After her unexpected win in the recent provincial election, MLA Alana Paon is spending much of her working time in Halifax. She’s a Cape Bretoner at heart, but Halifax isn’t new territory.
“My world exists between Halifax and Isle Madame,” says Paon. “and has … for a very long time.” Beating veteran Liberal cabinet minister Michel Samson in the May 30 election, Paon unexpectedly won the Cape Breton-Richmond seat for the Progressive Conservatives.
She grew up in Cape Breton. She had severe asthma, so Paon and her mother rode the rail from Port Hawkesbury to Halifax once every month or two to see a specialist. This lasted until her teenage years, when she “grew out of” the asthma. “So I always loved Halifax,” she says, “from knowing it as a child.”
Paon is one of five children, all raised in the Acadian family home in the village of Poulamon on Isle Madame. Her parents, Marie and Alfred Paon, are in their 80s. The three live together, she says, when she is not in Halifax, where she now has an apartment downtown, close to Province House.
Paon’s siblings are all much older, which sometimes made her feel like an only child as she grew up. At 47, she now finds it funny. “I was the last hurrah,” she laughs. Paon herself is mother to one child, son Gharrett, 27, who graduated from Dalhousie with a Bachelor of Commerce on the same date as his mother won her seat.
With Gharrett, too, Paon travelled to Halifax, the first time as his 19-year-old single mother. There she found a job, set up an apartment, saved funds, and a year later went to Dalhousie, baby in her lap. It was not an easy time, she says frankly, but mother and child thrived.
Paon would go on to a successful career as a consultant, specializing in youth leadership, entrepreneurship, community economic development, and outdoor experiential education.
And she’s a sheep farmer. “It’s a rough industry,” says Isle Madame neighbour and campaign manager, Lois Landry. “But Alana is very good at facing down adversity, and recalibrating afterwards.”
Landry sees that in Paon’s surprising election win too. “Alana never gives up,” she says. “If you say it can’t be done, Alana gets more determined. A 14-to-16-hour day? Easy! She’s a workhorse.”
Optimism aside, Paon was a long shot. “There’s only been one other PC MLA in Richmond County in 43 years,” Landry says. “It’s astounding that Alana won, period, not just won over Michel Samson.” (The win, by a mere 20 votes, spawned a local nickname: “Landslide Paon.”)
Landry attributes Paon’s business and problem-solving skills in part to her last five years as a farmer: “That farm, those sheep and lambs, that was her employment, her livelihood.”
Located in Antigonish Country, the farm is about 50 hectares. Prior to entering politics and hiring a farm manager, Paon looked after every aspect of a farm that is home to 42 purebred North Country Cheviot sheep. This included the daily care and feeding, barn and field management, the heavy and often heart-breaking work of lambing season, and overseeing livestock sales.
“It was an extraordinary undertaking to start the farm from scratch,” says Paon. The property had been a dairy farm, she explains, and needed a new business model, for one person running all operations related to sheep farming. Then there were the grimmer aspects to farming. “There is an old expression about these animals: ‘sheep love to die,’” she says. “They really can’t defend themselves on the ground, from coyotes and such.” Parasites and difficult births are also problems. The work is hard, at times heart-breaking. The love of animals and new challenges keep Paon going.
Paon impresses longtime local farmers. “I admire her gutsiness,” says Sarah Nettleton of Rockloaf Farm in Arichat, on Isle Madame. She knew Paon from early years on the island, and then reconnected with her at a shearing-school weekend, on the farm. “Here’s this stylish, articulate woman who is 41 years old when she started with the sheep,” she recalls. “Who decides to get into sheep at that age? And she took it on full steam.”
Nettleton runs the farm with help from her family. She’s clear-eyed about farming. “When the stock die, you have to deal with it. Alana does this, on her own.”
Paon isn’t on her own anymore, though. “I feel blessed to be a part of such an amazing caucus,” she says. She has never held public office before, and proudly took the oath of office in her native French. “I take this very seriously,” she adds. “It’s a huge privilege to be a member of the legislature.”
PC leader Jamie Baillie expects Paon to have a big impact. “She’s an amazing person, and is very strong, with a big brain and heart,” he says. “You cannot help but be impressed with Alana. She’s a single mum, a small business woman, knowledgeable about the film industry, architecture, traditional Nova Scotia industries such as food and sheep farming, life in the city, and in rural communities.”
But running her against incumbent Michel Samson in Cape Breton-Richmond? “The odds were long in the beginning,” says Baillie, “but I thought if anyone could win, it would be Alana. I knew we were in the game when we held a nomination meeting in D’Escousse, on Isle Madame. Alana was the only, uncontested candidate. And 170 people showed up.”
Baillie has chosen Paon as the party’s business and tourism critic. “I wanted a strong, fresh set of eyes for this,” he says. “I picked Alana because of her intelligence. She has a very bright political career ahead.”
Paon is once again settling into working life in Halifax. “I love that Halifax feels like a small town,” she says. “It’s so Nova Scotian. On any given day, you’re bound to bump into someone you know. It’s no different from Isle Madame.”