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Trailblazing B.C. politician Grace McCarthy was a tireless advocate for children

Grace McCarthy is seen with Prince Charles in Vancouver on March 31, 1980.

Chuck Stoody/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Grace McCarthy, whose rebuilding of British Columbia's Social Credit Party earned her the nickname Amazing Grace and who later served as the first female deputy premier in Canada, died Wednesday. She was 89.

Ms. McCarthy, also known as the grande dame of B.C. politics, served in civic and provincial office for more than three decades and held numerous portfolios, including tourism and economic development.

She received both the Order of Canada and the Order of B.C., and played a vital role in bringing the Expo 86 world fair to Vancouver. Ms. McCarthy was also a tireless advocate for children, launching the first toll-free help line for abused children in the country and creating a foundation for those with intestinal and liver disorders.

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"Grace, we're going to miss you like hell," Brian Smith, who served with Ms. McCarthy in the Social Credit cabinet in the 1980s, said in an interview Thursday.

David Mitchell, a historian and former BC Liberal MLA, said Ms. McCarthy was the first prominent female political leader in the province. He described her as a relentless promoter of all things British Columbia.

Ms. McCarthy was deputy premier when she visited London in 1978. She met with a Canada House official who also ran the organization that oversees world fairs. Ms. McCarthy wondered why B.C. had never held such a fair and asked for one.

Mr. Mitchell said the fair would become a "defining moment" for Vancouver and the province.

Ms. McCarthy was the minister responsible for BC Transit when the SkyTrain – built for Expo 86 – was built and she chose the name for the public-transit system.

Mr. Mitchell said Ms. McCarthy was also responsible for installing hanging lights along the Lions Gate Bridge.

"A generation of British Columbians today probably would have no memory of Grace McCarthy. Many newcomers to the province would not have any direct experience with her. And they may not fully appreciate what an iconic politician she was for an entire generation," he said in an interview.

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B.C. Premier Christy Clark described Ms. McCarthy in a statement as "an agent of change" at a time when female leaders were hard to find in Canadian politics.

Ms. Clark said that when Ms. McCarthy was first elected, women could not apply for mortgages without a male guarantor – an issue Ms. McCarthy worked with the provincial and federal governments to address.

The Premier said Ms. McCarthy "left an indelible mark on our entire province."

"Equal parts intelligent, warm and tough, she led by example, inspiring more than one generation of women in B.C. and Canada to stand up and pursue a career in politics. 'Amazing Grace' indeed."

NDP Leader John Horgan said Ms. McCarthy was "a devoted public servant and a tireless ambassador" for the province. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said she cared deeply about B.C. and "advanced women's rights in myriad ways."

Ms. McCarthy was born in Vancouver and opened a flower shop at the age of 17, eventually expanding to five locations. She was first elected to the Vancouver Park Board and captured a provincial seat in 1966.

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After Social Credit was defeated by the NDP in 1972, Ms. McCarthy vowed to rebuild the party. She became party president and the Socreds returned to power in 1975.

Mr. Smith said he saw Ms. McCarthy a couple of weeks after the 1972 election and she was adamant Social Credit would again form government.

"She said, 'We're going to rebuild the party, we're going to go all over this province … and we'll be back in government inside of five years.' And she was right," he said.

Ms. McCarthy would not become party leader until 1993, her third attempt. But by that point, the Socreds – who had dominated B.C. politics for most of four decades – had lost much of their support to the BC Liberals.

Ms. McCarthy stepped aside as party leader in 1994, after coming up short in a by-election.

She lost the 1986 party leadership race to Bill Vander Zalm and was one of his most vocal critics, resigning from cabinet two years later.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Vander Zalm offered only praise.

"She was a great organizer for the party and a super good strategist in many ways," he said.

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