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Flora MacDonald (politician)

Flora MacDonald
Flora MacDonald in 1987
Flora MacDonald in 1987
Secretary of State for External Affairs
In office
June 4, 1979 – March 2, 1980
Prime MinisterJoe Clark
Preceded byDon Jamieson
Succeeded byMark MacGuigan
Minister of Communications
In office
June 30, 1986 – December 7, 1988
Prime MinisterBrian Mulroney
Preceded byMarcel Masse
Succeeded byLowell Murray (acting)
Marcel Masse
Minister of Employment and Immigration
In office
September 17, 1984 – June 29, 1986
Prime MinisterBrian Mulroney
Preceded byJohn Roberts
Succeeded byBenoît Bouchard
Member of Parliament
for Kingston and the Islands
In office
October 30, 1972 – November 20, 1988
Preceded byEdgar Benson
Succeeded byPeter Milliken
Personal details
Flora Isabel MacDonald

(1926-06-03)June 3, 1926
North Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada
DiedJuly 26, 2015(2015-07-26) (aged 89)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Political partyProgressive Conservative (1950s–2003)

Flora Isabel MacDonald PC CC OOnt ONS (June 3, 1926 – July 26, 2015) was a Canadian politician and humanitarian. Canada's first female foreign minister, she was also one of the first women to vie for leadership of a major Canadian political party, the Progressive Conservatives. She became a close ally of Prime Minister Joe Clark, serving in his cabinet from 1979 to 1980, as well as in the cabinet of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1984 to 1988. In her later life, she was known for her humanitarian work abroad. Jimmy Carter has said that 90% of the contribution to freeing American hostages in Iran should be attributed to her and Kenneth D. Taylor.[1] The City of Ottawa recognised MacDonald on July 11, 2018, by naming a new bicycle and footbridge (opening 2019) over the Rideau Canal the Passerelle Flora Footbridge.

Early life and career

MacDonald was born in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, the daughter of Mary Isabel Royle and George Frederick MacDonald. She was of Scottish ancestry.[2]

Her grandfather had been a clipper ship captain who sailed around Africa and South America. Her father was in charge of North Sydney’s Western Union trans-Atlantic telegraph terminus.[3]

In her youth, Macdonald trained as a secretary at Empire Business College and found work as a bank teller at the Bank of Nova Scotia. She used her savings to travel to Britain in 1950 where she got involved with a group of Scottish nationalists who stole the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey and brought it to Scotland.[4]

After hitchhiking through Europe, she returned to Canada and became involved in politics, working on Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield's campaign which won an upset victory in the 1956 provincial election.[4]

Later the same year, she was hired to work in the national office of the Progressive Conservative Party under leader John Diefenbaker, as secretary to the party's chairman, and worked on Diefenbaker's 1957 and 1958 election campaigns.[3]

In 1959, she was working as a secretary in the office of Prime Minister of Canada John Diefenbaker.[5]

She continued working for the party in various capacities but grew disillusioned with Diefenbaker and was fired by him when he learned of her support for party president Dalton Camp's campaign for a leadership review. She worked for the Department of Political Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, while continuing to support the anti-Diefenbaker camp and worked on Robert Stanfield's successful campaign during the 1967 Progressive Conservative leadership election and worked for him during the 1968 federal election.[4]

Member of Parliament

MacDonald was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1972 general election as the Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for the Ontario riding of Kingston and the Islands. She remained in parliament until her defeat in the 1988 election by the Liberal candidate, future Speaker Peter Milliken.[6]

At the 1976 PC leadership convention, she became the second woman to mount a serious campaign for the leadership of one Canada's major parties. In this, she had been preceded by Rosemary Brown who came in second in her 1975 bid for the leadership of the New Democratic Party.[4] Although she was perceived as a strong candidate for the position, MacDonald fared worse than expected, winning just 214 votes on the first ballot despite having over 300 pledged delegates in her camp. This led pundits to coin the phrases Flora Syndrome[7] and Flora Factor[8] for the phenomenon of a female politician's promised support failing to materialise. MacDonald dropped off after the second ballot, and encouraged her supporters to vote for Joe Clark, the eventual winner.[9]

Minister of External Affairs

Clark and MacDonald, both moderates, became allies throughout their careers. When Clark became Prime Minister of Canada in 1979, MacDonald became the first female Secretary of State for External Affairs in Canadian history, and one of the first female foreign ministers anywhere in the world.[4][10][11]

During MacDonald's tenure, she had to deal with the Vietnamese boat people refugee crises that followed the end of the Vietnam War. MacDonald and Immigration Minister Ron Atkey developed a plan in which the Canadian federal government would match the number of refugees sponsored by members of the general public, allowing more than 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to enter Canada.[4]

The Iran hostage crisis was also a major issue during MacDonald's term. Six American diplomats had escaped the seizure of the American embassy by radical Iranian students and had sought refuge in the Canadian embassy in Tehran. MacDonald prevailed upon Prime Minister Joe Clark’s cabinet to approve by Order in Council the special issuance of Canadian passports as well as money to the six as part of a plan to rescue the escapees that had the Americans pose as Canadians and leave the country with Canadian staff when the embassy was closed on January 28, 1980, although she was not able to discuss her role publicly.[4][11] The successful operation became known as the Canadian Caper, and it was later dramatized in the Academy Award-winning film Argo.[12]

MacDonald's tenure as foreign minister was short-lived, however, as Clark's minority government was defeated on an amendment to the budget in December 1979, while MacDonald was on government business in Brussels.[13] The PCs were voted out of office in the subsequent federal election held on February 18, 1980, although MacDonald held her seat.[4][14]

Return to Opposition

The Conservatives returned to the Opposition benches in 1980. MacDonald served as critic for External Affairs, her old cabinet portfolio.[15] While Clark continued as party leader, his position was challenged by calls for a leadership review which ultimately led to the 1983 leadership convention. MacDonald supported Clark in his campaign to regain the leadership, but Clark lost to Brian Mulroney.[16]

Return to government

MacDonald returned to government after the PC victory in the 1984 federal election, serving first as Minister of Employment and Immigration from 1984 to 1986, and then as Minister of Communications from 1986 to 1988, under Prime Minister Mulroney.[11][15] A Red Tory, MacDonald, within the federal cabinet, argued against Mulroney's push for free trade with the United States but publicly supported the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement in the 1988 federal election. While the Progressive Conservatives won the election, which was fought on the free trade issue, MacDonald lost her seat to Liberal Peter Milliken.[4][17] "I thought I deserved better than to be defeated after working so hard," MacDonald later stated.[4]

After politics

After losing her seat in 1988, MacDonald quit politics and devoted her time to international humanitarian work. She served as Chair of the Board of Canada's International Development Research Centre from 1992 to 1997, and was also president of the World Federalist Movement-Canada.[18]

In 2003, she briefly re-entered the political scene to oppose the merger of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance, but was unable to prevent the folding of the PCs into the new Conservative Party of Canada. According to journalist Thomas Walkom, she voted for the New Democratic Party in the 2004 federal election.[19] She was also a supporter of the Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, an organisation which campaigns for democratic reformation of the United Nations, and the creation of a more accountable international political system.[20]


MacDonald died in Ottawa on July 26, 2015, at the age of 89.[21] Her death met with an outpouring of praise from figures across the political spectrum in Canada. Peter Milliken, who defeated her in the 1988 election, hailed her as a trailblazer for women in politics and said she did an "incredible job" as the country's foreign minister.[17] Rodney MacDonald (no relation), a former premier of Nova Scotia, said she inspired generations of Canadians and was widely respected.[22] Joe Clark, her onetime rival for leadership and later ally in PC politics, said she "changed lives across our country" and "around the world".[6]


Ribbon bars of Flora MacDonald

Honorary degrees

Country Date School Degree
Nova Scotia, Canada 1979 Mount Saint Vincent University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[36]
Ontario, Canada May 1980 McMaster University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[37]
1981 Queen's University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[38]
New York, United States May 8, 1988 Potsdam College Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[39][40]
Ontario, Canada Spring 1989 York University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[41]
May 18, 1990 Royal Military College of Canada Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[42]
1996 Carleton University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[43]
North Carolina, United States St. Andrews University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[44]
Ontario, Canada June 12, 1998 Brock University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[45]
Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada May 2003 Memorial University of Newfoundland Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[46]
Nova Scotia, Canada Cape Breton University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[47]
May 23, 2003 Saint Mary's University Doctor of Civil Law (DCL)[48][49]
New Brunswick, Canada 2004 Mount Allison University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[50]
Ontario, Canada 2006 University of Waterloo Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[51]
June 12, 2007 University of Western Ontario Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[52]
2008 Trent University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[53]
Nova Scotia, Canada May 2, 2010 St. Francis Xavier University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[54]
Ontario, Canada Fall 2010 University of Windsor Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[55]
This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (July 2015)


MacDonald’s bid to become the first female leader of the Progressive Conservatives was the subject of Peter Raymont’s 1977 National Film Board of Canada documentary film Flora: Scenes From a Leadership Convention, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.[56]

Electoral record

1988 Canadian federal election: Kingston and the Islands
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Peter Milliken 23,121 40.6 +12.9 $38,348
Progressive Conservative Flora MacDonald 20,409 35.9 −19.2 $46,265
New Democratic Len Johnson 11,442 20.1 +7.5 $47,572
Christian Heritage Terry Marshall 1,646 2.9 $15,262
Libertarian John Hayes 301 0.5 0.0 $1,295
Total valid votes 56,919 100.0
Turnout 57,188 74.26
Electors on the lists 77,014
1984 Canadian federal election: Kingston and the Islands
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive Conservative Flora MacDonald 25,997 55.1 +13.3
Liberal George Speal 13,087 27.7 -11.5
New Democratic Andrew Currie 5,950 12.6 -5.4
Independent Daniel Eardley ("Pro-Life Party") 1,410 3.0
Green Ted Bond 478 1.0
Libertarian Ian Murray 258 0.5
Total valid votes 47,180 100.0
1980 Canadian federal election: Kingston and the Islands
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive Conservative Flora MacDonald 18,146 41.8 -5.9
Liberal John Coleman 17,039 39.3 +6.0
New Democratic Stephen Foster 7,830 18.0 -0.9
Rhinoceros Edward Sharp 373 0.9
Total valid votes 43,388 100.0
1979 Canadian federal election: Kingston and the Islands
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive Conservative Flora MacDonald 21,277 47.7 +1.5
Liberal Peter Beeman 14,866 33.3 -2.8
New Democratic Stephen Foster 8,472 19.0 +1.2
Total valid votes 44,615 100.0
1974 Canadian federal election: Kingston and the Islands
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive Conservative Flora MacDonald 17,839 46.2 -7.3
Liberal Peter Watson 13,943 36.1 +3.1
New Democratic Lars Thompson 6,870 17.8 +4.2
Total valid votes 38,652 100.0
1972 Canadian federal election: Kingston and the Islands
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive Conservative Flora MacDonald 22,824 53.4 +17.3
Liberal John Hazlett 14,079 33.0 -16.7
New Democratic Lars Thompson 5,807 13.6 -0.6
Total valid votes 42,710 100.0


There is a Flora MacDonald fonds at Library and Archives Canada.[57]


  1. ^ President Carter Fact-Checks the Movie 'Argo', retrieved December 25, 2023
  2. ^ McDonell, J.K.; Campbell, R.B. (1997). Lords of the North. General Store Publishing House. p. 271. ISBN 9781896182711. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
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  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Martin, Patrick (July 26, 2015). "Conservative trailblazer Flora MacDonald dies aged 89". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  5. ^ Jordan Press. "Quebec will vote Conservative, even if Harper doesn't believe it, retiring senator says" Archived August 9, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, Postmedia News, July 17, 2012. Retrieved July 19, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c "Flora MacDonald, longtime politician, dead at 89". CBC News. July 26, 2015. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  7. ^ Jane Arscott & Linda Trimble (December 20, 2002). "Where have all the women leaders gone?". University of AlbertaExpressNews. Archived from the original on March 7, 2007.
  8. ^ "Flora Factor". The Dictionary of Canadian Politics. Parli. 2021. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  9. ^ Raymont, Peter. "Scenes from a leadership convention". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved July 26, 2015.
  10. ^ "Flora MacDonald, first female External Affairs minister, dies at 89". Global News. July 26, 2015. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  11. ^ a b c "'She cleared our path': First female external affairs minister, Flora MacDonald, dead at age 89". National Post. July 26, 2015. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  12. ^ "Iran hostage 'Canadian Caper' 1979 rescue no secret to some". CBC News. August 19, 2013. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  13. ^ Doder, Dusko (December 14, 1979). "Canada's Clark Is Ousted on No-Confidence Motion". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  14. ^ Bothwell, Robert (May 21, 2013). "Elections of 1979 and 1980". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  15. ^ a b "Flora MacDonald fonds [multiple media]". Retrieved July 27, 2015.[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ Do Conventions Matter?: Choosing National Party Leaders in Canada (1995) by John C. Courtney, pp. 199–200
  17. ^ a b c Crosier, Steph (July 26, 2015). "Long-time politician, Flora MacDonald dead at 89". Kingston Whig-Standard. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  18. ^ World Federalist Movement – Canada, World-View page. Retrieved June 7, 2006 Archived August 23, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Walkom, Thomas (November 12, 2005). "Still feeling jilted after right-wing marriage:Many unhappy with PC-Alliance union". Toronto Star.
  20. ^ "Supporters". Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  21. ^ "Veteran federal politician Flora MacDonald dead at age 89". Toronto Star. July 26, 2015.
  22. ^ Grant, Laura Jean (July 27, 2015). "Cape Bretoners continue to remember Flora MacDonald". Cape Breton Post. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  23. ^ "Current Chronological List of Members of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada". Privy Council Office. Archived from the original on February 15, 2016. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  24. ^ "Order of Canada citation".
  25. ^ Grant, Laura Jean (July 26, 2015). "Trailblazing MP Flora MacDonald dies". Cape Breton Post. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  26. ^ "The Honourable Flora MacDonald". United Nations Association in Canada. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  27. ^ "Government of India Confers Padma Shri Award on Flora MacDonald". Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. February 6, 2004. Archived from the original on March 5, 2016. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  28. ^ "Peter Raymont". Archived from the original on December 30, 2006. Retrieved February 5, 2007.
  29. ^ "Recipients—2007".
  30. ^ "Scotland Week 2009". The Scottish Studies Society. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
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  32. ^ "Dancer Transition Resource Centre". Retrieved December 3, 2014.
  33. ^ "The Governor General of Canada > Find a Recipient".
  34. ^ "The Governor General of Canada > Find a Recipient".
  35. ^ Geddes, John (July 26, 2015). "Obituary: Flora MacDonald, 1926–2015". Maclean's. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  36. ^ "Our honorary degree recipients". Archived from the original on April 20, 2015.
  37. ^ "University Secretariat" (PDF).
  38. ^ "HONORARY DEGREES" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on April 27, 2015. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  39. ^ "Flora MacDonald Will Receive Honorary Degree" (PDF). Potsdam Courier-Freeman. April 5, 1988 – via
  40. ^ Sairam Chinnam. "University at Albany – SUNY Honorary Degrees". Archived from the original on September 18, 2015. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  41. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients".
  42. ^ "Royal Military College of Canada Honorary Degree Recipients". May 30, 2017. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  43. ^ "Honorary Degrees Awarded Since 1954".
  44. ^ "St. Andrews University – Laurinburg, NC".[permanent dead link]
  45. ^ "University Secretariat documents library".
  46. ^[permanent dead link]
  47. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients". Archived from the original on May 3, 2015. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  48. ^ "Saint Mary's University".
  49. ^ "Saint Mary's University".
  50. ^ "Mount Allison University – Honorary degree recipients 21st century". Archived from the original on May 25, 2015. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  51. ^ "2000–2009". Secretariat. May 22, 2012.
  52. ^ "Honorary Degrees Awarded 1881 - present" (PDF). University of Western Ontario.
  53. ^ "Trent University :: Convocation". Archived from the original on June 7, 2015. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  54. ^ "Political, business, and health leaders receive prestigious StFX honours – St. Francis Xavier University". Archived from the original on October 1, 2017. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  55. ^ "HONORARY DEGREES CONFERRED (Chronological)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on January 28, 2016. Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  56. ^ Rankin, Andrew (July 27, 2015). "Noted filmmaker recalls a hero in Flora MacDonald". The Chronicle-Herald. Retrieved July 28, 2015.
  57. ^ "Finding aid to Flora MacDonald fonds, Library and Archives Canada" (PDF). Retrieved September 9, 2020.
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Flora MacDonald (politician)
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