The conservatism of Cora Etter was and is progressive.
Her dignified, empathetic, practical style of leadership is a lesson to today’s national Conservative Party as it does some much-needed soul searching.
I am blessed to know Cora personally. My wife, Alison Etter, is Cora’s granddaughter. Cora recently turned 95. She now lives at Melville Lodge in Halifax.
As a teacher, pharmacy proprietor and businessperson in Shubenacadie, Hants Co., Cora was drawn into politics by her neighbours. She was seen as a trusted, smart organizer who could solve problems without a fuss.
Cora moved Robert Stanfield’s nomination for Tory candidate in his constituency in 1956, the same year that Stanfield became premier.
In 1960, Cora ran successfully for the municipal council of East Hants after becoming concerned about conditions in a municipal home for people with disabilities. She was one of Nova Scotia’s trailblazing women municipal politicians.
Cora would serve on the council for two decades, taking charge of many projects and committees. She was nicknamed “the mayor of Shubenacadie” (the district she represented on the East Hants council).
In 1984, Cora was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. She was one of just three women in the legislature and only the fifth woman ever to be elected.
In her first speech in the House, Cora shed light on her philosophy: “Mr. Speaker, we cannot survive in watertight compartments.” She supported free enterprise, but argued that business “must scrupulously observe the obligation” that comes with freedom.
And that obligation is to community: “I believe it is sometimes hard to separate the corporation from the community, because more often than not they are one and the same thing. At least this is so in East Hants, for people who work in business are drawn from the community that surrounds it … and they must be mindful of their social responsibilities to the community.”
This is certainly not an ideology of rugged individualism or maximization of corporate profits.
“Most importantly … pay equity for women will mean a better standard of living for them and their families.” — Cora Etter
It was Cora’s organic conservatism that led her to champion pay equity for women – the right to equal pay for work of equal value. When the PC government finally introduced legislation in 1988, Cora stood in the House and said “Hallelujah.”
She was “disturbed” by chamber of commerce spokespeople who claimed that the concept of pay equity would somehow hurt the economy.
“Most importantly … pay equity for women will mean a better standard of living for them and their families.”
But Cora cautioned that the work of pursuing equality is not done. “Also, we must improve education and training, better child care facilities and so forth. It is a goal we must work toward as we step into the 1990s.”
This vision of society as a rooted, compassionate community of free citizens came through again when Cora, as a member of the governing party, endorsed an opposition motion on home care for seniors: “I see older people as just not a group set aside. I think they are an integral part of our life.”
In one of her final speeches in the House, Cora supported progressive environmental assessment legislation. She invoked the interesting argument that it would cut through red tape and bureaucracy by giving communities a more direct role to scrutinize development proposals for themselves.
In reading Hansard, I have found not one instance of Cora insulting or mocking another politician or party. Her remarks were calm and structured. Her interventions contained relevant facts and were filled with tangible examples from her East Hants constituency.
“No, I cannot altogether agree with that.” That’s how she reflectively started a fulsome response to a question posed to her in the assembly by NDP leader Alexa McDonough.
Cora lost her seat in the 1988 election to Liberal Jack Hawkins. But she remained active in business and in her community.
In 1993, she received the Canadian Women in Business Lifetime Achievement Award. The citation noted, among other things, Cora’s mentorship of young women in business and politics.
Part of the recent family lore is a letter Cora sent to Stephen Harper when he was prime minister. She was not happy with many aspects of his approach and direction.
Apparently, Cora had second thoughts after she put that letter in the mailbox. She was a team player after all.
But she is also a thinker, a dedicated leader and a pioneer in many ways. And she has served Nova Scotia very well.
I honour her for it. Happy birthday, Cora!
Dr. Tom Urbaniak is a professor of political science at Cape Breton University. He can be reached at [email protected]