The Flora Syndrome

Feminist pioneers still receive underwhelming levels of support when it counts

This past July we lost Flora MacDonald, a true feminist icon. In the 1960’s, she proposed that parliamentary seats be reserved for women. She was the first female Secretary of State for External Affairs in Canadian history, was one of the first female foreign ministers worldwide, and she became the third woman to ever mount a major campaign to become leader of one of Canada’s major political parties.

Unfortunately, this last thing led to a phrase being created: The Flora Syndrome. It means a female candidate being promised support that eventually never comes.

I was recently made aware of the Sydney, Cape-Breton born MacDonald due to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. During her time as a foreign minister, she, as well as immigration minister Ron Atkey, developed a plan to help the Vietnamese Boat People (refugees who fled Vietnam towards the end of the war) enter Canada. Her efforts allowed more than 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to enter Canada.

She also played a huge role in the rescue of six American diplomats during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The rescue was later the subject of the film Argo — you might not remember it given that the film conveniently left out the major role that Canada played in the operation, because…‘America, fuck yeah’, I guess.

The more I delved into her extraordinary career, the more I found that she was a pioneer for Canadian women in politics, and a great believer in social justice.

At first I was skeptical; when I hear that someone was/is a conservative, my brain doesn’t immediately jump to feminism.

But as it turns out, she was a Red Tory, someone who has some conservative views but supports many liberal and socialist policies. This became evident when after her retirement from politics she made evident her dislike of the new Conservative Party of Canada, and revealed she had voted NDP.

In 1976, the National Film Board made a documentary about her leadership bid. In it, MacDonald comes across as warm and filled with energy, and you can see that she had a wonderful spirit.

I’ve written all of this to give an indication of who she was, and why she should be missed. I put it up front, sealed away in its own little bubble of positivity, because the rest of this article is about to become a little negative.

I’m annoyed by how low of a profile this woman has in our collective historical memory. I thought I knew quite a bit about feminist pioneers in this country, but she seems like a glaring omission from the traditional narrative. When she died in July, people from various political parties did pay homage to her, citing her accomplishments and her great character. Yet it doesn’t seem like enough.

Stephen Harper, whose politics she did not care for, only acknowledged her death via a brief tweet in which he misspelled her name. He did not attend her funeral. It’s not surprising — he does seem like a petty, vindictive man who only likes cats — but you think he could stomach paying homage to someone who played a huge role in the history of his party.

She also did not receive a state funeral, which I take issue with. She was a big part of modern Canadian history, not just women’s history. Meanwhile, other people have received state funerals who in my opinion, were less deserving.

I’m not trying to disrespect the dead, but how does Jack Layton deserve that honor more than Flora? Yes, people loved him, but did he contribute more than her? No.

Okay, maybe it’s not exactly cool to question the memory of a Canadian political star who died at the peak of his popularity. I just think it’s important to acknowledge how unfair it is that men like Jack Layton and former Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty received state funerals, while a woman who worked for the rights of women and refugees – and whose actual record of accomplishments was arguably much more impressive – was largely overlooked. It’s an indication that we still have a ways to go towards equality in politics, and that women still have to fight for their work to be considered equal with that of their male counterparts.

So while Flora MacDonald’s death was a few months ago, I wanted to take this moment to pay homage to a woman who I desperately don’t want to fade in oblivion. I don’t want that to be the new definition for the Flora Syndrome.

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Shannon Slade

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