Trailblazing B.C. politician Grace McCarthy remembered as inspiring builder

McCarthy’s biggest accomplishments included initiating the process to bring Expo 86 to Vancouver

Former British Columbia politician Grace McCarthy has been remembered as a champion of a province she loved, but it was kindness that set her apart in a remarkable career that paved a path for women in politics and business.

The Social Credit cabinet minister nicknamed “Amazing Grace” died on May 24 after a lengthy battle with a brain tumour.

She was 89.

An emotional Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon told a packed Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday that McCarthy started her own floral shop at age 17 and her business acumen helped her turn it into a successful chain of five stores.

Guichon noted McCarthy was elected to the park board in 1960 and then went into provincial politics, holding several cabinet posts including human resources, economic development and tourism.

“Grace was the first female deputy premier in this nation as well as president of the B.C. Social Credit party,” she said.

“As party president Grace worked tirelessly to build the Social Credit brand after their 1972 defeat. And although many said it couldn’t be done, she did it. She rebuilt from 5,000 to 70,000 members by sheer determination and hard work.”

The program handed out to guests at the service included a poem that seemed to epitomize her spirit. Called “It Couldn’t Be Done,” it was given to McCarthy by former premier W.A.C. Bennett.

“There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done, there are thousands to prophesy failure … just strap in to sing as you tackle the thing that ‘cannot be done’ and you’ll do it.”

McCarthy’s biggest accomplishments included initiating the process to bring Expo 86 to Vancouver, starting the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, establishing SkyTrain and setting up Canada’s first toll-free help line for abused children.

After two unsuccessful runs for party leader, McCarthy succeeded in leading the now-defunct party in 1993.

When she retired from politics, McCarthy raised funds for research to help children with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. She co-founded a foundation that raised $30 million and also created a Canada-wide network for children with inflammatory bowel disease.

McCarthy’s daughter Mary Parsons said her mother had a tremendous sense of humour, treated everyone as an equal and valued good manners.

“When I was very young and my mother decided to run for politics, she made a promise to me: She would quit if all the meetings she had to go to got too much for me or just because of anything I could think up,” Parson said.

“My mom attended every school function there was, albeit late sometimes. And we never talked about her promise again. Nearly 30 years after that conversation, I did tell her I wanted to quit. Lo and behold, the next morning she did. She always kept her promises.”

Parsons said demonstrators would sometimes be outside the family home but her mother befriended them even though someone once dumped a pile a manure in the yard.

“She was going to have the absolute best garden, thanks to him.”

Premier Christy Clark called McCarthy an inspiration to women through the decades.

“In the 1960s and 70s and 80s we didn’t see so many women on television and in the world who were making a difference at the highest levels of government. And Grace was there. She was the walking, talking proof that women could aspire to anything.”

Brian Smith, who served in the Social Credit cabinet with McCarthy in the 1980s, said after the service that she “radiated a positive energy, always.”

He said he last saw McCarthy across a downtown street three or four years ago and that she ran across to give him a hug.

McCarthy was a member of the Order of British Columbia, served in the legislature from 1975 to 1988 and, in 1975, became the first woman in Canada to serve as deputy premier.

She was predeceased by her son Calvin in 2009 and leaves behind her husband Ray, her daughter, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press