Donna Macdonald was one of 32 recipients of a BC Community Achievement medallion and certificate in Victoria at the 13th annual British Columbia Community Achievement Awards in 2016.
Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1949, Donna Macdonald grew up in a Father Knows Best family. Her mother was a homemaker; her father worked as an executive for Eaton's. Like true prairie folks, the family moved to the Okanagan Valley, where she completed high school in Kelowna and soon headed for university in Vancouver.
She hung out on 4th Avenue as a self-described 'fringe hippie,' volunteering with troubled kids and working as a secretary for a big law firm, eventually gravitating to a remote island off the coast.
Visiting Nelson in 1972, She fell in love -- with the town -- and worked there in OFY community development projects until she became a forest technician for the Forest Service. That led to forestry work in Mozambique with her partner and daughter, as well being a founding mother of the Nelson & District Women's Centre, working for an MP and an MLA, editing a weekly newspaper and freelancing.
In 1988 she ran for Nelson City Council and began her longest job ever -- 19 years as a Nelson City Councillor -- until December of 2014. "Being a city councillor is like doing a dozen different jobs," she says. Her portfolios included Nelson's Hydro Utility, the waterfront pathway, cultural development, affordable housing, the library and the new recreation complex.
During breaks from Council, she was a columnist for the local daily paper, observing the goings-on at City Hall. In about 2007 she started to think about writing a book about local government. By the time she retired in 2014, there was a sort-of book done.
Surviving City Hall (Nightwood 2016) is a memoir with stories and reflections that explore both the mechanics of local government and the humanity of that work.
Longtime Duncan town councillor Sharon Jackson doesn't know Macdonald but she knows full well some of the problems of smalltown politics from a woman's perspective after twenty years on Duncan's council. After reading Macdonald’s Surviving City Hall, Jackson wrote, "She hits the nail on the head, every time. Relationships with CUPE, the Regional District, issues that flare up in a community, Public Hearings and dogs. If you did a search and replace Nelson with Duncan, or, I suspect, any other smaller city, no one would notice the difference!
"What was especially true for me was the response of the citizens, some of whom she had known for years, turning on her because of a council decision, even if she had not supported the motion. She relayed how hard to deal with that was, particularly at first and how she had to grow a thicker skin. That is true of every politician. You are “on” every hour of every day. People stop to talk, ask questions or complain at the grocery store, at the hair dresser or at the theatre. It is hard not to be on the defensive and to really listen.
"I think this book should be required reading for every aspiring councillor, mayor or regional director, because it is precisely what you can expect. She tells real life stories about her experiences. For those who do not plan to run for office, it is a very interesting glimpse into how municipalities work and why things are done the way they are."
Surviving City Hall (Nightwood Editions, 2016) 978-0-88971-320-8 $22.95
Macdonald receives Community Award
FROM THE NELSON DAILY
May 26, 2016
Former Nelson City Councilor Donna Macdonald was honour recently in Victoria as one of 32 British Columbians recipients at the 13th annual British Columbia Community Achievement Awards.
The Ceremony, hosted by the Honourable Judith Guichon, OBC, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia and Honourable Peter Fassbender presented each recipient with a BC Community Achievement Award medallion and certificate.
Keith Mitchell, QC represented the British Columbia Achievement Foundation, the award's presenting organization.
Macdonald received the honor having served 19 years on Nelson city council, spearheading many significant city initiatives including the cultural development committee, affordable housing, social planning, recreation facilities and the development of Nelson’s waterfront pathway.
Macdonald, who founded the women’s centre, Nelson Family Place and a local chapter of the Sierra Club, was a leader and champion for the Osprey Community Foundation and Nelson CARES Society.
"Each one of the award recipients honoured today has made a lasting contribution to their communities and represents the best of British Columbia," said Minister Fassbender.
"Their example teaches us what can be accomplished if we work together and their contributions and leadership inspire us all. It is a privilege to recognize their achievements."
"Today's honourees demonstrate that British Columbians are making a difference in every corner of our province," said Mr. Mitchell.
"They exemplify what it is to go above and beyond; to do what needs to be done and to give without question their time and energy for the betterment of their communities."
Macdonald also was chosed one of two winners of the the 2016 Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers, sponsored by the Nelson and District Arts Council and the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival.
Macdonald’s memoir Surviving City Hall was released this spring, and she has two more writing projects on the drawing board.
The jury recognized her “unwavering commitment to the arts, as she truly does embody the spirit of the Carver Award.”
Macdonald remembers Richard Carver, who served on the Arts Council, the Nelson Library board, and who was a regular at Nelson City Council meetings.
The British Columbia Achievement Foundation is an independent foundation established and endowed by the province of B.C. to celebrate excellence in the arts, humanities, enterprise and community service.
Launched in 2003, the awards were the first initiative of the foundation, followed by the B.C. Creative Achievement Award for Applied Art and Design, B.C.'s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the B.C. Creative Achievement Award for First Nations' Art, and the B.C. Aboriginal Business Awards.
Surviving City Hall (Nightwood $22.95)
from BCBW (Autumn 2016)
Raised on the prairies and in the Okanagan, Donna Macdonald fell in love in 1972—with the town of Nelson—and then became a technician for the Forest Service.
That led to forestry work in Mozambique with her partner and daughter, as well as being a co-founder of the Nelson & District Women’s Centre, working for an MP and an MLA, editing a weekly newspaper and freelancing.
In 1988 she ran for Nelson City council and began her longest job ever—19 years as a Nelson City councillor—until December of 2014.
Now her memoir offers stories and reflections that explore both the mechanics of local government and the humanity of that work.
As Hillary Clinton tries to become the first female president of the United States, here’s an excerpt from Surviving City Hall (Nightwood $22.95) about a memorable conversation Donna Macdonald had with her mother when Macdonald decided to run for mayor of Nelson.
Not getting Mum’s vote:
The first time I considered running for mayor, I had driven to the Okanagan to visit my mother in the care home where she lived. Whispering Pines was an old family home in an orchard, now modified to house the frail elderly. I thought maybe Blossoming Apples or Chattering Cherries might have been a more appropriate name. Mum’s room was institutional pastel blue, small and hot. Single bed, bureau, chair, TV. The stifling air was deadening.
For the most part, Mum’s mind had already departed for greener pastures, and our conversation was usually a repetition of, “Why did it take you so long to get here? Who’s your brother married to now? Why doesn’t your sister ever visit?” Et cetera. But sometimes she was sharp as a pine needle. As she lay in her bed that day, I tried to make more interesting conversation. “Guess what, Mum? I’m going to run for mayor. I think.”
“Why would you do that?” Her question was not lovingly and gently put, but more like an interrogation.
“Well, the mayor we’ve got right now has got everybody fighting with everybody else. We need a different style, a different kind of mayor.”
“But why would you run for mayor?” Uh oh, I thought, here comes the repetition.
“Well, you know, I’ve been on council for eight years now, and I think I could do a good job as mayor. Or at least way better than he has.”
“But why would you run for mayor?” she persevered. “That’s a man’s job.” Oh, I see. Well, no approval or encouragement forthcoming here. I can understand how this generally life-frustrated eighty-year old woman would say and believe that. It turns out, however, she’s far from alone.
I’m not saying I lost two mayoral elections just because I didn’t have the right genitalia (and the cultural training that goes with them) and if things had been different (for example, three-piece suits hanging in my closet), I would have been mayor. I can’t say for sure. But I got some hints. My phone canvassers were hearing this: “Well, she’s a nice person and all, and she works hard, but I’m not sure she’s tough enough. She’s a really good councillor, but I think it takes a man to be mayor. A businessman.”
Longtime Duncan town councillor Sharon Jackson doesn’t know Macdonald but she knows full well some of the problems of small-town politics after twenty years on Duncan’s council.
After reading Surviving City Hall, Jackson wrote, “She hits the nail on the head, every time. What was especially true for me was the response of citizens, some of whom she had known for years, turning on her because of a council decision, even if she had not supported the motion.
“You are ‘on’ every hour of every day. People stop to talk, ask questions or complain at the grocery store, at the hair dresser or at the theatre. It is hard not to be on the defensive and to really listen.
“I think this book should be required reading for every aspiring councillor, mayor or regional director, because it is precisely what you can expect.
“For those who do not plan to run for office, it is a very interesting glimpse into how municipalities work and why things are done the way they are.”
Donna Macdonald has received the 2016 Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers for Surviving City Hall, sharing the award with Kootenay Bay novelist Alanda Greene. It’s sponsored by the Nelson and District Arts Council and the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival.
Pot shops and rubber chicken
January 20, 2017
REVIEW: Surviving City Hall
By Donna Macdonald
Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2016. $22.95 / 978-0-88971-320-8
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
In Surviving City Hall, Donna Macdonald provides a memoir of her nineteen years as a city councillor in Nelson, B.C., and the issues, campaigns, and frustrations that occupied her time and energy. Reviewer Ginny Ratsoy reflects on this valuable account of political life in a small British Columbian city.
Nelson, B.C. (population approximately 11,000) is known for its resilience and creativity. The “Queen City” in the West Kootenay is often used as a model of adaptability because of its successful late-twentieth century transformation from a resource- to a tourism-based economy through its restoration of heritage buildings and focus on its artists.
In 2010, the small city attracted the attention of The Guardian for weathering the most recent economic downturn -- a feat the esteemed newspaper attributed partly to dollars from marijuana cultivation.
A similar hardiness is evident Nelson citizen Donna Macdonald. She survived almost two decades as a city councillor -- weathering long hours, low pay, two unsuccessful bids for mayor, and the slings and arrows of fellow politicians and local citizens.
Part memoir, part informal handbook on municipal government and its relationship to its federal, provincial, and regional counterparts, and part portrait of a small city, Surviving City Hall is a lively, frank, jam-packed read that should attract diverse audiences.
As a memoir, the book traces Macdonald’s left-wing bent. This was nurtured during two years at UBC -- which taught her that she “didn’t want to put band-aids on this old capitalist world;” instead she “wanted fundamental change” (p. 17) -- and practised through her involvement in women’s, peace, workers’, and environmental movements.
This progressivism informs her philosophies and actions throughout her career at Nelson’s City Hall and is an important connecting thread in what sometimes is a challenging book to follow.
An engagingly complex character emerges as Macdonald puts her idealism into practice. She comes across as both assertive and humble. She is outspoken and stands up for her beliefs tenaciously; yet at the same time she acknowledges self-doubt, frustration, and disappointment. Admirably honest, she reveals her warts.
For example, after devoting several chapters to her experiences of and responses to gender inequality in politics, she admits that, when Nelson elected its first female mayor in 2014 -- subsequent to her own two unsuccessful attempts at the office and her departure from politics -- she initially felt “heartbroken and a little jealous” (p. 134). As a handbook, Surviving City Hall provides important insights into politics in lively first-hand accounts aided by reflection. Macdonald devotes an informative chapter to the rights and responsibilities of the three levels of government, using a classic children’s book metaphor. The feds are Papa Bear, the provincial level is Mama Bear, and, of course, the municipal level is Baby Bear.
Macdonald argues convincingly that local governments are unduly hamstrung by their limited options to generate revenue and by the section of the Community Charter that requires annual balanced budgets. A later chapter, examining the relationship between regional districts and the municipalities and taking issue with rural residents using, but not paying taxes for, city services, is similarly persuasive.
Surviving City Hall also describes “outside the box” political methodologies. After studying the referendum approach of former Rossland politician Andre Carrel and the deliberative democracy approach Porto Alegre, Brazil, Macdonald spearheaded a citizen’s working group in Nelson. Although that initiative did not have the result she hoped for, her account could be useful to others contemplating fundamental civic change.
Perhaps Surviving City Hall’s foremost function as a handbook is to present an insider’s perspective on the daily life of a city councillor. Leadership roles in local politics are physically and emotionally demanding, regardless of the city’s size.
Macdonald recounts phone calls from irate locals at all hours, disputes with other politicians, the high price of alienating the business community, and “the opportunities to dine on overcooked chicken [that] are legion” (p. 51). Her detailed, candid, and witty anecdotes will be food for thought for aspiring politicians.
As a portrait of a city, Surviving City Hall doesn’t pull any punches, as indicated by the subheadings of a chapter on the mayors with whom she worked: “The People Pleaser,” “The Autocrat,” and “The Schmoozer.”
Macdonald is not afraid to name names and point fingers. For example, she wryly analyzes a council decision (after her tenure) to ignore widespread opposition and haphazardly transform the business licence fees structure, the most egregious result being a 1000 percent increase for the tiny Holy Smoke Culture Shop -- in line with the fee for the big banks.
The result was a strange bedfellows scenario between conservative big business types and new agers, a cost of $15,000 to the city as it tried to collect unpaid fees, and a reversal a year later. There is something of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town in Macdonald’s portrait of Nelson: her portrayal is witty, critical, and affectionate.
My only major criticism of Surviving City Hall is that the reader is sometimes overwhelmed not only by the wealth of both information and anecdote the book provides, but by the abrupt twists and turns within and between chapters. Although Macdonald and her editors are to be credited for helpful subheadings and chapter encapsulations, at times I found it challenging to follow threads and chronology.
Overall, however, Surviving City Hall captures the essence of its author, local politics, and the city of Nelson. I recommend it to anyone interested in an insightful memoir, an overview of the practicalities of political life, and an engaging depiction of a resilient city.
Donna Macdonald has faith that the citizens of Nelson, nestled in its Selkirk Mountain valley replete with artists, pot shops, and issues small and large, have the potential to achieve a “vision of an informed and effective culture of participation” (p. 206).
Indeed, her choice of an epigraph by Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s last president – that “hope is a state of mind, not of the world” – indicates that Macdonald’s idealism, constantly tested, has prevailed.
Ginny Ratsoy is an Associate Professor of English at Thompson Rivers University specializing in Canadian literature. Recent courses have included British Columbian Literature and The Environment in Canadian Literature. Among her publications are Playing the Pacific Province (co-edited with James Hoffman) and Theatre in British Columbia. She has also co-edited (with W.F. Garrett-Petts and James Hoffman) Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? Community Engagement in Small Cities and published articles on theatre, playwrights, and small cities in British Columbia.
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