Flora! Deserves The !

The just-released (auto)biography of the eminent Canadian politician Flora MacDonald – Flora!: A Woman in a Man’s World is an inspirational presentation of a life of great achievement and feminist trail-blazing. Not only that, but the book launch sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre, now posted on YouTube, is the most enjoyable book launch I have ever witnessed, taking advantage of, rather than constrained by, Zoom webinar format.

MacDonald, collaborating with co-author journalist Geoffrey Stevens, had completed two-thirds of the book at the time of her death in 2015. Spurred on by MacDonald’s niece Jean Grearson, Stevens brought the book to completion this year, finishing the narrative, as it had begun, in MacDonald’s voice.

Erik Erikson’s Perspective

Over the years I have found the psychologist Erik Erikson’s normative theory of psychosocial development extraordinarily helpful for interpreting what people say in their life stories. Briefly put, Erikson theorizes that people go through eight life stages and confront a developmental challenge in each. Erikson characterizes success and failure at each stage, and how people perform ultimately determines the meaning and value of their lives.

Top of the Class, with a Famous Namesake

School is an arena for competition, with success defined as a sense of competence, or holding one’s own, and failure as feelings of inferiority. Flora always stood at the top of the class and became the women’s speed-skating champion of Nova Scotia. She had a famous namesake, the eighteenth-century rescuer of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Her grandfather, a seaman, was a world traveler and adventurer and her father, another role model, was interested in politics and world affairs. In contrast, her mother was a homebody; this parental configuration resembles Margaret Thatcher’s. By the time Flora graduated from high school, she was ready to take on the world.

A Long Search for Identity

Finding one’s identity is a crucial challenge of the teenage years and sometimes beyond. Identity is socially constructed because the choices available to an individual depend on her social context. For a woman from a large family of limited means in post-war Cape Breton Island, university was an impossibility. The three choices available to her were teacher, nurse, or secretary. She chose secretary, perhaps because it provided the most flexibility.

In her teens and twenties, Flora did clerical and office jobs in both Canada and the UK, which paid for what she loved – traveling. It was on a tight budget, often hitch-hiking – unusual for a young woman in the Fifties. She did this until she was thirty, relatively late in life. Flora reminds me of Pierre Trudeau, who also traveled frequently and tested several careers in his twenties.

At thirty, Flora was hired by the federal Progressive Conservative Party, and she soon became its de facto national director. This was a calling, not just a job.

Not Having it All

A second challenge of early adulthood is what Erikson labels intimacy – having a partner and possibly creating a family – or isolation. Flora was single all her life, but not celibate. She addresses this challenge briefly, writing (on p. 31) that “on more than one occasion I could have married a ‘good man’ and ‘settled down,’ but I passed on those opportunities. … I enjoy traveling with men so long as I can send them home when the trip is done. I could not imagine living with one of them.” Contemporary women discuss the possibility of “having it all” – work, marriage, family. In Flora’s day that was rarely possible. She chose her independence, even before her work became a calling.

An Invention and Three Reinventions

Erikson defines the challenge of middle adulthood, by far the longest stage in life, as generativity versus stagnation. Generativity means doing things that matter to future generations and creating a legacy, whether through work, family, or voluntarism. Given the length of middle adulthood and the twists and turns it might take, maintaining generativity might require one or more change(s) of direction. Flora invented herself as the de facto national director of the Progressive Conservative Party. When John Diefenbaker fired her, she moved to Queen’s University, becoming administrative assistant to the chair of the Political Studies Department, a behind-the-scenes role comparable to her role in Ottawa. But she quickly became deeply involved in community activities and was selected Conservative candidate in 1972 and elected to Parliament. She was now in the forefront. After sixteen years in Parliament and ministries in the Clark (Foreign Affairs) and Mulroney (Employment and Immigration, Communications) Governments she was defeated in the 1988 election. She might have lobbied for an appointment to the Senate or an ambassadorship. Instead, she undertook a third reinvention, throwing herself into international development work, initially in Africa and later in post 9-11 Afghanistan. The development work appealed to her desire for travel, not in the style of a foreign minister, but rather as an NGO volunteer, often staying in people’s homes. Viewed in its entirety, this is an extraordinary career path.

Her Way

The final life stage is old age, and Erikson’s question is what one sees looking back on one’s life. Does one feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction (integrity) or despair – regret at bad choices and missed opportunities?

Co-authoring Flora! gave her an opportunity to tell many of her stories, and indeed to tell her story. But she did not write a final chapter reflecting on her life in its totality, on her achievements and regrets. The last chapter simply quotes eulogies. They contain yet more stories about Flora, but the stories and eulogies are not a true summing-up.

Red Tory or Real Tory?

The lodestar of Flora’s political career was helping those who were oppressed or marginalized, whether prisoners (in Kingston), refugees (the Vietnamese “boat people” when she was Minister of External Affairs), immigrants (in her second cabinet portfolio), or women and girls in the third world, in her final reinvention. This focus on what Christians refer to as the social gospel or good works and what Jews refer to as tikkun olam (repairing the world) is very much in accord with the “red Tory” tradition. Red Tories constituted the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservative Party when Flora was an activist, MP, and minister. The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), as constituted by Stephen Harper in the early years of this century, is much less supportive of  the oppressed and marginalized. It is no surprise that in the 2004 election, the first contested by the Conservative Party of Canada, Flora tells us she voted for the NDP.

Flora’s three chapters about John Diefenbaker should lead the reader to be skeptical about the CPC’s attempt to rehabilitate his reputation. (For those not deeply interested in the political machinations of the Fifties and Sixties, they are a bit of a slog.) The developmental question I would pose about Diefenbaker is why, despite his accomplishments, he spent his old age in such despair, with unmitigated anger toward and even loathing of his colleagues.

The story of Flora’s unsuccessful campaign for the party leadership in 1976 is  fascinatingly depicted in Peter Raymont’s in-the-moment NFB documentary Flora: Scenes from a Leadership Convention. I found it interesting that Flora emphasizes her political proximity, as fellow Red Tory, to the eventual winner, Joe Clark. In a previous post about Michael Healey’s play 1979, I argued, based on my own experience as part of Clark’s leadership campaign, that he positioned himself as every other candidate or faction’s second choice. As a consequence, Flora’s sense of proximity to Joe was not reciprocal.

Best Book Launch Ever

Whether or not this post inspires you to read the book, I think the launch absolutely merits watching. Zoom seminars provide an opportunity to convene people in different places, but they are compelling only if they have variety and frequent changes of pace. In this launch, Geoffrey Stevens is joined by four thoughtful panelists: former Prime Minister Joe Clark; Pierre Trudeau’s official biographer John English; CBC journalist Carole MacNeil, who produced documentary reportage on Flora’s work in Afghanistan; and Flora’s niece Jean Grearson. To top it off, segments of MacNeil’s documentary are shown, and passages from the book are read by the actor Sarah Orenstein, who uncannily channels Flora’s unmistakable voice.

My Summing Up

Flora MacDonald was an extraordinary person who had an exemplary career as politician and feminist. This (auto)biography will be essential to preserving her memory.

As my readers know, one of my abiding interests is in screen stories about the public sphere. Flora MacDonald has already appeared in Raymont’s documentary about the 1976 leadership convention as well as Our Man in Tehran, a “worthwhile Canadian” documentary about the Iran hostage crisis, when she served as Minister for External Affairs. A docudrama, or at least a documentary, would also be an inspiring Canadian initiative.




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