandmother once waited 20 years for her husband to come home from the sea, and offered no complaint when he finally arrived. The grandmother had passed along her toughness, but that was all; the grand-
daughter had her own expectations in life and they had little to do with waiting and nothing at all to do with subservience. Flora MacDonald’s idea of serving was to pistol-whip Vietnam before the entire world. And only two days before she sat reading her own reviews in the apartment, she had done it, and she had done it well. Still, when Flora MacDonald thought about ac-
tually being there, the color rose in her face like a midsummer thermometer.
“It’s a long way from North Sydney,” she said. “But you know, when I got there, at the podium, I knew it was where I wanted to be.”
Flora’s a star. She has star quality. She belongs out front.— Lowell Murray, mastermind of the Conservative election victory
The first slap of celebrity landed within weeks of her appointment as Canada’s first woman external affairs minister. The television cameras picked up the new cabinet star as she crossed Ottawa’s Wellington Street on her way to a press conference and for threequarters of a block they nursed on that day’s visual: the walk that is more blown feather than effort, the big open-mouthed smile, the pale blue harmony of eyes, dress, bracelet, necklace, ring ... and with the cameras rolling and with her eager eyes never wavering, MacDonald hypnotically walked on past her destination and absurdly on down the block. Like a fox caught in headlights, she had lost touch with the moment.
For all of MacDonald’s 53 years the world has been turning, but only lately has its speed threatened dizziness. Her first day as minister saw an Arab blitz on her leader’s restated intention to move the Canadian embassy in Israel
During a quiet, politically soporific Ottawa summer, as brand-new Tory cabinet ministers stumbled repeatedly over their own faux pas, one minister walked coolly and confidently into power. As Joe Clark’s cabinet meets in Jasper this week, External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald will be one of the few who has already proven her mettle.
from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and she barely—and certainly only temporarily-offset that with a hand-off to former Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, who will study the matter. From that she moved to Paris for an economic gathering, to Tokyo for a major summit—where she kissed the Japanese foreign minister on public television— and then to the boat people conference in Switzerland, where he kissed her back. The softness of the bussing, however, belied her tough talk. “We are convened by tragedy,” she began, and by the end of the meeting a surprising concession had been forced from Vietnam—no further refugees would be put out to sea, at least for the time being.
It was in Geneva that MacDonald’s corner-cop stance signalled her own future style and also the probable return to Canada’s “helpful fixer” role so successfully pursued by the likes of Lester Pearson following the Second World War. In early August, at the Commonwealth conference in Lusaka, Zambia, she joined her prime minister, Joe Clark, in continuing this new image when they entered the discussions ambitiously hoping to become the “honest broker” between the African nations and Britain over the Zimbabwe Rhodesia issue (see Maclean’s, Aug. 13,1979).
Part of understanding such a vast personal ambition is simple mathematics: workdays have 18 hours, workweeks have seven days. So dedicated has she become to making the sacrifices necessary to get to the top that she has even prayed for the day when scientists deliver the pill that does away with the nuisance of eating. Rest comes only if it can no longer be avoided. And it is usually put off by what friends have come to call The
Flora MacDonald Late Show.
“The telephone,” says close friend and executive assistant Hugh Hanson, “is a natural extension of Flora MacDonald.” Her soul calls begin after the late news and they often go on until such hours as a telephone receiver will be fumbled somewhere and a voice will rise from sleep to say, “Hello, Flora,” without her having said a word. They go out to her electronic family (she has never married, but adds: “Don’t think there haven’t been times when my heart was broken”), out to the likes of New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield and any number of people who manage to get by without titles. All are strategically placed throughout the country and they serve as both a wind-down for her day and an instant readout on how both she and her country are doing.
Not surprisingly, her personal philosophy that “I just can’t stand the idea of wasting all that time sleeping” is not shared by all her friends. Robert Stanfield, who has been close for 23 years, once inscribed the following in a gift book for her: “Glad to be a good friend of Flora’s, but thank God I’m not on her late-night telephone list.” Dalton Camp, a friend for almost as long, says, “I don’t have the voltage. She can blow my fuses in 10 minutes.” Yet another friend, one who believes nights were darkened for a reason, unplugs his phone before turning in.
The dozen or more who gladly answer, however, know much of the woman who is charged with putting on Canada’s new international face. They have seen her kindness: in late 1975, when Joe Clark’s Conservative leadership drive was sputtering for lack of finance and threatening to stop dead, it was Flora MacDonald, the candidate
who stood to gain the most by Clark’s dropping out, who put the word out that help was necessary—and help arrived. They know her vanity as well as her ability to tell jokes about herself. Some even know that her final decision to run for Parliament was made by a dress. Before she ran for office, she attended the National Defence College in Kingston and spent much of the year travelling and puzzling over her future. Unable to sleep one muggy night in Hong Kong, she wandered the streets with her options until dawn found her in front of a silk shop, staring at a jadegreen gown with elaborate gold-thread embroidery. “I said to myself,” she recalls, “ That’s what you are going to wear when you get sworn in.’ ” She returned, sought and won the Conservative nomination for Kingston and The Islands and, on Oct. 30,1972, she won by 8,745 votes. At the swearing-in ceremony, she wore the dress.
Such a victory was, of course, a time of shared happiness for MacDonald and her long-distance confidantes. But they also saw the other side—most were even within physical reach of her dialing finger—on the afternoon of Feb. 22, 1976, when 328 delegates to the Conservative
Flora Power (clockwise from left): playing partisan 1976; going for the leadership 1976; victorious last May; St. Andrew’s Day frolic with colleagues Robert Muir, Andrew Brewin, Jean Pigott and Dan McKenzie in 1977; wooing Ontario farmers 1977
party leadership convention lined up for the first ballot wearing “committed” brown, oval Flora campaign buttons, voted—and a mere 214 of the 328 ballots came out with her name marked. It was, in her own words at the time, “a royal screwing.” The tears, when they came, were restricted to the intimacy of the electronic family, and even today, 42 months later, none of them will yet speak of her anguish.
Her bad luck has always been her fortune.— Dalton Camp
With Flora MacDonald it has not been a case of, as West Coast poet Susan Musgrave has written, “her body outgrowing its own sorrow.” Like the chilly side of childhood, the hurt remains, and it shrinks still from the unwelcome draft of a door forced open. She sits in an airplane, staring vacantly into a coffee, asked to remember. “It takes a
while . . .” she says, pauses, swallowing. “... It wasn’t the losing ... but the fact that I had been misled.” For someone who values loyalty above all else, there was no understanding it— not then, not now.
Hugh Hanson is more forthcoming. He was sitting within reach of her when the results of that first ballot were read off. “The first thing I thought was that they had made a mistake,” he says. “It was 314, not 214. When they didn’t correct it, I felt like I’d just been disemboweled.”
Her campaign manager, Oakville lawyer Terry O’Connor, remembers turning to MacDonald when he, and others, advised her to drop out, to throw in with Joe Clark who had led her by 63 votes. But she refused, perhaps foolishly believing the second ballot would vindicate her, and stubbornly waited until the equally disappointing second ballot before moving to Clark. All along, she had known she would join forces with the young Albertan, who was also perceived as a slightly leftish Red Tory, but in all her imaginings it had been him coming to her, never the other way around. Her move, however, had much to do with making Clark leader, and it was no surprise when, on June 4, he rewarded'her with the external affairs cabinet post. As Dalton Camp says: “She collected on her lOUs.”
This was not the first time a phoenix had risen from her apparent ashes. In April, 1966, after a decade as the administrative heart of the Conservative party, she was unceremoniously fired by the new national director of the party, Dr. James Johnston. Johnston was simply carrying out the expressed wishes of the late John Diefenbaker,
who rightfully regarded MacDonald as part of the incubating “Dump Dief” movement. But had they foreseen the results of their action, they most certainly would have dropped it as politically inopportune.
Dalton Camp, national Tory president at the time, learned of the firing by phone—naturally—that very night as he vacationed on Eleuthera Island, off Nassau. He sat up most of the rest of that night, bleeding the famous leadership reappraisal speech through a typewriter. “I took [her firing] as a declaration of war,” Camp says. Eddie Goodman, an important party fundraiser in Toronto, heard about the firing next day and immediately phoned Johnston. “You’ve just blown your brains out,” he told him. Goodman was right. In less than a year Camp had been convincingly re-elected president. MacDonald had become the party’s powerful national secretary and Robert Stanfield, thanks much to support from Camp and MacDonald, had taken the leadership away from Diefenbaker. After that, MacDonald and the former leader spoke, but only rarely, and it was Diefenbaker who delivered the ' most ingenious verbal attack she has so far suffered when he later referred to her as “the finest woman ever to walk the streets of Kingston.”
But that long-ago disappointment was far different from the leadership race. Criticism of her in 1966 could be seen for what it was, weighed, then easily rationalized.
The fault of her failure 10 years later was difficult to trace. It could not, for one thing, be blamed on her campaign. Described variously as “an evangelistic experience” and a “children’s crusade”
by followers, the campaign was open and had enough populist appeal to bring tightly folded dollars from youngsters and $500 cheques from the likes of former Liberal cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh (‘Tve never even done that to a Liberal”). But still, she lost. Eddie Goodman, her chief fund-raiser, says it was because another unsuccessful candidate, Paul Hellyer, made a blistering speech attacking the party’s left wing, personified by MacDonald.
Only Dalton Camp, who advised her not to run, will say what the others will not. “She lost,” he says, “because she was a woman.”
This was the first cold measure of her sex since she had missed out on university because women weren’t expected to go, and this too went against her. Was she tough enough? Sadder yet, was she man enough? Of the 600 or more women delegates, perhaps only 30 voted for her, but that should not be surprising. MacDonald is better with men than women—her platonic seductiveness creates near-worship in the young men who surround her—and it is soon clear that her friends, advisers, her aides, are all, with rare exception, male. One soured former employee, a woman, even goes so far as to claim MacDonald treated her women staff “like kitchen help.”
So it was men, not women, who deceived Flora MacDonald. In Ottawa there had always been a lingering sexism regarding her—Pierre Trudeau refers to her in the House as “the honorable lady”—but it had been easy to deal with. “The important thing,” she has always believed, “is not to become incensed with it, but to try and put it in the proper perspective.” But where was the perspective here? If political men could not appreciate that she had laid it all on the line for this, sacrificed more than any other candidate, what was the
use of even trying? She wasn’t just tough, she was tougher. She didn’t want to be leader, she had to be leader. The other losers might be sad, even angry. But only Flora MacDonald was shattered.
All she could do was wrap the loss tightly in a psychic bandage and try to forget. “I felt badly more for the people who worked for me,” she says, but it is clear she says that only to deflect the heat of the real question. They had played a sick joke on her, but she refused to be vindictive. “She’s got no deceit or guile,” says Finlay MacDonald, an unrelated political companion of many years standing. “She’s a very improbable type of politician. She knows all the art of it, but she simply has no guile. I’ve never found Flora to express herself in anger. Always sadness.”
I've told her this and she doesn't like it, but you're never the same after you reach for the top job. You become forever convinced that you have some mystical connection with the people. —Lowell Murray
No doubt, from then on there has been a trace of righteousness in Flora MacDonald. She has always been an obsessive, and the results can be both disturbing—as has happened in the past over controlling nuclear energy and reforming the Senate, two issues she rode so hard it wore down even her most forgiving friends—and it can also be invaluable, as happened during the spring election campaign. With Tory blessing, she turned her awesome energies on what the people were thinking. “At her best,” says Lowell Murray, “there’s absolutely no one with better political judgment than Flora. She gets things through her pores that cost me a quar-
ter of a million dollars—and faster.”
The Tories now admit to one great fear during the election, apart from Joe Clark’s Big Gaffe, and that was that they were on the wrong side of the Petro-Canada issue by calling for an end to the government-owned oil company. “She brushed it completely aside,” says Murray. “ ‘Forget it,’ she said. ‘Nobody’s interested in oil in the month of May.’ And, you know, she was right.”
After the victory, speculation was that she would become minister of federal-provincial affairs, as she had first suggested the Tories have a shadow cabinet position on the subject and then had filled the role. But the international scene had been her first interest since she had hitch-hiked and worked around Europe in the 1950s. She actually had gone to Ottawa in 1957 hoping to land a job as a secretary at External Affairs but was waylaid by a job at Tory national headquarters. Joe Clark knew all that, and he offered her the job without her asking. “It was a brilliant appointment,” says her good friend Gordon Fairweather, the federal Human Rights commissioner who would have been in the cabinet himself had he not retired from elected politics. “Flora will not be eaten up.”
Bitten perhaps, but certainly not chewed and swallowed up. External Affairs may not be the victory she counted on but it is still a long and welcome way from the teller’s cage in North Sydney. And even if she is not prime minister, she is most certainly somebody—and that she will hang onto for dear life. For it is her life. Her only life.
And this is one good reason why Flora MacDonald is good for a department that, like an old and rich tapestry, has become musty in recent years. Don Jamieson, the last Liberal minister, was accused by some of being an absentee landlord, seldom seen at External’s luxurious Lester B. Pearson Building on Sussex Drive. Says one disgruntled External official: “The only foreign country Jamieson was interested in was Newfoundland.”
Wisely, MacDonald moved swiftly to endear herself to this historically haughty department. She personally sent greetings to all embassies and consulates before protocol forced them to welcome her. She moved her own office to the Pearson Building, began eating in the cafeteria, insisted on using her seedling French on francophone employees and even invited secretaries to the early receptions, her argument a simple and irrefutable, “I’ve been there.” As for the early hot issues, her sidestepping has perhaps benefited from her early Highland dancing days. “She’s handled it all beautifully,” says Judy LaMarsh, who knows what it is like to be the only woman in a Canadian cabinet. And her efforts have certainly been appreciated by her department. “You can detect an almost palpable enthusiasm in External,” says Prime Minister Clark, who has kept much official company with MacDonald of late.
Beyond the Pearson Building, however, lies the real world. And this world is yet small enough to deal in veils, nonenfranchised vote, ordered silences and knowing one’s place. In Japan, they giggled at the idea of a woman foreign minister. In Geneva, her bright yellow dress stood out like a single buttercup in a grey field of summer fallow. But it
was there, she feels, that the doubts were buried. “We had something to say, and we said it, and people took it seriously. And if there was any reservation about a woman, it’s dismissed.” When the refugee conference was over, the Danish foreign minister came over to her chair, leaned over and Whispered in her ear, “You’re being discussed around here. And the words that are being used are ‘intelligent’ and ‘tough’.”
Yet Canada’s foreign policy has a long way to go before it will escape the rap of former British prime minister Harold Wilson, who once described Canada’s commitment as “all aid short of help.” To heal that sting will require financial ointment, something MacDonald vows she will apply. But it is crucial to understand where her personal foreign aid philosophy begins. It is one of her earliest ground rules and it dates from the Sunday mornings of childhood and the decision on how to divide a few coins between the two halves of the United church offering envelope. The black side went toward church and parish expenses, the red for missionary work in the world, and it was the rule of her father, a worldly CN telegraph operator, that one puts only what is left over in the red missionary side. “He was adamant that the black side be well financed because, unless you have the church, you’ll never have an institution where people could come to make their contribution to the Third World,” she says. “It makes awfully good sense to me.”
Still, Canada’s decision to admit 50,000 refugees by the end of 1980 was taken before a price tag was ready. In retrospect, it shames the early days of the Trudeau government when needed aid to starving Biafra—“Where’s Biafra?” Trudeau asked—was put off and cynically delayed until four days before
Biafra surrendered. Trudeau believed, as he said in 1969, that “the whole concept of diplomacy today ... is a little bit outmoded.” MacDonald, however, believes wholeheartedly in Canada’s past image as “helpful fixer” to the world. It is her conviction that the current instability in the world has created a vacuum that is drawing Canada into action. And she has no intentions to resist. Given what has already happened in Geneva, and to a lesser degree in Lusaka, Canada may well be heading back to what Quebec’s Claude Ryan has called this country’s “boy scout complex.”
If there is a concern about MacDonald it should not be over her toughness. It is, rather, that she believes the future can be found using maps of the past. She is, after all, fiercely Scottish and clannish, for whom past glory is a religion and often a comfort for the present. She hangs onto things she trusts passionately—people, places, certain possessions. From her father, she learned to take care of her own house first. From the leadership convention, she learned how fragile, and even deceptive, idealism can be. Neither thought is evil, but taken to their natural extensions the one could lead to selfishness, the other to cynicism. And both are tasteless poisons for a helpful fixer.
It may therefore be fortunate that she has kept the dress she bought in Hong Kong and wore to her swearingin. It hangs today, preserved in drycleaner’s plastic, in her apartment closet. Recently she marvelled again at the elusive properties of the shot-silk material, the way light dances from thread to thread, the way it appears different from each new angle. The key to its lure is that it lacks precision. It is what she says it is, as she sees it in the light of the moment. And in that, it is not unlike her job.