A Romp with Flora through Canadian history

Flora! A Woman in a Man’s World,

by Flora MacDonald and Geoffrey Stevens
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021.

Review by Dorothy Phillips

Flora MacDonald’s father told her that women could do anything. Keeping in mind his admonition to help those who were poor and struggling, she decided on an unorthodox life of adventure and service. Flora met almost everyone in Canadian power circles and beyond and befriended many, including Nelson Mandela. She travelled the world, living with audacity and panache and she made a difference in many communities.

Flora MacDonald died in 2015. Geoffrey Stevens, a well-known journalist, author and educator, who had known her since 1960, worked with her on the book for several years. They agreed that the book should be told in her voice. It works; Flora is talking to the reader, telling her story. They have produced both an exciting, funny and detailed account of her adventures and a fitting tribute to a great Canadian.

The book opens with a terrifying incident in Afghanistan. Flora and a small group, driving from Kabul to Bamyan, are held up by thugs who rob them, slash their tires and threaten to kill them. Left to stew for several tense hours, Flora sees her life flash before her eyes – experiences of danger, high points and accomplishments – and that serves in the book as a preface. The thugs disappear into the night, their resourceful driver patches the tires, and they carry on. By then the reader is hooked, expecting further adventures; the book does not disappoint. It is easy to ignore the few repetitions as the next story comes into view.

Born in 1926, Flora was descended from Highland Scots who moved to Cape Breton from America in 1776. Her family was too poor to send her to university; instead, she earned a business college diploma. Setting out on her first adventures in the mid-1950s, she hitchhiked through Europe, meeting new people, not knowing what would happen next, accumulating some truly hair-raising stories. In 1956, she began to follow Adlai Stevenson on his campaign for the U.S. Presidency and found politics fascinating.

She found work at the Conservative party office in Ottawa, eventually becoming a major organizer. Flora takes us into the back rooms of politics as she types, organizes and plans for Conservative politicians. She tells us about her failing relationship with John Diefenbaker, who arranged to have her fired after nine years of service. She was a friend and confidante of Dalton Camp throughout his campaign to oust Diefenbaker as party leader. John Meisel offered her a job at Queen’s University in Kingston where she met many people and volunteered with the Elizabeth Fry Society.

In 1971, Flora was the first woman to take the National Defence College course, a year of study and travel to 27 countries that gave her the background for her later work. In 1972, she was elected MP for Kingston and the Islands, the only woman among the elected Conservatives. In 1976, she ran for leadership of the Conservative party and lost to Joe Clark. In 1979, Clark won the election and chose Flora as foreign affairs minister. She dealt with the Iran hostage crisis when US employees were sheltered at the Canadian embassy in Tehran, at great danger to everyone.

Flora’s tales about women in politics and in working life will resonate with working women. Once, as minister, getting her hair done while memorizing a speech for later that day, she felt her hair being burned in a faulty hair dryer. Since her dress was often mentioned by the press, she dressed the part. I met Flora, then minister of communications in Brian Mulroney’s government, at the Communications Research Centre where I worked. I remember her beautiful purple leather pant suit – she looked wonderful, every bit an important government minister.

After losing in the 1988 election, Flora began a new career of adventure and service – chair of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), volunteer with international NGOs like Oxfam and Care Canada, film-maker for VisionTV, meeting and befriending Nelson Mandela.

Many residents of the Glebe will remember seeing Flora at the Metro or skating on the canal near her Glebe home. In 2005, I met Flora again when she addressed an International Women’s Day event. Then 79, she had just returned from a Care Canada trip to Afghanistan. I remember her description of rolling out her sleeping bag on the earthen floor of an Afghan family’s home, her sense of adventure and service undiminished by age.

This book is a great romp through Canadian history and politics from the 1950s to the early 2000s and an international tour of several countries in which she volunteered. This woman’s stories make history come alive.

Dorothy Phillips is a Glebe historian and author of Victor and Evie, a biography of the Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Lady Evelyn, during the Great War.

The Flora Footbridge across the Rideau Canal is named in honour of Glebe resident Flora MacDonald.  
Photo: Jock Smith
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