"You have the capacity to make a difference. We live in a country where there are so many things worth protecting and it’s important to realize that you are not powerless. You have power, you have a responsibility and you have endless opportunity."
Bernadette McDonald has made important contributions to the preservation and promotion of mountain culture in Canada and around the world. She is a respected author and a leader in the development of numerous Rocky Mountain programs and institutions.
She was born Bernadette Valerie Kelly in Biggar, Saskatchewan in 1951 and raised on the family farm. Bernadette’s earliest years were spent far from the mountains that have come to define her professional career. However, her childhood on the prairies provided ample opportunities to explore other elements that have played an equally important role in guiding her choices and fostering her life’s passions.
Bernadette’s capacity for hard work came from years spent following the rigorous routine of the farm chores assigned to her as the eldest child. She soon developed the discipline and stamina it takes to methodically tackle any challenge, regardless of its size and scope. Bernadette’s life in Biggar was also shaped by a passion for music in general and for the piano in particular. By the age of 10, she was organist at the family church as well as accompanist for both church choirs. At the age of 14, she moved away from home to study at a music-focused boarding school in Outlook, Saskatchewan where she concentrated on piano, music theory, history and choral music. At age 16, Bernadette left to study at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.
Choosing Washington allowed Bernadette to take advantage of the school’s strong piano and choral programs and also placed her in an environment that offered spectacular Mount Rainer and the Cascade Range as its backdrop. Being close to the mountains realized a wish Bernadette had made many years earlier on a winter road trip through the Rockies. During an overnight stop in Banff, she and her father decided to go for an evening stroll. As the snow fell quietly, blanketing the spruce forest and the surrounding peaks, an entranced Bernadette told herself that she would one day make the mountains her home. She made good on that promise, working on a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and a Bachelor of Music Degree in Performance during the school year in Tacoma and finding Parks Canada work in the Rockies over the summer months.
Bernadette graduated in 1972 and went on to do graduate work in analytical music theory at the University of Western Ontario. However the pull of the Rockies proved too powerful to resist. Her return to the west may have also had something to do with Alan McDonald, a fellow Parks Canada worker whom she had met at an avalanche research station in the Roger’s Pass. They married in 1976 and Bernadette McDonald set about developing her music career in the various mountain towns where Alan was posted as a Park Warden. She taught music, performed and took part in a three-year winter residency at the Banff Centre for Music. She also spent time working as a supervisor at the Parks Canada Icefields Interpretive Centre and doing administrative work at the Banff Centre’s Academy of Singing. In 1986, she branched away from music with duties as Director of the Whistler Adventure Film Festival.
By the late 1980’s, Bernadette and Alan had settled full time in Banff and Bernadette found herself increasingly involved in the world of mountain films. Volunteer service with the Banff Mountain Film Festival eventually led to her assuming the Festival Director position in 1988. Over the next few years, Bernadette expanded the festival’s mandate beyond the traditional focus on adventure to include films that touched on culture and the environment. In 1989, she also started the Banff World Tour, taking the festival on the road to touch a wider audience that would eventually reach 175,000 people each year in 530 locations around the world.
As the festival grew, so did Bernadette’s understanding of mountain culture. She began seeking opportunities to highlight the art, issues and interests of people inspired by the Rockies as well as those living in mountain areas the world over. In 1994, she founded the Banff Mountain Book Festival at The Banff Centre to help foster what she saw as a growing body of literature focused on capturing mountain stories.
By 1997, there were enough elements in place for Bernadette to pitch the idea of bringing them together in a new Banff Centre for Mountain Culture. The Banff Centre President at that time, Graham McDonald, embraced the idea and gave Bernadette the support she needed to thrive in her new role as Founding Vice President of Mountain Culture. She set about putting together a first class team dedicated to the goal of defining, acknowledging and nurturing mountain artists and their environments. The Centre soon became a world-class venue to study and discuss photography, film making, writing and the various environmental and social issues affecting mountain areas.
Bernadette and her team worked over the next eight years to add new elements to the Centre’s offerings, including the Banff Mountain Photography Workshop created in partnership with the National Geographic Society, the Banff Mountain Writing Program and a number of conferences and summits to address issues affecting mountain environments and cultures. Bernadette further worked to expand the understanding of mountain culture as chairman of the board for the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, as co-founder of the International Alliance for Mountain Film and as a member of mountain film juries at other festivals.
During her time at The Banff Centre, Bernadette found herself expanding her own horizons as a writer and began producing numerous award-winning books that share the stories and insights of mountaineering pioneers and adventurers from around the world. Bernadette retired from her duties at the Centre in 2006 to devote herself full time to writing.
Bernadette has received the Himalayan Club’s 2008 and 2009 Kekoo Naoroji Award for Mountain Literature, the Summit of Excellence Award for outstanding leadership in mountain culture, the King Albert Award for international leadership in mountain culture and environment and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. In 2001, she was selected to serve as the Canadian representative and speaker at the United Nations opening of the International Year of Mountains.
When asked to define excellence, Bernadette describes it as “doing the best you can at something that you are passionate about…it’s pulling together like-minded people with common passions and values and making something happen.” By that, and by any other definition, Bernadette McDonald’s work fostering the study and appreciation of mountain culture is an outstanding example of excellence. The programs she developed are widely acknowledged as the gold standard against which other mountain culture festivals and programs are measured. They stand as a legacy of innovation that will benefit Canadians and people living in mountain cultures around the world well into the future.