Nova Scotia·Profile

Stephen McNeil's childhood home still a central part of his life

In the first profile of a three-part series looking at the lives of the leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil talks about why his childhood home played such a pivotal role in his family's life.

'It's been a significant part of every journey in our life,' says Liberal leader

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil lives in the Upper Granville, N.S., home that he grew up in. (CBC)

Editor's note: This is the first profile in a three-part series looking at the lives of the leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties. CBC asked each of the party leaders to share a side of themselves outside of the political arena, something very important to them.

A lot has happened under the roof of a big, old farmhouse along Highway 1 in Upper Granville, N.S.

It's where Stephen McNeil, the 12th of 17 kids, grew up. It's where his mother, Theresa, raised the family on her own after his father, Burt, died in 1973. And it's where McNeil decided to raise his two children, Colleen and Jeffrey, with wife Andrea, buying the house from his mother in 1991.

"It's been a significant part of every journey in our life. Not just mine [but also] my siblings'. The ups and the downs of our family have centred around this house," McNeil, 52, said in an interview at his kitchen table.

"I don't know what would have happened to us if my parents hadn't bought this house. When my father died, I don't know where we would have ended up. I've said that many times, this house was the foundation for my mother being able to keep us together."

Tragedy strikes at home

His father was just 45 when he choked at the table during a Sunday dinner.

McNeil's mother, a stay-at-home mom who didn't have a driver's licence, was suddenly thrust into the workforce. She took a job at an elastics factory in nearby Bridgetown, taking on a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift so she could be home when the youngest children returned from school.

A few years later, she was offered the position of high sheriff for Annapolis County, a job she held for 15 years.

Stephen McNeil's mother gave him a 1966 award that was given to his father, Burt, for helping save a co-worker's life after the individual was electrocuted. (CBC)

When asked what being the mother of a brood of 17 taught her about being a sheriff, McNeil laughed.

"There was nothing she would have seen that would have fazed her," he said. "I'm sure we gave her a good foundation for taking on that job."

McNeil said in many respects, his father's death shaped who he is today.

A sentimental guy

"It was a big loss. There's no question about it. It was a long time before I could actually even talk about it," he said. "I would hope he'd think we all turned out OK."

McNeil, who describes himself as sentimental, walks around the home's first floor, pointing to paintings by local artists and family photos on the walls.

On the wall of the TV room, there's an old medal in a frame and McNeil gets misty-eyed when he reaches for it. His father was an electrician and power utility lineman that helped save a co-worker's life after he was electrocuted in 1966.

"My mother left this to me," said McNeil. 

The first floor of Stephen McNeil's home features a lot of local artwork. (CBC)

The extended family still celebrates Christmas in the house, albeit on Boxing Day. The next generations play in the field where McNeil and his siblings spent much of their days. 

He points to a spot in the grass that isn't level with the rest. It's where the siblings would play everything from hockey to football and soccer. 

"We'd have it taken right down to dirt because of the activity we had on it," he said. "There was a few broken bones I think down here when we were kids."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

After spending more than a decade as a reporter covering the Nova Scotia legislature, Amy Smith joined CBC News in 2009 as host for CBC Nova Scotia News as well as Atlantic Tonight at 11. She can be reached at amy.smith@cbc.ca or on Twitter @amysmithcbc

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