Surviving City Hall by Donna Macdonald
Over the past several months, The Town Crier has been featuring short interviews with Canadian authors published by BC publishers, conducted by BC publishing professionals. The latest in the series is an interview with the Sunshine Coast’s Nathaniel G. Moore, author of Jettison (Anvil Press), and Donna Macdonald, author of Surviving City Hall (Nightwood Editions), a book which chronicles Macdonald’s time on city council in Nelson, British Columbia.
Macdonald was first elected in 1988, and spent 19 years in public office (on the Nelson, BC city council) before retiring in 2014. Over the years, Macdonald tackled issues of ground squirrels, downtown dogs, controversial developments and employee angst. She worked with five different mayors, survived personal attacks, and was celebrated for her successes, including recently winning a BC Community Achievement Award. Her experiences are related through the lens of leadership, democracy, and the ways in which we might improve how we live together in our communities.
Nathaniel G. Moore: What was it like trying to recollect your political career for the purposes of your new book? Did you have a starting point in mind or did that change as the manuscript evolved?
Donna Macdonald: Much of my career occurred in the age of paper, and I’m a collector. That meant I had files containing the details of major events and controversies to augment my memories. The book is not a chronological account, but is organized around themes that are elaborated through stories and reflections. Finding those themes began with a question: what does a city councillor do? She learns, she wonders, she dreams, she is responsible for—those are some of the answers that I use to explore the diversity and breadth of the political experience.
NGM: From your first year until your last year on city council, what were the major differences you noticed? And the things that stayed the same?
DM: All organizations evolve, or should. When I began, the City didn’t have an accountant, human resources manager or engineer; now it does. We were “younger” then, and that was reflected on council. We used to spend hours discussing operational matters, like whether a street should be one-way, rather than developing plans and policies to guide staff decisions. Unless of course there’s a controversy, like a sit-in around a beloved neighbourhood tree slated for removal. Then council gets involved—that hasn’t changed!
NGM: Small towns have a certain stereotype just as large cities are typecast by society. What were some of the strangest things to happen in Nelson as it related to city hall that perhaps don’t fit into those stereotypical small town tropes?
DM: Like many small towns, Nelson grew up around particular industries (forestry, mining, transportation). It was also home to a university and an arts school, and increasingly to draft evaders, urban refugees, and spiritual seekers. The diversity of people and interests has built a rich culture that easily generates controversy—such as the banning of dogs, music, and games from the downtown in reaction to the annual spring in-migration of alternative lifestyle folks, or the avalanche of American emails (both pro & con) in response to a proposed war resister memorial.
NGM: What are you proudest of accomplishing in your time on city council?
We used to spend hours discussing operational matters, like whether a street should be one-way, rather than developing plans and policies to guide staff decisions.
DM: Surviving, with a sense of integrity and a sense of humour! I can’t take credit for any one accomplishment; all were achieved with the support and work of community members. Increasing the prominence of the cultural sector. Working on affordable housing. Ensuring a continuous waterfront pathway. Action on climate change. A new ice rink and library. Political leadership is important, but never enough.
NGM: What do you hope readers will take away from Surviving City Hall?
DM: I hope readers will have a better understanding of how local government works (and why, surprisingly, it isn’t really a level of government). That includes what city councils can and cannot do, and how citizens can engage to make change happen. I hope readers will look with more kindness on the people they’ve elected and who work on their behalf and treat them respectfully, even in times of disagreement. And I hope they will share my belief that local government is an increasingly important level of government. With the grave uncertainties that lie before us, we need our neighbours and strong communities to ensure economic, environmental, and social resilience.
Nightwood Editions is committed to publishing and promoting the best new poetry and fiction by writers across Canada. Our goal is to give readers a chance to explore the high-quality work of emerging Canadian writers, and new writers an opportunity to publish their work in book form. Ultimately, Nightwood Editions strives to publish books that foster a community of writers and readers, providing a forum for thought, discussion and interaction while reflecting the diversity our country is known for. Nightwood is also dedicated to producing excellent Canadian non-fiction that helps support its literary list. Whether publishing poetry, sports, fiction, or crossword titles, Nightwood Editions maintains the highest standards in all it undertakes, building on its growing reputation.