Grace McCarthy 1927 - 2017

May 25th, 2017

Grace McCarthy died today.  She was a wonderful woman, a florist, an entrepreneur, rightly regarded as a firebrand, an organizer, she was a wife and mother, the biggest booster of her generation for British Columbia, and for thirty years a powerhouse in provincial politics.  She was “Amazing Grace,” like her or loathe her. 

We liked her.

On the day that we launched this newsfeed we featured our story of Grace McCarthy.  This website regaled of how she had stood in our defence against her own Government and against her own cabinet colleague.  We praised her for conducting herself with integrity, for fighting for the little guy when the big guy had more to offer her.  That’s the mark of integrity you know, doing the right thing when it costs you. 

The Vancouver Sun published a summary of Grace McCarthy’s life and accomplishments, and it’s worth reading.  My father could attest to some of her history, he had followed her career and had spoken to her on several issues over the years.  Most of that was before my time.  I first met Grace McCarthy in 1994.

She treated me with respect, and I was even more a nothing then.  I was a political volunteer, one of the “3AM types,” and was given lawn sign duties, dutifully collating duties, and dreaded telephone time in the boiler room.

This was the infamous (in BC, anyway) Matsqui by-election of Feb, 1994.  It was the last hurrah of the once mighty Social Credit Party of British Columbia. 

Grace McCarthy had won the Socred leadership the year before, in the aftermath of a devastating election loss to the NDP.  The Socreds had gone from government to third place in one election, and McCarthy had been recruited to rebuild from what remained.

One afternoon, our campaign office was invaded by members of the media, all apparently toting TV cameras.  Earlier that day, the main opposition candidate had accused Grace McCarthy of illegally using a Provincial Government symbol on her election signs, and the press wanted her reaction.

The symbol in question, by the way, is called the “Spirit of British Columbia.”  It’s the wavy BC flag seen on Provincial license plates.

What the opposition didn’t know (because they didn’t research it) was that the Spirit of British Columbia was first sketched on a pad of paper in 1983, by the hand of the person they’d just accused of nicking it.  Grace McCarthy had designed the symbol and sent it to graphics, then she donated the use of it to the Province in perpetuity. 

No money changed hands, she just gave it to BC, it was actual altruism in politics.  Regardless, the accusation against her was broadcast while the exoneration was not.  She took it in stride.  Grace had grace.

That was another of her stylistic creations, the “Win With Grace” slogan for the 1993 leadership campaign.  I still recall the sea of circular yellow placards bouncing up and down on the convention floor.  Grace, you see, not only had it, she could sell it.

For thirty years, Grace McCarthy was a dominating influence in British Columbia, but in 1994 her last hurrah at saving the Socred brand fell short.  And I was in the room to see it.

The date of the Matsqui by-election was Feb 17th, a cold Thursday in BC.  The campaign had spent election day in the usual frenetic voter support efforts and, in the evening, we were all converging on the Best Western Inn and Convention Centre on Marshall Rd. in Abbotsford.  The hall was full but not celebratory, the mood was tense.  We had received hostile media coverage throughout the race and there had been some campaign missteps.  White background on lawn signs, for instance, is a poor choice in snow season. 

As the results started coming the campaigners started calculating.  Tight contests take some math, and this wasn’t a cake walk campaign.  It started to seem like the difference between first and second place would be less than 100 votes.  When it’s that tight, clarity is beyond the reach of calculation.  It took the night to tell the winner.

Just before midnight the unofficial totals were finalized, and it was a squeaker; we’d lost by 54 votes.  With absentee ballots that figure would reduce to 42 votes.  Somehow such a tight result was all the more disappointing.

Soon, Grace McCarthy arrived in the hall, to concede and to console.  We all knew this was her last campaign.  We also knew this was likely the end of the Social Credit movement in BC, the last great assembly of the Party that could pack any hall, in any part of the Province, for four decades from 1952 - 1993.  We were witness to history.

She made her way to the podium in a crush of cameras, microphones, reporters surrounding her.  I could see only her trademark power-hairstyle, lit by the lights of the TV networks.  It was quite a show, that walk to the front, but McCarthy had class, and it showed when she got there.

Grace McCarthy was gracious in defeat, upbeat and encouraging even in this difficult moment.  She refused to rail against the media, she complimented her opponents on their campaigns and congratulated them in their victory.  She made no excuses. 

The TV cameras were still surrounding her at the podium, the media had not stayed behind the tape.  Reporters were on the stage, like a scrum, entirely obscuring her from her audience.  She couldn’t see us either.  And then she said so.

Grace McCarthy closed her concession speech and her political career by thanking the people she could not see for the work she could not pay them to perform.  She spoke in high tones of the value of their contribution to democracy, and that of the value of their persons.  And she relented that she wished she could see us to speak it to us directly. 

Of the political speeches that I have heard, Grace McCarthy’s concession speech was made before the most unruly media, in the least choreographed environment, and it was the most difficult to deliver.  And yet, her eloquence and her grace had elevated her content.  It was a historic speech, and Grace McCarthy rose to the occasion.

At age 17 and while still in high school, Grace McCarthy started a career, opening a flower shop in Vancouver.  Fifty years later, she closed her political career with dignity and fortitude.  Grace McCarthy had class, beginning to end.

Others will eulogize of her accomplishments and her significance to history, and rightly so, but behind the banners, the business, the politics and the power, was the person.  Whatever her failings in life may have been, of her character there was no breach of honour.  Her flower did not fade.