New Star Blogs

Alex Macdonald

Dorothy and Alex Macdonald at home, 1993.

Dorothy and Alex Mac­don­ald at home, 1993. Pho­to by Gary Fiege­hen.

Not enough recog­ni­tion has been giv­en to the impact that Alex Mac­don­ald, who died on March 5 at age 95, has had on the way we live in British Colum­bia today. It was Mac­don­ald, Attor­ney-Gen­er­al in the Dave Bar­rett-led NDP provin­cial gov­ern­ment from 1972 to 1975, who led the long-over­due lib­er­al­iza­tion of the province’s anti­quat­ed liquor and enter­tain­ment laws, and broke the grip that the B.C. Hotel­mans’ Asso­ci­a­tion held over the dis­pen­sa­tion of alco­holic bev­er­ages in BC. If “no-fun-city” Van­cou­ver is dying (a slow death) today, sure­ly the heavy lift­ing that Alex Mac­don­ald did dur­ing those 39 remark­able months has a lot to do with that.

As a child of priv­i­lege (his father was also a provin­cial Attor­ney-Gen­er­al, in a pre-WWII Lib­er­al gov­ern­ment) who embraced social­ism as a young man, Mac­don­ald, through­out his long polit­i­cal career, which con­tin­ued for sev­er­al decades after he retired as the sit­ting Van­cou­ver-East MLA in 1986, nev­er lost sight of two big things. One was his sense of social jus­tice, and his anger when­ev­er it was denied. The oth­er was that life was short, that there was no pie await­ing us in the sky, and that social­ism was about the good things in life — love, friends, com­pan­ion­ship; food, drink, laugh­ter, plea­sure — as much as it is about the vote, the 8-hour day, and social­ized med­i­cine. Until the end of his long & rich life, Mac­don­ald was curi­ous about the world around him and the peo­ple he encoun­tered — an inter­est that he nev­er had to fake.

Not for Alex Mac­don­ald was the easy cyn­i­cism that comes all too read­i­ly to career politi­cians of all stripes. Most politi­cians would be con­tent, in their mem­oirs, to jus­ti­fy them­selves, to enhance their rep­u­ta­tion, to try to get in the last word. Not Alex. He would not be per­suad­ed to write a mem­oir — our loss; it would have been a fas­ci­nat­ing and (prob­a­bly one rea­son Alex did not go there) unflat­ter­ing peek into the work­ings of gov­ern­ment. Instead, he chose to write books that were unabashed pam­phlets, enter­tain­ing on the sur­face, but pow­ered by a deep sense of anger at unre­solved social injus­tices.

Alex pub­lished two books with New Star, “My Dear Legs .. .” in 1985, which went through a cou­ple of print­ings in short order, and Alex in Won­der­land, in 1993. Rain­coast Books pub­lished a third book, Out­rage: Canada’s Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Sys­tem on Tri­al in 1999. Lat­er, Alex turned to actu­al pam­phle­teer­ing, pro­duc­ing two sad­dle-stitched pub­li­ca­tions that he hand­ed out at nation­al and provin­cial NDP con­ven­tions, which he con­tin­ued to attend reli­gious­ly, as it were, as long as his health allowed. The sec­ond, Why I am Still a Social­ist, went through two edi­tions and three print­ings; Alex must have giv­en away thou­sands of copies him­self.

It was easy to see that the ener­gy of pol­i­tics is what fueled the pri­vate Alex — he need­ed that fix, and even when noth­ing actu­al­ly got fixed, he nev­er lost faith in the peo­ple, and their abil­i­ty (and right) to even­tu­al­ly get it right, even if it meant get­ting some things wrong along the way. Alex was a strong leader, as any­body who ever worked with him can attest; but he was nev­er a mere com­mis­sar, nev­er saw it as his job to set peo­ple right in their think­ing. Respect, log­ic, humour: that was how you reached peo­ple, how you changed minds and, even­tu­al­ly, the world. A nice glass of wine in a pleas­ant set­ting: that was part of that, and so as polit­i­cal as any­thing else he accom­plished as A-G — and I don’t mean to slight the more high-pro­file and sub­stan­tial reforms that he was part of in that gov­ern­ment.

Let us raise a glass to the mem­o­ry of Alex Mac­don­ald, who will be missed. And in doing so, let us recall that Alex him­self has made it con­sid­er­ably eas­i­er to raise that glass here in BC.