Donna Gilhooly

Donna Gilhooly (2004), photo courtesy of Maureen Brophy

Donna Gilhooly

  • Date of birth: March 11, 1946 (Fort William, Ontario)
  • Accomplishments related to: Municipal Government, Recreation, Culture, Heritage, Community Development; Community and Public Service
  • Major affiliations: City of Thunder Bay Community Services Department Recreation and Culture Division, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Parks and Recreation Ontario, Thunder Bay Public Library, Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund, Ontario Heritage Trust, Habitat for Humanity, City of Thunder Bay Waterfront Development Committee.

Born and raised in Fort William, or more precisely Westfort, Donna graduated from the Ontario College of Agriculture (University of Guelph) with a Recreation Diploma in 1966. She started with the City of Fort William as the Assistant Recreation Director.

In 1970, when Port Arthur and Fort William amalgamated to become the City of Thunder Bay, she was promoted to Manager of Community Recreation where she was responsible for a wide range of inclusive programmes and services including Older Adults, Arts and Heritage, Community Centres, Aquatics, Event-Hosting, Festivals, Community Programmes, Community Development, Volunteer Management and Integration Services.

Donna has been a tireless champion in the field of recreation and community service. Not only was she a pioneer in the newly-emerging field of recreation in the mid to late 1960's, she was one of the few women leaders in the male-dominated environment of public administration in the second half of the 20th century.

Innovation and creativity have been key factors in Donna's career. Building upon successful traditional recreation programs such as playgrounds, aquatics and sports, she continued to raise the bar through a community development approach that saw the implementation of unique programs and services.

She transitioned the Recreation Division from a model of segregation to one of inclusive programs and services for people with disabilities. Integration Services and its primary program "Barrier Breakers" was recognized provincially and nationally and was a finalist for the 1990 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in the field of Parks and Recreation Management from the National Parks and Recreation Association in the USA (1).

Throughout the 1990's, communities across the country were struggling to increase accessibility to programs and services in their communities for families in need. Often means-testing was the only method available. Believing that all children benefit from participation, Donna founded Positive Recreation Opportunities for Kids (PRO Kids) which created a community-based solution that fostered both civic pride and facilitated opportunities to children and their families to participate in sport, culture and recreation without fees or equipment being a barrier. This innovative and flagship program won the Peter F. Drucker Award for Non-profit Innovation in 1999 (2). Today, over 200 community agencies donate participant spaces in programs to PRO Kids.

In the 1990's, when arts and heritage organizations in the community identified a need for a voice and an advocate in the municipality, Donna created partnerships within these sectors and applied a community development approach. This resulted in the creation of a Municipal Cultural Policy - one of the first in Canada - which included a Cultural Granting program and a policy for Art in Public Spaces. The dedication of full time staffing to support the cultural policies and programs was evidence of her commitment to ensuring its success.

Many of Donna's accomplishments have had a direct impact in the community at large. Most notable was her development of a shared governance platform for the 13 municipally-owned Community Centres. With volunteer boards of directors at each facility, she nurtured a sense of autonomy as well as ownership of the programs and services offered. In 1992, the newly-built Thunder Bay 55+ Centre won the Canadian Parks/Recreation Association Facility Excellence Award (3) and continues to be a model of good governance to this day.

Another example of Donna's active approach to community driven issues is the initiative she took to preserve the historic C.W. Parker Carousel, located at Chippewa Park. Because of her intervention, it is now a Designated Historical Structure.

Her community development processes have helped to create a strong sense of well-being for the citizens of Thunder Bay. By building effective partnerships between sectors such as recreation, health, education, economic development, social services, volunteer agencies, tourism, and culture, she facilitated the development of services that have endured. Some examples include:

  • Wrap Around Program - an intervention process that helps families and individuals deal with difficult and challenging situations by creating a team of people to assist in building a support system unique to their needs;
  • Positive Strokes - an art program for disadvantaged youth that engaged them in the community through drama, visual art and music;
  • The Thunder Bay Children's Festival - a 4 day arts and heritage festival which ran in partnership with the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium;
  • The Key - one of the first collaborative program directories of leisure services involving 7 core agencies such as the City, College, University and School Boards as well as hundreds of community program delivery organizations such as gymnastics, swim and soccer clubs.

Since her retirement in 2000, she has been focused on provincial contributions that continue to demonstrate her leadership, as follows:

  • In a total of eight years' membership on the Ontario Trillium Foundation board, she served as Chair of Policy as well as Vice-Chair.
  • Today, she sits on the board of the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund and is Chair of the Governance Committee. Her work at the Provincial level has been committed to strengthening governance on the Boards which she sits and developing policy to help meet their visions and mandates.
  • Donna has played an important role in the development of the City's Prince Arthur's Landing. She was a member of the Waterfront Development Committee, which envisaged the whole project, and she currently serves on the Waterfront Committee itself.
  • She is a recipient of the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal and the Governor-General's Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada.

Donna's life-long commitment and efforts to develop such public recreation and cultural services is rooted in her integrity, values, belief in community, accessibility and inclusivity for all. Her leadership and mentorship helped pave the way for many young women to advance in recreation and in the public sector in general.

Submitted by: Maureen Brophy, Madeleine Platana, Lil Bergamo


1. 1990 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in the field of Parks and Recreation Management from the National Parks and Recreation Association in the USA - located in Recreation and Culture Division Office

2. 1999 Peter F. Drucker Award for Non-Profit Innovation - located in Recreation and Culture Division Office

3. 1992 Canadian Parks/Recreation Association Facility Excellence Award - located in Thunder Bay 55+ Centre. National Recognition for Brilliant Idea

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