The pioneering former NDP leader Alexa McDonough dies at the age of 77

NDP leader Alexa McDonough waves to supporters at a breakfast meeting in Toronto on May 27, 1997. McDonough, the former leader of both the Nova Scotia New Democrats and the Federal New Democrats, has died at the age of 77.Moe Doiron / The Canadian Press

Former Federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough, a political pioneer who paved the way for women in politics, died Saturday in Halifax at the age of 77.

Her family confirmed McDonough’s death after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

McDonough became the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada when she was elected leader of the Nova Scotia New Democrats in 1980. She became head of the federal NDP in 1995 and served in the party’s top post until 2002.

But in an interview Saturday, Justin McDonough said his mother was a consensus builder who gained respect beyond party political lines.

“I think the one thing I really learned from her is that you can have brave conversations and you can disagree with someone, but that does not mean that you do not want to be respectful and that you will not appreciate their opinion, “he said. “Her political life resonated in that regard.”

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston paid tribute in a statement calling McDonough a historic figure in provincial and federal politics.

“Characteristic of Ms. McDonough’s long career was her respect for the people she represented,” Houston said. “She was a public servant in the truest sense of the word, and she will be greatly missed by people all over Canada.”

Known lovingly by many across the country as simply “Alexa”, McDonough was a former social worker who cut her political teeth in the Nova Scotia Liberal Party before switching to the provincial NDP in 1974.

After capturing the party’s leadership, she became the first new Democrat from mainland Nova Scotia to sit in the provincial legislature when she was elected in a Halifax area in 1981. She was the party’s lone voice in the legislature during the next three years.

“These are achievements of true historical stature,” said Gary Burrill, the current head of the Nova Scotia NDP. “She is a great person on the landscape in the history of the province.”

Burrill said the Nova Scotia New Democrats have suffered a significant loss and are a “party in mourning.”

McDonough resigned as provincial leader in 1994 and later took the plunge into federal politics, where in 1995 she raised a challenge for the national party’s top job. She won the federal NDP leadership in a revolt over the perceived frontrunners Svend Robinson and Lorne Nystrom.

She was elected to the House of Commons for the first time during the 1997 federal election, while her party’s seats ranged from nine to 21. The total number included a breakthrough in Atlantic Canada, where the new Democrats took six of Nova Scotia’s 11 seats.

“It was a moment that broke the form of Nova Scotia politics that had been in place for over a century,” Burrill said.

McDonough federally marked himself as an advocate for strong social programs and gender equality. She retired from politics in 2008.

She was born Alexa Ann Shaw in Ottawa on August 11, 1944, and adopted the name known throughout the country when she married Peter McDonough in Halifax in 1966.

McDonough was an officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Nova Scotia and is a former president of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

She is survived by her sons, Justin and Travis, along with seven grandchildren.


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