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r.i.p. flora

a funny thing happened to me back in 2008, when i moved back to montreal. i was in the city, looking for an apartment and i met a prospective landlord. he looked at me and remarked "you know, you look like a politician who had your same last name. she ran for conservative leader once." i realised immediately that he was talking about my aunt flora macdonald and was sort of shocked. my grandfather used to insist that there was a resemblance between us, but it's a very different thing to hear it from a complete stranger. i still can't see it [and i suspect it's harder to spot now that i'm dark-haired], but when someone says that without knowing a thing about you, it's sort of hard to tell yourself there's nothing to it.

i felt flattered, because i've always welcomed any comparison with my more famous relative. since i was very young, basically since i can remember anything, i was always aware of her as a slightly larger than life figure. she became a cabinet minister for the first time the year i turned seven. i was politically precocious even at that age, so i knew what that meant. to me, the minister of external affairs was responsible for everything that canada did with other countries, so she seemed that much more important. margaret thatcher, who came to power that same year, was the world's example of the powerful woman in politics, but to me, it was always aunt flora.

i was still very young when the revolution took place in iran, but i can remember vividly when the american hostages were freed, beaming with pride that my aunt had played a key role in their release. indeed, she may be best remembered for her brief tenure in external affairs because of the dramatic rescue canada's role in bringing it about. [i have not seen and will not see the academy award-winning film argo because of director ben affleck's refusal to acknowledge the role that the canadian government played in getting the hostages free. yes, that role was exaggerated at the time, however his view goes to the other extreme.]

flora was chiefly remembered today as a "former politician" because of her tenure under both joe clark [as minister of external affairs] and brian mulroney [as minister of employment and immigration, then as minister of communications, a job she thoroughly enjoyed]. however, the high points of her life, the things i thought made her the proudest based on my conversations with her, were the things that she accomplished outside of federal politics. she worked with charities and international organizations to the extent that my father [her brother] worried she'd run herself into an early grave. but i tend to think that she'd have been driven to an early grave from sheer boredom and frustration if she hadn't worked so hard.

in particular, women's causes were dear to her heart. she said to me that there were more illiterate women in india than there were women in north america. that's the sort of staggering statistic that made her frustrated, but also made her want to work harder on behalf of those women. she wanted them to have the same chances in life that she'd had, having seen first hand how far one could go, given the opportunity.

which is not to say that flora's opportunities came easily. it's just that she had a tendency to shrug at obstacles. i remember hearing of how she and a friend decided to take off to northern africa to see something of the world. two women in their twenties running around morocco in the 1950s was not common, but that's the sort of thing that she did. she was also an accomplished speed skater, which wasn't seen as a particularly feminine pursuit and she enjoyed skating on the rideau canal when she was living in ottawa. she created something of a scandal in the 1970s by wearing a pants suit to work in parliament. [a friend posted an anecdote today that no less than margaret thatcher took a pot shot at her for that.]

i can recall her telling me when she was in her seventies [in the late 1990s] about going to afghanistan and hiking down the mountain path into pakistan. hiking. this is the area of the world that's so remote that the awesome military power of the united states couldn't locate osama bin laden inside it for years. for her, it was backpacking territory.

around that time, she'd also gone back to iran for the first time since the hostage crisis, something that was quite emotional for her. she'd been blacklisted for almost two decades in the country before she was able to go there and whatever she might have thought in 1979, she grew visibly excited talking to me about everything she saw there, how beautiful it was and how much she'd enjoyed it.

my favourite story about flora, however, came from later in that same trip. she and her sister ended up traveling to yemen, where they decided to hire a driver and explore the desert. they ended up getting stuck in said desert as night fell, which was not something for which they were prepared. their driver was a devoutly religious man who said that he could not share his sleeping quarters [the car] with women and told them that they would have to sleep outside. let me remind you, these were women in their seventies. a lot of people would have panicked, but flora and her sister spotted a fire some way off and headed towards it. they ended up spending the night camped out with a group of bedouin, none of whom spoke a word of english. i've been trying for a long time to wrap my head around the guts it would take to walk up to a camp of strangers in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of a country not enamoured of westerners and basically ask if you could crash. but that's what i mean about shrugging off obstacles. she approached the world as if she could get whatever she needed and wanted by being determined and, frequently, the world responded. [as you might expect, when it didn't, such as when she ran for the leadership of the progressive conservative party in 1976, it ate away at her. she picked herself up and moved on with aplomb, but i don't think i ever heard that leadership campaign mentioned in her presence at any point by anyone in my family.]

when i found out this morning that she'd died overnight, it wasn't a surprise. i knew that she'd been in deteriorating health for some time, and that things were getting progressively worse. but that doesn't mean that i'm not saddened by her passing. because i feel like i lost one of the few real role models in my life and because i feel like she's the sort of person the world just can't afford to lose right now. every day, we're inundated with stories from south of the border of a certain republican candidate who's characterized as a bold and independent thinker simply because he says anything inflammatory that comes into his addled brain. i choose to think of boldness and independence as flora embodied them: by living life on one's own terms, speaking up for others because you can [especially when they can't], but most importantly, believing in oneself enough to go charging into whatever experiences life offered.

so even if i can't see a physical resemblance, i'd like to think that i resemble her in some way. 

Comments

Subway Dreaming said…
Please accept my condolences on your loss. What a lovely tribute.

I can see the resemblance.

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