Alberta Politics
Hugh MacDonald shortly before his retirement announcement, at the 2011 Edmonton Labour Council Labour Day BBQ (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Hugh MacDonald, four-term Edmonton MLA and scourge of Tory governments, quietly resurfaces

Posted on October 17, 2018, 12:37 am
8 mins

With an election in the wind, it’s always worth remembering there’s life after politics.

Consider Hugh MacDonald, once renowned as Alberta’s hardest-working MLA.

Mr. MacDonald with a voter, in a typical campaign pose (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The former Alberta Liberal Party stalwart served four terms as MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar and certainly would have been elected to a fifth had he chosen to run again in 2012.

From the day he was elected in March 1997, voters in Gold Bar loved Mr. MacDonald, who was raised on the Liberal-red soil of Prince Edward Island and retained more than a trace of his Down Home accent.

They loved him with good reason. In opposition, “Hughie” was a scourge of the government. He was sincerely offended by dishonesty and self-interest in high places. He was much more likely to be found evenings digging through government files in the Legislature Library than going to lobbyists’ cocktail parties. And he knew how to present a story in a way journalists were bound to respond to with plenty of ink or its digital equivalent.

Just because it was always a Conservative government during his long service in the Legislature doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have held a government of another stripe to the same high standards.

Mr. MacDonald had succeeded Liberal Bettie Hewes as MLA. Between the two of them, Edmonton-Gold Bar was a Liberal stronghold from 1986 until Mr. MacDonald retired in 2012. Working-class voters in the riding overwhelmingly supported the Liberals provincially while determinedly sending Canadian Alliance and Conservative MPs to Ottawa. Go figure.

In the fall of 2011, Dr. David Swann announced he planned to retire as the Alberta Liberals’ leader. Both Mr. MacDonald and Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, another long-serving Liberal, ran for the party’s leadership.

Former Alberta Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The Liberals were in dire straits, and either of these two experienced political warhorses would have held the party together and perhaps even Made Alberta’s Liberals Great Again.

Alas, something else happened. Who knows what they were thinking? But the party’s board decided to allow a leadership vote that did not require participants to be members, and those voters chose emergency room physician Raj Sherman, the mercurial former Tory cabinet member and MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark who was always near the centre of Alberta’s then seemingly perpetual health care crisis.

Whatever the Liberals imagined the result of this strategy would be, very few of Dr. Sherman’s fair-weather supporters stuck around after they’d done their worst for the party.

Dr. Sherman is a topic for another day. Let’s just say he was a catastrophe. With Tory premier Alison Redford, who served in the same time frame, they constituted the Tribulation Twins of Alberta politics, destroying one venerable party and wounding another, perhaps mortally. If the Alberta Liberals survive next year’s expected general election with even a single MLA, it won’t be thanks to Dr. Sherman’s short-lived and counterproductive effort to resuscitate the party.

Certainly, had Mr. MacDonald been chosen leader – as either he or Ms. Blakeman certainly would have been if only party members had been permitted to vote – the Liberals would be in far better health today, their supposedly damaged brand notwithstanding.

Former Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

What might have happened in 2019 with Mr. MacDonald at the helm will forever be one of history’s hypotheticals. But it’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which the Liberals, for many years Alberta’s default Opposition party, could have done quite well.

Instead, Mr. MacDonald and Ms. Blakeman were beaten handily by Dr. Sherman. Ms. Blakeman stuck around for a spell, eventually running as a Liberal with an Alberta Party endorsement only to lose her seat to the NDP’s David Shepherd in the 2015 election that brought Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP to power.

Mr. MacDonald opted for a dignified retirement. On Sept. 27, 2011, he announced he planned to depart.

A few days before he pulled the plug, I wrote, “Mr. MacDonald could be gloomy, and he often disagreed with his own party’s leadership, but he always stuck fast to the colours, true Grit that he was. His voice … will be missed by Albertans, whether they know it or not.”

As for the then governing Tories, in whose arrogant and entitled side he was a constant thorn, I wrote: “He’ll be missed like a toothache.” A lifelong trade unionist, I speculated he might return to the oilpatch, or work for his beloved Boilermakers.

After that, Mr. MacDonald all but disappeared. There were occasional sightings in Edmonton – wearing a long ponytail, no less, it was said. Then nothing.

As it turns out, Mr. MacDonald neither retired nor went anywhere. Now 63, he’s very quietly resurfaced as the Secretary Treasurer of Lodge 146 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which supplies boilermakers to the mines of the oilsands and petro-chemical plants, pulp mills, power generation facilities and fabrication shops throughout Alberta.

He has worked as a union representative for the Boilermakers from the time he left the Legislature, toiling anonymously representing and organizing workers at jobsites around the province.

Last May, he raised his head a little. He ran for the Lodge 146 Business Manager/Secretary Treasurer’s job and was elected a month later. Since then, he’s officially what a lot of journalists would call a “union boss,” but which in Mr. MacDonald’s case most certainly means a “union members’ servant.”

Would he ever run again for the Legislature? “No,” he told me recently.

Would he ever consider running for the NDP in Edmonton? “Gosh no!”

9 Comments to: Hugh MacDonald, four-term Edmonton MLA and scourge of Tory governments, quietly resurfaces

  1. Bedoich

    October 17th, 2018

    Sorry David, but I had to google “Venerable” in case I’d forgotten something. Glad to hear the Liberals loss is local 146’s gain.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      October 17th, 2018

      Thank you, Bedoich. You have highlighted another benefit to reading AlbertaPolitics.ca, where we strive daily to reintroduce useful English Language words that have fallen into disuse and, by doing so, gently prune readership to retain only the best quality readers. In other words, we are not like Sun Media, the malign entity now in possession of Postmedia, catering to the lowest common denominator. This fight is also waged daily here in the comments section. If your comment was deleted – and I mean you, “Brian” – it is because it was not worthy. DJC

      Reply
      • PJP

        October 17th, 2018

        Pruning the readership: the epitome of a signal bourn.

        Reply
  2. Geoffrey Pounder

    October 17th, 2018

    “Would he ever consider running for the NDP in Edmonton? ‘Gosh no!'”

    Unfortunately, the commentary cut off at that point, leaving poor readers hanging.
    How about a Part II, in which esteemed readers find out what Hugh MacDonald really thinks of AB’s NDP government?

    Reply
    • Geoffrey Pounder

      October 18th, 2018

      In fact, it would be fascinating to read what other political figures, past and present, make of AB’s NDP govt.
      A third year report card. Satisfactory progress? Surprises? Disappointments? Thoughts on the election ahead and AB’s future.
      Enough material for several columns, I should think.

      Reply
  3. Scotty on Denman

    October 17th, 2018

    I realize ellipsis occurs within a single statement but, I dunno—as a matter of flow, maybe?—it rather sounds as if Mr MacDonald was occasionally spotted wearing a ponytail, then nothing.

    Otherwise he didn’t seem much of an emperor in your kind description.

    I still wonder, with so many venerable parties having winked out—and winked in—in Alberta, whence the Greens? As I recall, the Greens were beneficiaries of what appeared a conservative-voter protest in a federal by-election during the long-gone HarperCon regime. Yet, when I see the partisan turbulence on the right (spawning at least three new parties, four if you count the Wild Rose-reinfected PCP as a ‘new’ party, itself, before its ultimate extinction, along with one of the others—so far), and the pathetic demise of the provincial Liberals—taken together, a plain and clarion call for change from a clearly frustrated and riled electorate—while, at the same time, the Greens have taken advantage of similarly stormy political environments elsewhere in Canada—I have to wonder why the Alberta NDP alone benefited from all this toe-tapping Foothill rock-and-roll. Why haven’t the Greens gotten a few scraps of prey?

    I wonder, then, whether this dearth of Greens is attributable to some Prairie Province factor, or to the Greens, themselves, or both. I think in some ways it makes the surprising Alberta NDP win look more like opportunism and availability, rather than real voter affection—a sort of throw-it-all-up-in-the-air-and-see-how-it-lands tactic which might also characterize other political phenomena like BC’s electoral-systems Referendum (after the toppling of the 16-year BC Liberal regime, the tripling of Green seats and their balance of power in the NDP’s minority government), or more women voting for The Donald than The Hillary, or Ontario swapping a good (and expensive) governing party for a bad (and probably more expensive) one, New Brunswick’s amazingly hung election result and, most recently, Québécois’ major shake-up of their own political marionettes (our oldest sister has become Canada’s only political puppet mistress in her spinsterhood).

    (Let’s just say Quebec’s new Socialist Party affects an equivalent to the Greens elsewhere —at least in environmentalism terms.)

    Given that Rachel Notely’s NDP owes its victory to erstwhile supporters of other parties and, to get it done, the Greens had been implored to not split the anti-conservative vote (Alberta Greens candidates can get sacked for acknowledging that sort of tactical voting out loud), and that the new UC party is not the kind of party that erstwhile progressive conservative voters might all return to, and that the Alberta shake-up appears incomplete as a result (all the pieces haven’t precipitated yet, let alone rained back to the ground for reponding), will the Greens finally, if belatedly, secure a toehold in the Prairies, in Alberta, thence the Green gang can get a leg-up?

    Reply
  4. David Schulze

    October 17th, 2018

    That is not just “a voter” he is shown with in the photo, that is Una Maclean Evans.

    Reply
  5. David

    October 18th, 2018

    I appreciate the whatever happened to story here. We get so caught up in the day to day sometimes and it is nice to look back at some of the history and see the bigger picture more clearly and understand all the events that have led to where we are now.

    One wonders what would have happened if the Alberta Liberals were smarter in their leadership choices and instead of choosing Mr. Sherman, chose Hugh MacDonald or Laurie Blakeman, who I know were both capable, experienced and articulate. To this day, I still can’t exactly understand why they didn’t. I think in part it has something to do with the Alberta Liberals losing ground to the Wildrose around that time causing them to lose confidence in themselves and becoming desperate. It led to some bad decisions in the party and the sense they needed to make big changes, when I think all they needed to do was to remain authentic, but deliver their message more effectively. Ironically, Mr. MacDonald was particularly strong with message delivery.

    I remember the 2008 campaign when Kevin Taft saw the cracks were finally starting to appear in the PC dynasty (he was correct, but quite a bit ahead of his time) and he was positioning the Alberta Liberals to benefit from that. It sure didn’t work out the way he hoped – Alberta took a step to the right and then to the left, eventually skipping right over the Alberta Liberals, perhaps because people did not seem to take the Liberals seriously with or after Sherman as a leader.

    Its great to try broaden a party’s appeal, but I suppose one important lesson from the Alberta Liberals is to leave choosing a leader to those who have something invested in the party and know something about it, not just to anyone with an e-mail address and a pulse. Unfortunately, the lesson is a very hard one in this case for the Alberta Liberals and I am not sure they will get another chance to be taken seriously any time soon.

    Reply
    • William Evans

      October 19th, 2018

      The ‘voter’ in the picture above is my late mother Una MacLean Evans, a true stalwart of the Liberal Party in Alberta and a staunch supporter of ‘Hughie’ MacDonald.

      Reply

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