May 25, 2017 1:59 pm
Updated: May 25, 2017 10:02 pm

Trailblazing B.C. politician Grace McCarthy dies

The woman, who was a major force in the party that was in power for 20 years, has died at the age of 89. Linda Aylesworth looks back at the life of Grace McCarthy, who blazed the trail for female politicians in B.C.

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Grace McCarthy, a former Social Credit cabinet minister in British Columbia who blazed a trail for women in politics and business, has died. She was 89.

A statement issued by her family says McCarthy died peacefully at her Vancouver home surrounded by her family Wednesday night after a lengthy battle with a brain tumour.

McCarthy began her career in the flower business in the mid-1940s, when she opened her first store and later expanded her business to several stores.

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The statement says at the age of 17, McCarthy cashed in a $50 war bond and opened her own flower shop in Vancouver, Grayce Florists, which she developed into five retail locations across the city.

Called “Amazing Grace” by her fellow politicians, McCarthy entered the political arena in 1966 after serving as an elected Vancouver park board representative.

She credited her good friend Jimmy Pattison, who would later become a billionaire businessman, with helping her win an election in 1975 after he offered one of his employees as a volunteer to run McCarthy’s campaign.

As a lone woman in the world of politics, McCarthy took on the challenge of raising a family and having a career decades before work-life balance became an issue for women.

In a November 2008 interview with The Canadian Press, McCarthy said that long before air travel became the norm for cabinet ministers heading from Vancouver to Victoria, she spent years taking the ferry to B.C.’s capital city on Monday mornings and returning on Friday afternoons.

McCarthy said that while she was vastly outnumbered by all the men in government, she never felt uncomfortable in her pioneering role.

“To walk into a room full of men, it was an advantage,” she said, adding that she brought her negotiating skills around family and community to the table and provided a different perspective.

“What you said was meaningful.”

She said her husband, Ray McCarthy, was accustomed to her being an independent business owner after two children came along, and he fully supported her political aspirations.

“He had such a great understanding of me and what I could accomplish,” she said, adding her husband had a keen interest in politics even in his teenage years when they met.

McCarthy said she was raised in a loving family by parents who had endured the Depression and always told her she could aim high.

Premier Christy Clark described McCarthy “as an agent of change” who became Canada’s first female deputy premier.

“When she was first elected, women could not even apply for mortgages without a male guarantor — until she worked with the provincial and federal governments to fix it,” Clark said in a statement.

“Equal parts intelligent, warm, and tough, she led by example, inspiring more than one generation of women in B.C. and Canada to stand up and pursue a career in politics. ‘Amazing Grace’ indeed.”

Former politician Rafe Mair said he remembers meeting McCarthy for the first time in Kamloops when he ran for the Social Credit party’s nomination in a local riding.

“She was a human dynamo. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. She was just unbelievable,” he said. “She was absolutely a workaholic, but always had a smile, always was good natured and always tough. She was a great lady.”

He described how McCarthy “almost single-handedly” rebuilt the Social Credit party after it lost the 1972 election to the NDP.

McCarthy “gave as good as she got” in the legislature, Mair said.

“She was by no means the first, but she … made it very respectable for women to go into politics, and also respectable for them to land a punch from time to time,” he said.

“She was the kind of politician that didn’t mind taking it on the chin as well as dishing it out.”

After leaving politics, McCarthy founded the CHILD (Children with Intestinal and Liver Disorders) Foundation and helped raise millions of dollars for diseases that previously had little awareness.

McCarthy said she was inspired in her volunteer work by her granddaughter, a nurse, who suffers from Crohn’s disease.

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