From Mozambique to Victoria
June 13th, 2016
Former Nelson city councillor 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 May.
Her new memoir Surviving City Hall (Nightwood 2016) offers stories and reflections that explore both the mechanics of local government and the humanity of that work.
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.
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