HALIFAX – Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia’s premier-designate, comes from a family that likes to do things in a big way.
The 48-year-old Liberal leader is the 12th of 17 children, all raised in the province’s scenic Annapolis Valley. He also stands 6-foot-5.
Before entering politics, McNeil owned an appliance repair shop, but public service and his big family has always figured prominently in his life.
McNeil’s late mother, Theresa McNeil, was left to raise the family on her own when her husband, Burt, died suddenly in 1977. But that didn’t stop her from later becoming the high sheriff of Annapolis County — the first woman to hold such a position in Canada.
The Liberal leader has often said that his mother was the driving force in his life.
“I know how grateful my mother was to this community when we as a family faced the challenges that many families face,” McNeil said during his victory speech in Bridgetown, his hometown.
“The warmth and generosity that you all showed her as she was raising her children — she had a few of them — it’s what makes a community. In our difficult days, someone comes to our rescue.”
In his speech, McNeil spoke several times about the families he met while campaigning across the province.
“You have told me about your hopes and your dreams for a Nova Scotia where your children and grandchildren can prosper,” he said. “I share that dream.”
A soft-spoken man who speaks in a deep register, McNeil has a reputation for having a short fuse, something he showed during a televised leaders debate in this election when he snapped at one of his opponents.
It’s something McNeil says he’s aware of as he tries to maintain an even keel.
“I’ve had moments in time where my passion shows up,” he said in a recent interview. “I can tell you I don’t take well to misrepresentation of the facts and I don’t take well to people who say one thing and do something different.”
A graduate of a community college, McNeil has said he regrets not attending university.
McNeil first ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in the riding of Annapolis in 1999. He says he was lured to run again four years later because of his admiration for former party leader and friend Danny Graham.
McNeil won the seat in 2003, although the Liberals finished third across the province.
He won re-election in 2006 and a year later he was elected to lead the party.
McNeil faced his first election as leader in 2009, when the NDP under Darrell Dexter swept to power, becoming the first New Democratic government east of Ontario.
Despite his lack of a university education, McNeil says his experience as the owner of a small business — and six years as Liberal leader — have prepared him well to lead a province with a stagnant economy and aging population.
His campaign focused on lowering electricity rates by breaking up the monopoly held by Nova Scotia Power Inc., the province’s privately owned electric utility.
As well, McNeil promised to end financial handouts to large corporations, having criticized the governing New Democrats for handing out too many forgivable loans already profitable enterprises.
McNeil lives in the Annapolis Valley with his wife Andrea and has two grown children, Colleen, 23, and Jeffery, 21.