Early Life and Education
Stephen McNeil was born to a devout Catholic family and grew up in Annapolis County, NS. When he was eight years old, his father, Burt, died suddenly. McNeil’s mother, Theresa, was left with 17 children, seven of whom were under the age of 10. She went to work in an elastics factory and four years later became Canada’s first female high sheriff, responsible for court security and transporting prisoners to and from jail.
After completing school in Bridgetown, in the Annapolis Valley, McNeil studied refrigeration repair at Nova Scotia Community College’s Akerley campus in Dartmouth. He became an appliance technician and in 1988 opened a small business (McNeil Appliance Service) in Bridgetown.
Today, McNeil and his wife Andrea still live in the Valley. They have two grown children, Colleen and Jeffrey.
McNeil was defeated in his first run at political office in the provincial election of 1999, when he was the Liberal candidate in Annapolis. He won in 2003 and was re-elected in 2006, though his party placed third both times. In 2006, the party won only 23 per cent of the vote, its lowest result ever.
In April 2007, McNeil was elected Liberal leader, the party’s fifth in a decade. He appointed his leadership rival, Diana Whalen, as deputy leader and set about to modernize the party organization and fundraising apparatus.
In 2009, McNeil’s Liberals joined with the NDP to defeat the minority Progressive Conservative government and force an election. In a campaign focused on the government’s handling of the economy, McNeil promised to cut fuel taxes and provide help for small businesses. He led his party to a second-place finish and became leader of the Opposition, though the Liberals had only slightly increased their popular vote and seat count.
McNeil faced problems within his own caucus. Before a 2010 party vote on his leadership, three members of the ten-person Liberal caucus, including deputy leader Whalen, refused to endorse McNeil. Someone with access to the party membership list distributed an e-mail attacking the leader. Whalen criticized party efforts to identify the source of the message. After receiving an 83 per cent endorsement from party members, McNeil’s leadership was secure and he eliminated the position of deputy leader.
From 2009-2013, the NDP government of Premier Darrell Dexter confronted the challenge of soaring power costs and a sluggish economy. With low economic growth and high unemployment, Dexter was unable to keep his promises not to raise taxes and to deliver balanced budgets beginning in 2010–11.
In the 2013 election campaign, McNeil capitalized on growing public distrust of the government. He pledged to cut overall government spending, increase expenditures on education, and freeze taxes. He promised to bring electricity rates under control by allowing private companies to sell power directly to consumers. Dexter said he would reduce the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) to 13 per cent, rolling back the two per cent increase his NDP government had imposed in 2010. McNeil responded that the Liberals would only cut the tax after having delivered a budgetary surplus.
On 8 October, McNeil led his party to a majority, the first Liberal victory in Nova Scotia in 14 years. The Liberals won 33 seats compared to 11 for the Progressive Conservatives and seven for the NDP.
As premier, McNeil was faced with the same deep challenges that troubled his predecessors — how to kick-start the Nova Scotia economy and reverse the province's population decline. Michelin, a major provincial employer, announced plans to lay off staff at its Nova Scotia tire plants. Meanwhile, the Sable offshore natural gas project, an important source of government revenues, was in its waning years of production. These and other similar economic challenges were early tests of the McNeil government.
In 2014, McNeil apologized to the former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children for abuse they had suffered over a 50-year period. The next year, the government appointed an inquiry into the treatment of children at the orphanage and into the broader question of systemic racism in Nova Scotia.
In his first term, McNeil established himself as an unwavering fiscal conservative, determined to bring in balanced budgets in the face of widespread calls for higher spending, especially for public sector workers. Twice his government forced an end to labour disruptions, ordering striking nurses back to work in 2014 and ending a work-to-rule campaign by public school teachers in 2017. Doing so helped McNeil balance the budget by 2017 – but the controversy over the government’s battle with unions raised doubts about whether he could win another election.
In the May 2017 election, Stephen McNeil proved the critics wrong. His government captured another majority (the first back-to-back majority government in Nova Scotia in three decades), despite a reduced legislative caucus. This time the McNeil Liberals won 27 of 51 seats, versus 17 for the Progressive Conservatives and seven for the NDP.
The government was very active in its second term. In response to the looming demographic crisis, the government actively recruited immigrants, welcoming a record number in 2019. As a result, the average age in Nova Scotia began to drop. To deal with a shortage of medical professionals, the government particularly encouraged physicians to immigrate. To help with recruitment and retention, it negotiated a lucrative deal with doctors, making them the best-paid in the Atlantic provinces. Millions of dollars were spent on hospitals and other healthcare infrastructure.
The government stopped Northern Pulp from dumping effluent into Boat Harbour near the Pictou Landing First Nation, forcing the company to shut down. Elected school boards were eliminated, replaced with a provincial advisory council appointed by the education minister. Tensions with public sector unions continued. In 2019, crown attorneys walked off the job. The two sides came to an agreement, but only after the government threatened to order them back to work. These measures were transformative, but many were also deeply controversial. By late 2019, polls showed that McNeil was the least popular premier in Canada. In August 2020, after 17 years in politics, he announced his retirement.