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McKinnon, Eleanor (1912–2004)

Eleanor McKinnon in the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, circa 1957.
Courtesy of J.W. Hind, Edmonton, Alberta.

Eleanor McKinnon was born in Weyburn on October 22, 1912, the daughter of Norman McKinnon, the owner of “Saskatchewan’s foremost store.” Norman was the founder and deacon of the Calvary (Baptist) Church in Weyburn; he preached the sermon when the minister (T.C. Douglas after 1930) was away, and played the organ when the organist was away. Eleanor McKinnon attended Brandon College, then for nine years was secretary to Dr. Campbell at the Weyburn Mental Hospital. A day or two after T.C. Douglas was elected premier, he phoned Eleanor to offer her a job as his private secretary. She accepted—at $70 per month—but did not learn for years that she had been investigated by a CCF caucus committee as a possibly inappropriate appointment, since she came from a staunch capitalist and Liberal family. Her family remained Liberal, but Eleanor was an immediate convert to the CCF.

Eleanor McKinnon adapted quickly to being gatekeeper for the “open door” policy of her new boss, who attempted to see everyone who came. She was described as the centre of calm in near-chaos: the telephone rang every five minutes; and there was an avalanche of mail, particularly after each Sunday evening “Fireside Chat” on the radio, when she would put in hours of overtime, evening after evening, without extra pay. Every letter was answered: McKinnon composed most of the responses, but Douglas read every word and signed each reply, often writing in additional comments. When the time came for Douglas to consider a move to Ottawa as leader of the new party, the NDP, he asked Eleanor: “If I should let my name stand, would you accompany me?” Without hesitation she answered in the affirmative, and he took the job. Her salary of $315 a month did not go far in Ottawa when her rent was $100 a month, and she found it humiliating to have to sign in and out at the Parliament Buildings. Yet she spent twenty-seven years in Ottawa as T.C. Douglas’ secretary until she retired in 1983. She died in Regina on January 4, 2004.

C. Stuart Houston

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