Alan Whitehorn: "Remembering Alexa"

Just over a week ago, I had belatedly begun to leisurely read Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics, Stephen Kimber’s well-researched and thoughtful biography of Alexa McDonough. Following the news of her death, I continued to read the book with even more emotion and deeper reflections.

As a political historian who has written extensively on Canadian social democracy, the NDP and its predecessor the CCF, I found the book informative and it brought back many memories of significant events and colourful individuals.

I had been research director of the David Lewis memoirs in the mid-1970s. As part of the archival work, I had come across extensive correspondence by Alexa’s father--Lloyd Shaw, both in his national role with the federal party and that as activist in Nova Scotia provincial politics. Through David, I even had a chance to meet Lloyd and became aware sooner than many of my Central Canadian colleagues about Alexa’s pioneering and heroic role in Nova Scotia social activism and party politics. 

Several decades later in the mid-1990s when Alexa ran for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party, I was based in Vancouver as a visiting professor in the JS Woodsworth Chair in Humanities at Simon Fraser University. To many younger voters at the time, she was even less well-known on the Pacific Coast. As a friend and academic, I did my best to introduce her to British Columbia colleagues and informally chatted with her about the complex political dynamics in that province. I diplomatically suggested to many persons that she could be a valued NDP federal leader, notwithstanding her weakness in French and, at the time, lacking a seat in Parliament. With her legendary determination, she overcame both handicaps. Her forte, as a former social worker, was how she treated others. She possessed a lifelong commitment to human rights, equality, and social justice. Her advocacy on behalf of Donald Marshall and Maher Arar was exemplary. Her stamina was legendary, which she combined with an intellectual openness and generosity of spirit. She was wonderfully approachable and upbeat.

It is fitting that today’s obituaries and personal recollections take note of her inspirational feminist role. For those who want to know more about this remarkable Canadian political leader, Stephen Kimber’s book Alexa! is a worthy in-depth biography. It is a tribute to this special person whom I was honoured to call a friend and colleague. She sought to give voice to the less powerful. Hers was a quest for a better world. We urgently need more such leaders in this hyper-partisan and perilous world.

–Alan Whitehorn, Professor Emeritus, Royal Military College of Canada, and former J. S. Woodsworth Chair in Humanities, SFU.