Introduction to the Honourable Flora MacDonald


28 October 2008

Thank you Dr. Holloway, Senator MacEachen, Mr. President, distinguished guests - among who I note my Senate colleagues, Senator Joyce Fairbairn of Alberta and our former colleague John Steward of Antigonish/Guysborough - reverend fathers, sisters, brothers, dear friends.

I am glad to be here for the MacEachen Lecture because I was unable to make it to his home town for the unveiling of the stone monument in his honour, ten days ago. However, Flora and I did make a special personal visit to Inverness last weekend in order to inspect and admire the stone. We didn't bring flowers. Nor did we say a prayer. Although we did acknowledge that there had been times, in our Progressive Conservative past, when we, and many other Tories, would have been glad to visit Allan J.’s stone, especially if he was safely underneath it. But that was then and this is now.

So Flora and I pressed on to East Lake Ainslie, for an afternoon visit with himself. At his residence at Lake Ainslie we had what in diplomatic communiques is called 'a free and frank exchange of views.' I will repeat none of it here, respecting as I must an established protocol according to which ‘what happens in Lake Ainslie stays in Lake Ainslie.’

As we've been reminded by Dr. Holloway, tonight's is the 11th annual Allan J. MacEachen lecture in politics. The series was inaugurated not long after he ended a parliamentary career that had dated back to 1953. While there are public buildings and other tributes to Senator MacEachen in bricks and mortar, it seems to me that a lecture series like this at StFX is a wonderfully apt celebration of a scholar who was renowned for his achievements in parliament and government, and who now liberated from carrying a ministerial brief, is more than ever at home in the world of ideas. Not only his own ideas but perhaps especially those of others. It is one of the things he has in common with tonight's guest lecturer.

Many of us as we grow older become less open to other opinions and new ideas. Allan J. MacEachen and Flora MacDonald remain most keenly interested in the world as it is seen, understood and lived in by others. They have many other things in common: Cape Breton born, of course, and a passion for their Celtic heritage, but more particularly, roots deep in Inverness County. Flora's great-grandfather, a sea captain, was born in Mabou Mines in 1813 when Cape Breton was still a separate crown colony. Allan J. and Flora are two of the three Cape Bretoner’s who have served as Secretary of State for External Affairs of Canada, the third being Sydney Smith of Port Hood Island, who was coaxed away from his post as president of University of Toronto to take up the portfolio in Mr. Diefenbaker government. Allan J. and Flora both served, albeit 14 years apart, as Minister of Employment and Immigration, a portfolio which in my observation is one of the most thankless tasks in government, and where seldom is heard an encouraging word from any source. But they both went on to greater things. Afterwards reflects a certain Celtic stoicism, not to mention an innate capacity for political survival.

When Flora's career in active politics ended twenty years ago, she was already well respected and recognized as having been a unique and distinguished figure in our national life: first woman graduate of a national defense college, first woman candidate for the leadership of a major national political party, first woman to be Canadian foreign minister. In that capacity she is best remembered for providing ministerial direction and cover for the Canadian embassy's rescue of US diplomats in Iran in 1979-80. And in the same year, for her role in bringing 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to Canada, many of whom had been literally adrift on the South China Sea. She had been author of the landmark Employment Equity Act, she had been national secretary of the Progressive Conservative party, had lectured on politics at Queen's University and had been elected 5 times to the House of Commons as MP for Kingston and the Islands.

As that chapter of her life closed 20 years ago at the age of 62, Flora began another chapter that has been even more extraordinary than the first. With the phenomenal energy for which she is renowned, she has committed herself totally to constructive humanitarian work internationally. She has had a prominent role in such organization as the Shastri Indo-Canadian Advisory Group, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict, Care Canada, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and UNICEF. Most remarkable is that so much of her humanitarian work is ‘hands on’ in such countries as Mongolia, Tibet, and India; and as many of us saw on the CBC television documentary last week, Afghanistan, where she recently completed her 10th visit in 7 years. The emphasis on adult education and cooperative community effort by which Flora and her colleagues at the NGO Future Generations Canada, help the Afghan villagers improve their lives would be familiar to the founders of the Antigonish Movement and their descendants on this campus and in many countries of the world.

Almost ten years ago at the age of 73, she became co-chair of the national committee for Canada's participation in the International Year of Older Persons. She travelled the country raising awareness of issues confronting both the aging and our aging society. At the same time, urging seniors by the strength of her conviction and the power of her example, to fully appreciate their own potential as builders and leaders in society.

It is easy to focus on Flora's contribution to politics, public life and policy on a macro national or international level. In doing so, I would not want to overlook her profound and generous personal involvement in the lives of others. During her years in Kingston, much of her spare time was devoted to the inmates at Kingston penitentiary and Kingston Women's Prison where every week she tried to help these often forgotten and despised people to get through their incarceration and get ready for normal life later. Flora has also become a personal friend, mentor and sponsor of dozens of individuals who need her guidance. Her understanding and compassion for grandparents in Africa who are left to bring up children orphaned by AIDS, for women who need encouragement to take the lead in community development, and for countless others whom she has encountered around the globe and who are as close to her as her kinsmen and clansmen in Cape Breton, is proof of a commitment to them that is profoundly personal and is really at the core of her social engagement.

I am proud to welcome her here to our campus, a campus of our university which, for many years, has been committed to social justice in Canada and around the world, the cause to which she has given a large part of her life. I'm delighted that she is associated in this lecture with Allan MacEachen who bravely applied the social philosophy of StFX to the making of national and international policy. And I am honoured to present her to you - this Privy Councilor, Companion of the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, the Order of Nova Scotia, recipient of the Pearson Peace Medal and the first Canadian recipient of India's prestigious Padma Shri Award, the Honourable Flora MacDonald of North Sydney.


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