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Harold Macdonald was the quintessential happy warrior

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HAROLD Macdonald, who died on Dec. 14, will be remembered by many Winnipeggers as an Anglican clergyman and by others as a city councillor during the 1980s. In both roles, he was interesting, engaging and colourful.

Born in Edmonton, he was educated on Vancouver Island and at the University of Toronto and Yale University. Ordained as an Anglican priest, his first parish was in Edmonton, but he ultimately found himself in Toronto where, with major responsibilities for theological education, he travelled widely across Canada and the U.S. In the late 1960s he became rector of St. Luke's Parish in Winnipeg and, later, Anglican chaplain at the University of Manitoba.

Though not always conventional, Harold was deeply committed to his religious vocation and believed profoundly in a church that would be an active and constructive agent for social change and justice. Smart, spontaneous and enthusiastic, he possessed a certain restlessness that led him to embrace challenges (and no doubt create a few) especially those that would challenge his mind and spirit: he was a man who, in the words of the poet, "warmed both hands before the fire of life."

Not so surprisingly, therefore, in 1979, he was approached by the late Bill Palk -- one of the "Godfathers" of the Independent Citizens Election Committee -- to run as an ICEC candidate in a byelection for a seat on Winnipeg city council. He pondered, he agreed, he ran; and he won. Coincidentally, I was elected on the same day in another ward and until 1989, when neither of us sought re-election, we were comrades-in-arms on many issues, amicable opponents on a few and close friends then, and thereafter, till his death.

Some councillors, perhaps not quite sure what to make of a politician-priest, were wary -- but the more sensible adopted an essentially light-hearted approach suggesting that, with Harold around, they'd have to clean up their act or that it would be hard to oppose Harold on particular issues, him having God on his side and all. His enjoyment of this amiable teasing endeared him to many of his colleagues.

"The Rev" -- quickly abbreviated from "The Reverend" -- became the name by which a number of other colleagues often spoke of him, a moniker that played to Harold's basic good humour. But it was also a mark of affectionate respect for a man who, though a clergyman, could roll up his sleeves when it came to doing the grunt-work of politics and public office; a man who was not afraid to take lonely or unpopular positions on issues; a man who in the heat of debate could concede that, perhaps, after all, the other person had the better argument; a man who loved a good joke -- even on himself -- and who had one of the heartiest laughs of any man alive; a man who could be a stimulating colleague and good companion; and a man who, though capable of anger, could not stay angry for long.

Harold was among those councillors most focused on social issues, an obvious extension of his personal and pastoral concerns.

In the 1980s, for example, with gambling casinos on the horizon, Harold used his city hall pulpit to warn of the social costs of gambling and gambling addiction. He was virtually alone in sounding the alarm about this pending problem. His primary concerns, always, were the challenges facing residents of the inner city whether with respect to poverty or housing or the provision of public services. Among the latter were libraries, and the report on libraries was among the last things on which we worked together in our final term on council.

Municipal politics does not readily lend itself to metaphors of war or warfare but, if ever they did, Harold was quintessentially the happy warrior. He loved learning new things and applying them to old problems; he loved debate and discussion; he loved to challenge and be challenged. This latter made him somewhat unconventional as a politician (and, I suspect, as a priest); and though the challenges were usually intellectual or political, they were not always so: While on council he acquired a motorcycle, which became his preferred mode of transport.

On leaving council he accepted a parish in Whitehorse and cycled there from Winnipeg, solo, aged 61.

From the long connection on council and the longer and stronger connection that developed subsequently, I came to appreciate the more reflective Harold. On what it was to be human and humane in our time he had many unusual insights. On the responsibilities of the good citizen he was an exemplar; he continued to be engaged by and informed about the world of politics and of the larger, greater world beyond it. In retirement he wrote poetry and short essays on matters ecclesiastical and political, both frequently iconoclastic.

In some of his writings and in all of our conversations, the old wit and passion were always there. And since The Rev could be irreverent, laughter was never far off: Not a bad epitaph for a remarkable man and a valued friend.

wnwfp@mts.net

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2009 A15

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