McDonough was born in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father, Lloyd Shaw, was a wealthy businessman, but was committed to progressive politics. He served as the first research director for the NDP's predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and an early financial backer of the NDP when it formed in 1961.
McDonough was involved in social activism from an early age, when, at 14, she led her church youth group in publicizing the conditions of Africville, a low-income neighbourhood in Halifax. She attended Dalhousie University in Halifax, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965 and a Masters of Social Work in 1967. She worked in the United States for two years, and then returned to Nova Scotia to work for the Department of Social Services.
After unsuccessfully running twice for a seat in the federal House of Commons in 1979 and 1980, McDonough became the leader of the provincial NDP in Nova Scotia, winning a seat in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly in 1981. She was the second woman in Canada to lead a major political party after Hilda Watson of the Yukon Progressive Conservatives. Although she spent the next three years as the only New Democrat and the only woman in the House of Assembly, she was widely regarded as a tough, passionate and courageous advocate for NDP issues. She was instrumental in fighting for and winning the first ban on extra billing in Canada, worker health and safety improvements, human rights protections and pay equity.
In 1994, she stepped down as leader of the Nova Scotia NDP.
Prior to the NDP leadership convention on October 14, 1995, McDonough was widely viewed as an also-ran behind the leading contenders, Svend Robinson and Lorne Nystrom, but at the convention she placed second on the first ballot, ahead of Nystrom in what was almost a three way vote split. Although Robinson had placed first on that ballot, he felt that most of Nystrom's supporters would go to McDonough on the second ballot, giving her the victory. Thus, he conceded to McDonough before a second ballot could be held.
McDonough inherited a party which had won just nine seats in the 1993 federal election, but in the 1997 election, her first as leader, the party won 21 seats, including a historic breakthrough in the Atlantic provinces. McDonough was elected as the Member of Parliament for Halifax.
During the next few years, McDonough's leadership of the party elicited controversy. She was widely seen within the NDP as trying to pull the party toward the centre of the political spectrum, in the Third Way mode of Tony Blair — although, actually, when a party policy convention voted on a resolution to formally adopt Third Way policies in the party's platform, McDonough herself voted against it. Union leaders were lukewarm in their support, often threatening to break away from the NDP. Many activists within the party began a process called the New Politics Initiative, or NPI, which tried to build more connections between the NDP and activist groups who were currently outside the parliamentary process. The NPI proposal was voted down when it was presented at a party policy conference, but many of its ideas were taken up later by Jack Layton, whose campaign to lead the NDP was endorsed by a number of prominent NPI supporters including Svend Robinson, Libby Davies and Judy Rebick.
The Canadian Alliance under its new leader Stockwell Day presented a further challenge to McDonough's NDP. Fearful of the prospect of a Canadian Alliance government, many NDP supporters moved to the Liberals. As well, two NDP MPs, Rick Laliberté and Angela Vautour, crossed the floor to other party caucuses, reducing the NDP caucus to 19 seats.
In the 2000 federal election, the NDP was held to just 13 seats and its poorest percentage of the popular vote in years. McDonough was challenged by Socialist Caucus member Marcel Hatch for the party leadership in 2001, but received 645 votes to just 120 for Hatch. The party also gained Windsor West in a 2002 by-election, bringing its caucus to 14 members.
McDonough announced that she was stepping down as NDP leader in 2002. At the leadership convention on January 25, 2003, she was succeeded by Jack Layton. She was re-elected to Parliament in the 2004 federal election and again in 2006.
In the NDP's shadow cabinet, McDonough is the critic for International Development, International Cooperation and Peace Advocacy.
On June 2, 2008, McDonough announced that she would not re-offer in the riding of Halifax in the next federal election. She made the announcement at the Lord Nelson Hotel, the same place where she celebrated her 1997 victory as the MP for Halifax. McDonough said she would continue on as the MP for Halifax until the next federal election.
During her time as leader of the federal NDP, McDonough was romantically involved with David MacDonald, a former Progressive Conservative MP and cabinet minister. MacDonald ran as the NDP candidate in Toronto Centre in the 1997 election; he had been defeated as the PC incumbent in the riding just one election prior. McDonough reportedly quipped to the media that her strategy was to build up the NDP "one Red Tory at a time".
Antigonish, NS--former federal NDP leader (1995-2003) Alexa McDonough received an honorary Doctor of Laws from St. Francis Xavier University at the Fall 2004 Convocation.(Nova Scotia)(Brief article)
Jun 01, 2006; Antigonish, NS -- Former federal NDP leader (1995-2003) Alexa McDonough received an honorary Doctor of Laws from St. Francis...