Known across Canada simply as “Alexa,” former federal and N.S. NDP leader Alexa McDonough is being remembered by former colleagues and the public as a trailblazer for women in politics.
One of those women is Megan Leslie, who succeeded McDonough as a Member of Parliament for Halifax in 2008. She was saddened to hear of McDonough’s passing on Saturday.
“I hope her family understands the gift that Alexa was to so many of us,” said Leslie.
“I’m very grateful that they, in a way, shared her with us.”
Leslie, who is now the CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, says McDonough changed her perspective on politicians early on in her career.
“The memory in my soul, is how she really was this leader who would boldly go, and then turn around and reach out her hand to bring others with her,” Leslie said.
McDonough was the first woman to head a major political party in the country, leading the Nova Scotia NDP from 1980 to 1994. She became the federal NDP leader from 1997 to 2002, taking the reins from Audrey McLaughlin, who was the first-ever woman to lead a national party.
McDonough is credited with laying the groundwork for Nova Scotia’s 2009 Dexter NDP government and the Jack Layton “Orange Wave” in 2011.
The first time the two met, Leslie was still a student at Dalhousie University and part of an activist group there. She and her colleagues spoke up about issues surrounding the anti-terrorism legislation coming through the House of Commons.
“Alexa reached out to us. We didn’t write a letter to her. We didn’t send a petition to her. She contacted us and said…’Can I come meet with you?’” said Leslie.
In that moment, McDonough raised the bar high.
“That was a real watershed moment for me and thinking about what we could expect from our elected officials, and what politics could look like,” Leslie said.
Once Leslie, herself, entered politics, McDonough became a mentor to her.
“She introduced me to people, she gave me the inside scoop on a lot of things … But then she always stepped back because she knew that I needed to lead in the way that I could,” said Leslie. “That’s true leadership.”
More than a party leader
University of King’s College journalism professor Stephen Kimber says he was grateful to have written McDonough’s biography in 2019.
While digging into her personal life and early career, Kimber said many things surprised him. But one letter from 1960s was shocking.
Back then, Alexa was a student at Smith College in the United States, studying social work. Her fiancée Peter McDonough — whom she would eventually marry — was back in Halifax.
“I lucked into their correspondence from that time,” said Kimber.
“She said ‘If I ever have to choose between a career as a social worker and being Mrs. Peter McDonough, I will always choose to be Mrs. Peter McDonough.’”
Kimber was shocked to see that because “this is a woman who is a feminist icon,” he said.
“I realized that she went through the same journey that a lot of women went through in that period of the late 60s and early 70s. They went from having grown up in a very traditional view of their own role in the world, to a different view.”
“Alexa sort of epitomized that in many ways,” Kimber said.
Lisa Lachance, NDP MLA representing the riding of Halifax Citadel-Sable Island, says having McDonough in the community was always remarkable, and is saddened by the loss of an “icon.”
“She was as a friend, as a community member, as a politician, really consistent in that compassionate yet sort of critical approach,” Lachance said.
“What a remarkable thing that must have been in this community, where you saw someone become this incredible trailblazer for women and other folks who may not feel like they belong in politics,” they said. “What a tremendous, daily reminder that social change is possible.”
Lachance, who is genderqueer, says McDonough paved the way for them to take that legacy of gender diversity further.
“I was really struck in reading her biography and her recognition of having to go downstairs to use the bathroom because there were no women’s washrooms next to the chambers,” they said.
“That made my requests for a gender neutral bathroom so much easier,” said Lachance. “I thought ‘This would be Alexa, even if this wasn’t for her, she would be asking for this.”
Stephen Kimber echoed that for many Nova Scotians, McDonough was something more than a political party leader.
“Alexa was ‘Alexa’ to people who were not NDP supporters.”
Opinion polls in the 1980s showed McDonough was “the most respected politician in Nova Scotia, despite the fact that the NDP was polling third in Nova Scotia,” Kimber added.
In the biography, Kimber concluded that Alexa transcended party affiliation and gender.
The legacy she leaves behind is, he said, is that of a person who has a moral centre, who was “always pointing in the right direction for justice and truth.
“She is somebody who is known as having been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, which she was. But at the same time, she understood the importance of giving and making room for other people.”
This sentiment was echoed by Megan Leslie, who said McDonough “never pretended to be the voice of other people in their experiences.
“I want her to be remembered, this is going to sound strange, but for all the things that we may forget” said Leslie.
“When you think Africville, you don’t think of Alexa McDonough — and you shouldn’t — but she was a part of that struggle and using her voice.
“When you think about queer rights in Nova Scotia, you don’t think Alexa McDonough — and you shouldn’t because she didn’t come from that community — but she stood beside that community in solidarity,” said Leslie, as she held back tears.
“I just hope that people recognize those kind of really powerful things that she did to advance justice in our province.”