Flora MacDonald, who passed away this week, has been appropriately remembered as a female political pioneer in Canada. Less well known, however, is that she also had a ‘real love and fascination for the Middle East and all of its people’, in the words of Michel de Salaberry, a former Canadian Ambassador and someone who worked closely with her over many years. I asked Mr. de Salaberry to write a few words about Ms. MacDonald’s involvement in the Middle East, including Palestine. See his text below.
Flora MacDonald had a very real love and fascination for the Middle East and for all of its people. She had been inspired as a youngster by the letters of an uncle who died in Mesopotamia with a British regiment fighting the Ottomans in World War I. She said that these letters are what sparked her interest in world affairs.
We spent time together in each of my postings, twice in Israel and Palestine, once in Jordan, twice in Iran, twice again in Egypt. Ten days ago, her face lit up as I gave her news from the l’Arche workshop in Bethlehem and recounted to her one of her favourite memories: how she had danced with a wheelchair-bound Palestinian child named Elias with Down Syndrome, in 1989. The day before we had joined Palestinian Christians for the Christmas Eve service in Shepherds’s Fields, led that year by Bishop Tutu.
An adventurer, Flora drove a car herself around Israel with her sister Sheila. She once took a wrong turn and ended up heading into an IDF missile bunker by the Lebanese border. By the number of times she re-told the story, it probably impressed her more than she admitted.
She was also fond of recollecting a winter day when we had walked together on the sea shore next to Jabalya camp in Gaza, where the first intifada had started. She had run into a handful of Palestinian men, one or two of whom spoke English. On telling them that we were Canadian, they subjected us to a severe exam of the Canadian voting record on UN resolutions. Flora was really impressed by the extent of their political literacy. On that same trip, we were teargassed together when going to observe a Peace Now initiative to surround the old city of Jerusalem by an human chain of Israelis and Palestinians.
In Jordan, she amazed and exhausted Ahmad, one of the embassy drivers, by the energy with which she climbed the hundreds of steps to the Altar of Sacrifice at Petra. Ahmad was also terribly impressed when their drive North of Amman was interrupted by a phone call from the Palace. King Hussein had been informed that she was in the country and wanted to see her immediately to decorate her in recognition of the work in Jordan of the IDRC, which she then headed, and for her help in obtaining ambulances from a Canadian donor.
She had a Persian bug too. The vitality of Tehran cultural life struck a real chord in her – the performers who were only too delighted to perform if they were given the opportunity, – the dynamic civil society community whose energy was rekindled by the interest of this distinguished Canadian visitor thereby rekindling her own, – the thousands of keen Tehranis to be met on vigourous Friday morning walks in the mountains just North of the city, and even her one exchange with the police when walking the dog in the neighbourhood. On another later visit, she was keen to join on an excursion through Iranian Azerbaijan, to test the outlook of the locals ahead of the 2009 presidential election which ended so tragically.
In Egypt, she became a strong supporter of a modest community centre involved in everything from obtaining birth cerificates for women who had none, to the provision of sewers, to coaching kids through a deficient public school system. For an impressive young member of the centre, she personally contributed a large chunk of the personal share required for a Future Genrations scholarhip for an MA in community development.
On a February 2004 visit to Cairo, she once came back home about three hours late, after nightfall, alone. Her driver had come back with Flora’s friend Anne Stanfield (widow of the late Robert Stanfield – ed.), both of them in despair for having lost Flora in the throngs of built-up area not far from the Saqqara pyramids. When she finally returned, Flora never understood why we would have worried. She had wandered out to explore a street market, at some point had realized that the car had left, and had simply HITCHED A RIDE back home!! She was as delighted by the people who had helped her as they were of their new Canadian acquaintance. At the time she was 78.
Flora instilled life wherever she went. She would bid us to continue the celebration.
– Michel de Salaberry, July 28, Ottawa
NOTE; A memorial service will be held for Ms. Macdonald at Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Ottawa on Sunday August 2nd at 2:00 p.m.