Audrey McLaughlin has spent a lifetime exploring unfamiliar territory. A decade ago, weary of Toronto and recently divorced, she loaded a col-
lection of African art into a pickup truck and, with her two children, drove north to the Yukon to find a new home, in Whitehorse. This weekend, with less than three years of experience on the national stage, McLaughlin is picking her way through a jungle of a different sort on a trail that she hopes will lead her to the top of the New Democratic Party. Among the remaining obstacles: objections from party critics that she is a political neophyte and skepticism about her capabilities from the leaders of the powerful labor unions that helped found the troubled party. “There are similarities between this race and the challenges of some of the things I have done in the past,” McLaughlin told Maclean’s last week. “Challenges have never stopped me.”
For once, however, the 53-year-old McLaughlin may have tackled a bigger chal-
lenge than she can handle. Bolstered by a widespread desire within NDP ranks to be the first national party to elect a female leader, McLaughlin was declared a front-runner in a lacklustre field virtually from the moment last May when she announced her ambition to succeed retiring party leader Ed Broadbent. But, since then, McLaughlin has provoked criticism that she is reaching too far, too soon. Even committed supporters have voiced exasperation at her vague stands on crucial issues. Other delegates have expressed concern over her stubborn self-reliance—highlighted last week when she appeared at an Ontario Federation of Labour conference in Toronto unaccompanied by an aide and carrying a cardboard box of pamphlets under her arm.
Her conciliatory decision-making style, shaped in part by her training as a social worker, may make it difficult for her to give direction to a party divided over what course it should follow in the 1990s. Said Clifford Scotton, a party veteran for nearly four decades and former federal secretary: “Audrey’s background is suitably and fashionably left-wing. But we’re not sure she’s read all the books.”
As well, the large, Ontario-based labor union locals that could provide up to 600 of the 2,200 delegates to the Winnipeg convention this week have been reluctant to endorse a northern candidate who acknowledges that she has difficulty understanding their points of view or, as she puts it, “cracking their codes.” Although leaders of the 160,000-member United Steelworkers of America, one of the largest unions affiliated with the NDP, at first supported McLaughlin’s candidacy, they withdrew their endorsement after she appeared at a September all-candidates session in Toronto. “She was a disappointment,” said one senior union organizer. Added Nancy Riche, executive vicepresident of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC): “I like Audrey, but this is not a debating society that meets in some middle-class living room.”
But her committed supporters say McLaughlin’s somewhat quixotic record of accomplishments will help her in her political career. An only child who was born and raised near Windsor, Ont., McLaughlin raised a son, David, and daughter, Tracy, while running a mink farm in partnership with her husband in Wingham, Ont., 60 km northwest of Kitchener, and earning a bachelor of arts degree by correspondence—all while still in her 20s. In the 1960s, the family moved to the West African country of Ghana, where McLaughlin taught English for three years. Upon the family’s return to Canada, she pursued a postgraduate degree in social work and later worked at the Metro Toronto Children’s Aid Society. “She has a lot of life experience,” said Carol Phillips of Toronto, assistant to Robert White, president of the Canadian Auto Workers. Phillips is one of the few labor activists to advise McLaughlin on labor issues.
During the 1960s, McLaughlin also began to develop ties with the New Democratic Party, working on the fringes of campaigns in Ontario. By 1975, she was a delegate at the leadership
convention in Winnipeg that elected Broadbent. But it was not until her 1979 move to the Yukon that her involvement with the NDP turned serious. In Whitehorse, she established herself as a social-policy consultant to aboriginal and women’s groups, and her political profile rose steadily. In the territorial elections of 1982 and 1985, she managed the successful campaigns of former Yukon justice minister Roger Kimmerley. Then, in 1987, she won a federal byelection in the Yukon riding that had been held for almost 30 years by Conservative Erik Nielsen, Brian Mulroney’s former deputy prime minister. Detractors who dismissed her victory as a protest vote against the Tories were silenced when she returned to Ottawa after last November’s federal election with a 2,000-vote cushion, the only one of three NDP MPs elected in byelections in 1987 to hold her seat. Her reward was election to the position of caucus chairman two months later.
Indeed, for some McLaughlin supporters, her freshness is part of her attraction. A dozen of the 43 NDP MPs and three former MPs have publicly supported her campaign, among them Nelson Riis of Kamloops, B.C. Said Riis: “A lot of leaders in the party are uncomfortable that they don’t know Audrey McLaughlin. But Audrey is beholden to no one, absolutely no one.” And the autoworkers’ Phillips, for one, says she has no doubts about McLaughlin’s toughness. Said Phillips: “From watching her through this campaign, I know she’s a real fighter.”
But some observers complain that McLaughlin has staked out a strong position on only one issue: she opposes the Meech Lake accord on the grounds that it excludes women, native people and the North. The combination of her personal mettle and her status as a parliamentary newcomer allowed her to break party ranks—with Broadbent’s permission— to vote against the accord in the parliamentary vote to endorse the agreement. And she was instrumental in supporting a resolution calling for the reversal of NDP support, which will be debated at the convention on Friday. But, in her speeches, McLaughlin leans heavily on scantily defined concerns for social issues rather than specific policies. And she is unapologetic about her vagueness, content to say that her leadership would signal “a change in politics, and a place in the system for people who have been marginalized in society.”
Still, the Yukon MP is aware that her gender and her brief experience are likely to prove the key factors in determining whether her frontrunner status translates into victory on Dec. 2. Said McLaughlin: “Before I announced I was running, they said, ‘It’s time for a woman.’ After I announced, it was ‘Who the hell does she think she is? She doesn’t have any experience.’ ” Many openly critical delegates clearly remained unconvinced last week that life experience makes up for the political variety. But, noted the CLC’s Riche, who was still undecided about whom to support: “If Audrey survives all this criticism, she will make a good leader.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.