Flora MacDonald: Canadian stateswoman and friend of the peoples of the Middle East


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.

Dear Peter,

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.


  1. Reblogged this on Peacing Stories and commented:
    A welcome reminder of how Canadians have chosen to participate in the world in the past…and encouragement to move beyond fear to re-engage in peaceful ways with the world, now…

    1. Flora Macdonald’s fascination with Iran had been kindled by her Ministerial direction and approval of the famous “Canadian Caper” under Ambassador Ken Taylor which protected US diplomatic hostages at the outset of the Iranian revolution. On her subsequent visits to Iran as a private citizen, one of which I hosted as chargé in Michel’s. Absence, she was always a strong proponent for honest engagement and promoting Canadian interests vis a vis the Islamic Republic.including trade and economic, human and women’s rights and peace and security and good governance. Based on this experience, doubt if she would have agreed with the current Govt’s approach to sever diplomatic relations and would have welcomed and defended the Nuclear agreement with Iran as a significant accomplishment of international diplomacy and peace building.

  2. Are you aware that Flora MacDonald tried to move the Canadian Emabassy to Jerusalem? In other words recognizing and legitemising Israeli occupation of Palestine?

    1. Hey Anonymous, yes, of course you are right. It was a very unfortunate commitment that Joe Clark had made to the Jewish community before the election. I am not sure whether he understood the implications of the action. As foreign minister, she carried it out. But after the announcement, and the political uproar it caused, Clark and MacDonald asked Robert Stanfield to review the decision. Based on his recommendation, it was reversed, and was not raised again. Decent people can made mistakes. But they correct them.

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