I first met Alexa McDonough at the Superstore on Quinpool Road in December of 2002. She had her arms full, with two or three party trays of cut up fruit and vegetables and dip she was bringing to a Christmas party. There was a long line at the cash, so we had time to talk.
Alexa was the leader of the federal NDP; her constituency was Halifax. She struck me as the most unusual party leader She was caring, she was chummy with me (though we’d just met); she asked about me. And she was interested in talking about Maher Arar.
She was the only national party leader to come out in Arar’s defence – right after it was revealed the RCMP and CSIS had played a pivotal role in his rendition and torture in Syria and his brutal 374 day incarceration.
The RCMP claimed they acted on information supplied by one of their own secret operations on Muslim men in the wake of 9/11. The men were all Canadian citizens– including Arar.
First Maher Arar was jailed in New York City, where he took a flight from a family holiday in Tunisia back to his home in Ottawa. After two weeks, the Americans (on RCMP ‘intelligence’) turned him over to the Syrians. An RCMP report erroneously stated that Arar and his wife, Monia Mazigh, were “Islamic extremist individuals suspected of being linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist movement.”
Alexa was scathing in her attack on Canada as a helpmeet to the US’s ‘War on Terror.’ She said, “If Canada can no longer stand up to the Americans, no longer can stand up against grotesque violations of international law, then Canada’s soul is literally withering away.”
Alexa explained all this to me – as other shoppers eavesdropped. I saw the looks on their faces – they all seemed to know who she was, and they listened to her. But I caught a few skeptical glances.
The entire Canadian security establishment and government did what they could to intimidate Alexa into silence. Not every member of the NDP caucus backed her. In October 2003, Arar was released – in no small part because of the persistent work of Alexa, and a number of human rights organizations. December 2003, she stepped down as party leader, proud that she had won three terms as MP. The NDP’s new leader, Jack Layton, named her shadow minister for International Development.
In 2004, Alexa phoned Arar’s wife, Dr Monia Mazigh, who had a high profile because she had campaigned tirelessly for her husband’s release. Alexa and Mazigh had become friends as well as allies. Alexa asked her to run under the NDP banner for Ottawa South in the upcoming federal election. Mazigh agreed—she ran but did not win the seat. When Alexa went over to Mazigh’s apartment to congratulate her for her hard work, Alexa noticed how tired she and the family looked. Alexa handed her $100 and told them to have some fun and go out dinner. On CBC radio’s Sunday Magazine, Mazigh recalls that the family did just that – they went to the Red Lobster and had a good time. It told me a lot about Alexa.
Alexa McDonough was instrumental in refugee status for Sanja Pecilj, a Serbian from Kosovo. In 2000 she had come to work as a UN translator at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Cornwallis, NS. She feared being killed if she had to return to Kosovo. Denied refugee status, Pecilj twice faced a deportation order –even as she took sanctuary in a Halifax church basement. She spent 441 days in the church, more or less on her own.
Clockwise, from top left: Stephen Kimber’s 2021 biography Alexa!; Maher Arar (credit: Sebastien St-Jean, 24-heures:Agence QMI); Jagmeet Singh greets Alexa McDonough in Dartmouth NS, 2019 (Ryan Taplin/Saltwire); portrait of Alexa McDonough, 2018 (Hill Times’ file photo).
Alexa’s help was key to Pecilj’s survival
Alexa, openly supported her right to stay in Canada. Somehow Alexa arranged a deal with Prime Minister Paul Martin and Premier John Hamm that would allow her to apply as a permanent resident if Pecilj went to live in a third country temporarily. She could apply for residency under the provincial scheme which allowed employable immigrants. Pecilj spent six months in Mexico, anxiously awaiting a decision on her application. She was successful and when she returned to Canada – Alexa was there to greet her.
These are two examples of Alexa McDonough’s outstanding independence and service to others – regardless of the political price.
Is today’s NDP leader in the same league? Well some could say that Jagmeet Singh has not been tested.
McDonough was tested with at least one do or die issue. For months, Arar was considered a terrorist by almost every MP on Parliament Hill, by the government, by the RCMP, CSIS and other security services and by the Canadian media and the public. Though it was not ‘politic’ as she could have lost her seat, and lost votes for the NDP, she took a principled stand. That was her test.
Some remember Tommy Douglas’s test. In 1970, as leader of the federal NDP, Douglas publicly opposed the imposition of the War Measures Act by Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government. At the time, this took guts — after 497 arrests of prominent Quebec citizens deemed to be separatists, and scores arrested across the country who were considered separatist sympathizers. Douglas stood against the War Measures Act. That was his test.
What will be the test for Jagmeet Singh?
Perhaps the boldest thing the NDP could do now to show its political courage and set itself apart from the pack, is stand foursquare for justice in Palestine. Not just by harping on the now-discredited “two-state solution” which the Israelis have no intention of agreeing to, but by backing it up with some teeth – support for the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. However Jagmeet Singh has pointedly disavowed BDS and the NDP also defeated a motion in support of BDS at convention.
Below are two polls conducted by EKOS in 2017. 66-78% of all Canadians believe that sanctions and/or a boycott of Israel is the right thing to do. More importantly, this rose to 84-92% of NDP supporters who back sanctions and boycott. This is Singh’s and the real test for today’s NDP.
Featured Painting: The Entrance to Halifax Harbour, by A Y Jackson (1919). Jackson was a founding member of Canada’s Group of Seven. The painting is owned by the Tate Gallery, London UK.