Hazel McIsaac remembered as political pioneer

Christopher Vaughan and Frank Gale
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Hazel McIsaac was an MHA from 1975 to 1979.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Dec. 31 print edition of The Compass.

Hazel McIsaac, the first woman elected to the House of Assembly post-Confederation, has passed away. She was 79.

Her daughter, Kimberly McIsaac-Bennett, said she died on Dec. 14 at the Bay St. George Long Term Care Centre in Stephenville Crossing following a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Born Hazel Anastacia Gillam in Robinsons in 1933, she was educated at the Sisters of Mercy Convent Boarding School in St. George's.

Her sister Geraldine Porter said Hazel was "the brain" of the family and it didn't seem she ever had to open a book when going to school.

"She was a pleasure to grow up with and all four of us (including sisters Christina Delaney and Wanda Gillam) got along fine, even though it was in poorer times," said Geraldine.

After working at Harmon Air Force Base in Stephenville and managing two local businesses, Hazel was appointed as town clerk in St. George's, the first woman to hold that position.

On Sept. 16, 1975, she was elected to the House of Assembly, representing the District of St. George's as a member of the Liberal party.

After an election defeat in 1979, Hazel returned to her role as town clerk in St. George's. She later became mayor and devoted much of her time to such community causes as the local library board, development associations, parks and recreation committees, and Women's Institute seminars. She also opened her home in the 1980s as a community residence for young offenders.

Kimberly said she has always been proud of her mother and the way she helped others throughout the years.

"Mom has been non-verbal for some time and now deserves to be at rest, but we (the family) will still miss being able to go see her and giving her that kiss on the cheek," she said.

"The outpouring from the community has been fantastic and way larger than I would have imagined - much appreciated and welcomed."

Legacy

Joan Shea, MHA for St. George's-Stephenville East and minister of Advanced Education and Skills, cited Hazel as a role model.

"When I first got involved in politics, which would have been some time in 2002, is when I first met Hazel," she said. "I talked to her many times about the process and about women's roles and some of the barriers she had broken down. She got sick not long after that, so I was really grateful to meet her and have those discussions with her."

Shea said Hazel told her being the first woman in the House of Assembly post-Confederation meant having to deal with rules created without females in mind.

"One thing that she said was particularly odd was the fact that they only had a dress code for men - and no one could figure out what would be an appropriate dress code for a woman to sit in the House of Assembly," recalled Shea.

"She said there were times when she felt part of the team and there were times she felt very isolated in the House of Assembly. But she was always there for the right reasons and she was never afraid to speak up."

Shea said her mentor would be proud of the increased role of women in politics today, including Kathy Dunderdale as premier.

"There are still times when as a woman you deliver a strong message, you're seen differently as opposed to being strong - there are other words that are sometimes used to describe a woman," she said.

"But overall, when you look at it now and who we have in positions of leadership - like the premier and we had Yvonne Jones as the leader of the Liberal Party and Lorraine Michaels there with the third party - we have strong women in places of leadership and it continuously gets better. We need more women elected, but the women who do get elected are certainly able to find prominent roles within government."

Premier Dunderale paid tribute to Hazel McIssac in the House of Assembly recently.

"She was a true trailblazer in Newfoundland and Labrador's political history and helped pave the way for women wishing to enter political life," said the premier.

As a tribute to her contribution to the betterment of society as a strong and influential woman in provincial politics, the MV Hazel McIssac ferry was named in her honour in 2011.

"Her legacy will now be represented in a very tangible way long into the future," said the premier.

Hazel was also named the province's "Woman of the Year" in 2004 and was nominated for the Governor General's Award in 2008.

A more personal tribute was made recently when Hazel's granddaughter, Sophie Michelle Bennett, wrote a research paper on her grandmother for school.

"When I started this assignment, I knew very little about politics and why my Nan wanted to be a part of it. Knowing my Nan has accomplished so many things make me very proud, and I am honoured to say that I am her granddaughter," wrote Sophie.

"I hope to follow in her footsteps some day and be as successful as she was. I've learned from this assignment to always believe in myself and to fight for what I think is right. Because my Nan was the first woman in the House of Assembly (post-Confederation) I know there is no such thing as a man's job or a woman's job and that we should always reach for our dreams."

editor@thegeorgian.ca

Organizations: Post-Confederation, Care Centre, Mercy Convent Boarding School Harmon Air Force Base Liberal Party

Geographic location: St. George's, Stephenville East, Robinsons Newfoundland and Labrador

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