Flora MacDonald – Trailblazer For Women in Politics, Humanitarian, and Champion of Human Rights

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Written By RobertMaxfield

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Flora Isabel MacDonald was born on June 3rd, 1926 in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. She is a sixth generation Canadian whose forebears came to Canada from the Scottish Highlands in the 1790s.

A trailblazer for women in politics, a humanitarian, and a champion of human rights, known for her courage, sensitivity, and good sense, Flora MacDonald made history by becoming Canada’s first female foreign minister.

At the 1976 PC leadership convention, she became the first woman to mount a serious campaign for the leadership of one of Canada’s two major governing parties.


Flora MacDonald worked in administration for the Progressive Conservative Party for several years  and then in 1972  was elected Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands.  Flora MacDonald held this post for 16 years.  She also served as a Cabinet Minister, and in 1979 she became the first woman to be appointed Secretary of State for External Affairs.

Flora ran for the leadership of her party in 1976 but did not win, despite her many talents and abilities. Her loss was simply the result of sexism. Although delegates liked her as a  candidate they could not bring themselves to vote for a woman! MacDonald dropped off the ballot, and encouraged her supporters to vote for Joe Clark, who became the eventual winner.

When Joe Clark was elected Prime Minister of Canada in 1979, he made MacDonald the Secretary of State for External Affairs; the first female in Canadian history to hold this portfolio, and one of the first female foreign ministers anywhere in the world.

Flora MacDonald was instrumental in Canada’s decision to accept 50,000 refugees from Vietnam, the so-called “boat people”.   In November 1979, during her tenure, the Canadian Embassy in Iran sheltered six American diplomats who escaped when Iranian militants occupied the U.S. Embassy.

MacDonald also served as Minister of Employment and Immigration, and then as Minister of Communications under Prime Minister Mulroney.


Since leaving politics in 1989, Flora has been deeply involved in a range of human rights and environmental activities around the globe. She served as president of the World Federalist Movement – Canada, and has traveled the world on behalf of charities such as Oxfam Canada, Care Canada and Doctors Without Borders. She is currently working in Afghanistan and India.

In 1992, she was named chairperson of Canada’s International Development Research Center’s board of governors, following in the footsteps of Lester Pearson, the centre’s first chairperson. The IDRC is a government-funded agency that supports the research priorities of developing countries.

MacDonald has done some of her most rewarding work with the not-for-profit organization Future Generations. During her 10 years at the helm, she has traveled to some of the world’s most remote, high-altitude villages to see the work the charity is sponsoring. MacDonald, now 84, has trekked, boated and flown thousands of kilometers in Tibet, India, Afghanistan and Peru.

At an age when most people have retired this remarkable Canadian has traveled to the foothills of the eastern Himalayas by Zodiac along the fabled Brahmaptura River, slept on the ground without a tent with nothing between her and the area’s wild tigers and mountain bears but a coil of barbed wire, and handed out diplomas to the graduating class of at the foot of Mount Everest!