It’s been quite a journey for a railway engineer’s daughter from the hard rock Northern Ontario town of Capreol to a seat on Hamilton City Council representing Ward Seven but Donna Skelly was never shy about taking on a challenge. The former broadcaster started her career at the Rideau Carlton Racetrack in public relations after graduating from Seneca College. There she worked with Des Smith whose son Brian was a popular Ottawa TV sportscaster until he was slain by a mentally-disturbed viewer. Donna’s first broadcasting gig came in Fort Coulonge Quebec at a community radio station. The next stop was in nearby Pembroke Ontario—an entry level proving ground for many budding broadcasters at the time. After a stop in Kingston, Donna arrived at CHCH in 1988. She was the last person at CHCH to co-anchor news with the late Tom Cherington. Over the next 27 years Donna performed a variety of on-air roles including co-hosting a national newscast with BC news icon Tony Parsons.
For much of her time at CHCH Donna co-hosted Square-Off—the half hour newsmagazine show that preceded the Evening News. Skelly’s political dimension came to the surface in 2009, when Global Television, owners of CHCH went bankrupt. Skelly became the public face of the station, appearing in the media and before the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission urging that something be done to save the station. She endorsed the takeover of the station by Channel Zero—the only suitor at the time looking to bail out CHCH.
In the 2011 provincial election Donna ran for the Conservatives in the riding of Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale finishing a respectable second to incumbent Ted McMeekin. A second run in 2014 also resulted in a second place finish. After the first run, Donna took a behind the scenes role at CHCH, assisting with government relations. After the 2014 run for office Donna was back on the air as the station’s city hall reporter until the station’s bankruptcy in 2015.
No question the name recognition was a help when Donna decided to run in Ward 7, but as she told the Bay Observer, “I didn’t have a voters list to work from. I started from scratch. Clearly the name recognition helped but it was the knocking on doors that helped most. Sometimes the person at the door would say, ‘well you are one of my top three’—in which case I would ask them for 30 seconds to make the case for myself.” It was a hard-fought campaign with overtones of party politics, as Scott Duvall the former Ward 7 councillor, now a NDP MP, and Monique Taylor, Mountain NDP member campaigned hard for third place finisher Uzma Qureshi. The campaign included robo calls and a last-minute household letter signed by Duvall and Taylor warning of splitting the NDP vote, invoking the names of former NDP members Chris and Brian Charlton as “part of a long and proud tradition of strong progressive representation.” The problem was that Chris Charlton had already indicated her preference for another candidate. Said Donna of the campaign which she won by less than a hundred votes. “The election—it was terrifying. It was exciting. I had no voters’ list– every vote we got, we got through the campaign. There were none of my signs popping up on lawns where the homeowner hadn’t even been asked…We heard at the door that people didn’t want political affiliations. There are those who say the NDP would have won if they had not split the vote but you can also say that two of the top contenders had a conservative connection as well. There may have been some push back when the sitting Member of Parliament and member of the provincial parliament put out the message that the ward should remain in NDP hands…It may have hurt them.”
From the time she came to Hamilton, Donna was active in the community, and over the years she made some valuable contacts in the business community. “Am I business friendly? Absolutely, I always had contacts in the business community because a healthy business community is necessary in order to have a healthy economy. The best thing you can give somebody is a good job…with benefits and a pension and a decent wage. There’s a whole generation of kids growing up without the opportunities that I had and that’s got to change,” said Donna, a single hockey mom of two sons, aged 18 and 20 who are just finishing school.
In a faint echo of Rob Ford’s brand of populism Skelly says, “I do worry that the city and the media is too heavily influenced by a small vocal minority in the city that rely on social media to push an agenda…and I think it has far too much influence on city staff, city council and on the media in general.” Referring to a comment she made on election night where she said she would not be afraid to ruffle feathers, Donna explained, “I meant that I’m not afraid to push back against a group that has this amount of influence in this city right now and instead speak to the interests of a group of people who are too busy working and paying taxes to be on the social media. There are people who told me “I am just stretched when it comes to taxes.”
What were the issues during the campaign? “The issue wasn’t affordable housing—it was for a lot of the other candidates—but not at the door. They were opposed to the LRT—I may have met one undecided person but everyone else who mentioned it absolutely doesn’t want it. They’re angry about it actually. So there’s the polarizing issue. The people in the lower wards clearly have more support for the LRT but the further you move away the less support there is. And that’s were I go back to that vocal minority who have been able to set an agenda that people in other parts of the city don’t support but feel they have had no say.”
“The main complaint is about taxes,” Donna said, it’s about paying too much and getting too little for it. You know you read that your taxes have only gone up 70 dollars…but over 10 years that’s 700 dollars.”
The city’s building and planning processes will be in the new councillor’s crosshairs. “One thing I heard time and time again was from anyone who had to deal with city hall, its red tape. We talk about transparency, we talk about being open for business,” she said, “Please bring into me a businessman who had no problems with the system…who said ‘it was amazing—that I got things done in record time’. I have yet to meet a person. I want to dig—I want to know why it is so difficult to do business in the city of Hamilton.” In that regard Skelly has been appointed to the Planning, Audit and Emergency Services committees.
While Donna Skelly, like many newly-elected councillors promises to try to take the whole city into account in her decisions, she would like to see the James North vibe come up on the mountain. She would like to see music and arts in Sam Lawrence Park and maybe a pop-up dinner that would allow people to appreciate one of the finest panoramas anywhere in Ontario.
As to the future, “I do see myself being involved in politics for a long time. I do love it—I’ve always wanted to get into politics. I do believe I can make a difference—I’m a fighter…there are certainly some similarities in the people who get into journalism and the people who run for public office. They have complementary objectives.”
“I do worry that the city and the media is too heavily influenced by a small vocal minority in the city that rely on social media to push an agenda…and I think it has far too much influence on city staff, city council and on the media in general.”