It’s been a turbulent year in Nova Scotia politics.
Stephen McNeil stepped down in February after more than seven years as Liberal premier.
His replacement, Iain Rankin, lasted a mere six months before suffering a shocking electoral defeat at the hands of Tim Houston and the Progressive Conservatives.
Taking into account Shakespeare’s observation that “what’s past is prologue,” the timing of Graham Steele’s new book Nova Scotia 1945-2020: From Macdonald to McNeil couldn’t be better. It deftly and succinctly outlines what happened, and who rose to prominence, in the decades before last month’s decisive and unexpected election results.
Steele, a former NDP MLA and cabinet minister, is a gifted writer with a genuine talent for bringing historical figures to life.
One such figure is Angus L. Macdonald, whose memory is perpetuated by the Halifax bridge bearing his name.
A widely beloved leader and “master of Nova Scotia politics,” Macdonald was the province’s 12th and 14th premier, not because he lost an election as first minister (he didn’t), but because he accepted William Lyon Mackenzie King’s invitation to join the federal cabinet in Ottawa during the Second World War.
Macdonald returned to Nova Scotia in 1945 and quickly regained the premier’s job. He died in office nine years later, prompting the largest state funeral in the province’s history.
“Macdonald’s body, with a military honour guard, lay in state for four days in the black-draped Red Room at Province House,” Steele writes. “It was the Easter weekend. People from all over Nova Scotia, and all backgrounds and stations in life, lined up around the block, sometimes in snowflurries and rain, for the chance to enter the building and pay their last respects to the great man. The Chronicle Herald estimated the number of mourners at 85,000.”
Another towering figure in Nova Scotia’s political history is Robert Stanfield, known nationally as the federal Progressive Conservative leader who dropped a football en route to his third and final election loss to Pierre Trudeau in 1974.
At the provincial level, Stanfield is better remembered as a premier who, from 1956 to 1967, was laser-focused on job creation and set the conditions for the eventual establishment of three Michelin tire factories in Nova Scotia.
Steele describes the Tory premier’s mastery of retail politics and his reputation as an honest broker. He also recounts the numerous missteps Stanfield made, particularly while trying to woo foreign investment to Nova Scotia.
Despite his partisan background, Steele provides a fair and balanced telling of Nova Scotia’s political past. This includes offering a sober assessment of the much-maligned Darrel Dexter government in which he served as finance minister.
The author includes a chapter explaining the selection of premiers and cabinets, along with an appendix detailing the electoral process in Nova Scotia. These, along with the use of footnotes rather than endnotes, help make the book both accessible and navigable.
Published in April by Pottersfield Press, Nova Scotia Politics 1945-2020 is an engaging and highly readable account of the often colourful and complex individuals who wielded power, for good or ill, the past 75 years.