the-south-asian.com August 2004
Culture & History
Lehngas - a limited collection
Heaven and Hell
She is the first Canadian ever to be honored with a Padamshree for her social development work in India. At 78, Flora MacDonald, Canada’s former Foreign Minister, is deeply involved in combating infant mortality, promoting literacy training, conserving forests and setting up income generation schemes in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttranchal. Her current passion is Future Generations (FG), an international school for communities, providing training and higher education through on-site and distance learning.
She personally opens the door at the Delhi residence of the Canadian High Commissioner to India. She looks at her watch and says, "Good, you are very punctual. Now let’s get down to business without wasting any time."
You can’t help gazing at the lady who is in her 78th summer. But even now Flora MacDonald can give women half her age a run for their fitness.
"Yes I am very elated," she says, for being the first Canadian ever to be honoured with a Padmashree. "It’s a great feeling that my association with India and the work that I have been doing is finally being recognized," says Flora MacDonald, the former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Her association with India dates back to 1969 when she came as a delegate to the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (SICI), a bilateral education and research institute set up in Delhi to promote the advancement of knowledge and understanding between academicians of India and Canada.
Over the years she has contributed immensely to the growth of SICI. "Today it is one of the biggest joint programmes of its kind between any two countries. Over 1,000 Indian and Canadian scholars have benefited from it."
Flora has also been associated with Helpage India and started off many programmes for the well being of old people and has also played a part in establishing the Commonwealth Humanitarian School. But currently her passion is Future Generations (FG), an international school for communities, providing training and higher education through on-site and distance learning.
Future Generations (FG) is working in rural areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Uttranchal. "At FG we support field-based research, promote successes that provide for rapid expansion and build partnerships with an evolving network of communities that are working together to improve the lives of rural people," says Flora.
The results of her efforts are evident when one looks at Biri Meema, a tribal woman from Arunachal who accompanied her to the Padmashree Award ceremony and is today an empowered lady, a community leader, and takes care of the development work of her area.
"In these remote areas the biggest challenge is child mortality. When the project was started the rate was as high as 100 infants per month. Nine years later, today it has dropped to 30. Our prime objective is to make women aware and teach them skills that help keep their children alive", says Flora MacDonald.
Looking at the positive response, a number of women have come forward to extend support in other spheres of activity of Future Generations. There are volunteers for literacy training, anti-alcoholism, protecting water supplies, conserving forests and income generation schemes. The momentum built in one village launches the charge in other villages.
Indeed, for Flora MacDonald it’s a long time away from being Canada’s first woman Minister for Foreign Affairs in Prime Minister Joe Clark’s government in 1979. "That was quite sometime back. In a Parliament of 300 members we were only three women, and being a minister whenever I had to address a meeting people looked at me as some kind of an oddity. But it never affected my performance. I was later Minister of Labour and Immigration and Minister of Culture and Communication."
Has the scenario changed for women politicians in Canada? "Today there are sixty women representatives and I feel that they are still ninety short!"
Ask the lady what changes she has observed in India in the past three and half decades and pat comes the reply, "people here now seem to be hooked to mobile phones and shopping malls."
But then she adds seriously, "The country is making rapid progress and is a force to reckon with internationally. In the rural sector development is very visible which wasn’t so earlier. A most remarkable and heartening change is that it is mandatory to have 30 percent reservation for women in governance at lower levels. This is something that even we don’t have in Canada."
But MacDonald has no intention of going back and changing things in Canada. She is content doing her bit in India and other developing countries. She is looking forward to going to Mongolia later this year to—what she calls—complete her century. "I have worked in 99 countries and Mongolia would be the hundredth."
She says when she was in the fourth grade she prepared a scrap book in school and titled it Places I Want To See And People I Want To Meet. "I am still trying to fulfill that childhood dream. Travel is a passion and a great teacher," says Flora.
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