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1989: Audrey McLaughlin becomes first woman to lead a national party

The Story


After five and a half tumultuous hours and four ballots, the New Democratic Party of Canada has a new leader on Dec. 2, 1989. Audrey McLaughlin, an MP from the Yukon, had to fend off a host of seasoned political veterans to earn the top spot and a place in the history books as the first woman to helm a national political party. This clip from The National reviews the historic December night in Winnipeg and takes an inside look at the backroom dealing behind McLaughlin's rise to power.Audrey McLaughlin arrived in politics relatively late in life, but her rise to the upper ranks came fast and was quick. She was first elected to the House of Commons in 1987 as an NDP representative in the riding of Yukon. Less than two and a half years later she would become leader of the party.Taking over from Ed Broadbent, McLaughlin would spend six years as a national leader before stepping down in 1995 following a devastating showing in a general election.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Dec. 2, 1989
Guests: Dave Barrett, Shirley Carr, Simon de Jong, Stephen Langdon, Audrey McLaughlin, Nelson Riis, Ian Waddell
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Wendy Mesley, Anna Maria Tremonti
Duration: 6:19

Did You know?


• McLaughlin was born Audrey Brown on Nov. 7, 1936, in Dutton, Ont., and grew up in Windsor.

• A high-school dropout, McLaughlin married a mink farmer named Don McLaughlin when she was just 18. She had two children with him by the time she was 20.

• She raised her son David and daughter Tracy on a farm in southwestern Ontario. According to her autobiography, A Woman's Place, My Life and Politics (1992), her marriage was unhappy.

• "At the tender age of twenty," she wrote. "I found myself in a run-down farmhouse with two infants to look after and a couple of hundred mink to help tend. Money was scarce; the business was always on the verge of failing."

• Not long after, McLaughlin completed her high school equivalency and began taking courses at the University of Western Ontario via correspondence. She graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and psychology. She later earned a Masters Degree in Social Work.

• McLaughlin and her husband divorced in 1972, after which she took on a series of social work jobs. These included a stint as a caseworker for the Toronto Children's Aid Society and executive director of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

• In the spring of 1979, with her children grown, McLaughlin decided to tackle a new challenge: she quit her job in Toronto and moved to the Yukon. She began a consulting business in Whitehorse, which included research on child welfare legislation and aboriginal land claims.

• In 1987, McLaughlin was nominated to run as the NDP candidate in a byelection in the federal Yukon riding, left empty after Tory Erik Nielsen retired from politics. On July 20 she won the seat, and became the first NDP Member of Parliament to be elected in the Yukon.

• In A Woman's Place, she said the victory was a landmark in her life and made her feel like "in politics, as in life, anything is possible."

• During her first two years in office, McLaughlin served as the New Democratic critic for Northern Development, Tourism, and Revenue Canada. She was appointed chair of the NDP caucus in 1988.

• In 1989, she announced she would run for the leadership of the NDP, which would be vacant with the retirement of Ed Broadbent. The sole woman in the race, she faced stiff competition from party veterans such as Dave Barrett, Stephen Langdon and Simon de Jong.

• The leadership vote, held in Winnipeg on Dec. 2, was a lengthy affair with the vote lasting four ballots. In the end, McLaughlin snatched victory away from Barrett, after last minute support from Langdon.

• She won with 1,316 votes - 244 more than Barrett, who was her closest contender.

• Over the next six years the NDP rose to power in two provinces; in 1990 with premiers Bob Rae in Ontario, and with Mike Harcourt the following year in B.C.

• That regional popularity did not transfer to the federal level. In the 1993 general election, the NDP won only nine seats - and lost its official party status in the House of Commons - in a Liberal Party landslide.

• McLaughlin was not the only one to be trampled. Conservative Prime Minister Kim Campbell lost her seat, and the party was left with just two seats.

• McLaughlin kept her Yukon seat, but announced her decision to step down from the leadership in April 1994.

• She was replaced by Alexa McDonough in October 1995. McLaughlin remained an MP until 1997, when she retired from political life.

• McLaughlin served as president of the Socialist International Women and was a special representative for the Government of Yukon on Circumpolar Affairs.

• She was made an officer of the Order of Canada in May 2003 in recognition of her work for social causes.


Also on December 2:
1902: James H. Ross becomes the first MP for the Yukon.
1963: Queen Elizabeth opens a trans-Pacific telephone cable linking Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
1981: The House of Commons passes a resolution patriating Canada's Constitution.


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