Growing up as an only child in rural Minnesota had its challenges. Hector, on highway 212 about an hour east of Minneapolis and south-west of Lake Superior, was a community of about 1,000 situated in the heart of North America’s vast Great Plains. The hilly farm community with its brutal winters wasn’t always easy, but for Joanne Nickel it was sink or swim; you just had to be tough.
The 160 acre Nickel property supplied everything. As Joanne says, “If you didn’t raise it you didn’t eat it.” Besides commercial crops of soy beans, corn, sugar beets and oats, there was domestic farm stock including chickens, cows, pigs, cattle and, of course, the family vegetable plot. This was the era before specialization, a time of the complete family farm. To Lester and Pearl Nickel, their daughter just had to be a contributing part. The team was like a commune. The tight knit folk were devout Brethren, somewhat akin to the Baptists.
Joanne’s father always wanted a boy and invariably would call her “Johnny”. On the acreage her chores included the picking of every pesky mustard plant in sight. Overall she measured up, keeping up with her seven feisty cousins, all boys. In terms of farm work, there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do. To some this rough and tumble farm existence would have been overwhelming, but not for Joanne – she thrived on it. Growing up in those circumstances allowed her to come to understand men, she says. Perhaps that’s why in later life she never felt intimidated by the male-dominated realm of politics. Joanne always felt she could relate better to men than women.
Joanne’s parents brought quite a mix to her heritage. Overall her lineage was German-American but her paternal grandfather fell for a full Native American while he was in Fort Wayne, Nebraska. She was Sioux – yes, from the same stock as Chief Sitting Bull and the folk who did in General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. We’re not sure if Joanne exhibits any warrior traits, but of course she has taken a great interest in native culture whether it be the nations of the Great Plains or the People of the Snow in Kitamaat.
Joanne’s mother, Pearl, was entirely German-American with proud Prussian heritage and links to imperial officers from the 1800s. She was also nurtured on old European customs so everything to her needed to be quite proper. And of course she had a measure of that renowned Teutonic stubbornness that is still evidenced in the younger generations.
The Nickels were devout Christians and conservative Republicans but they weren’t well off. Perhaps they were farm rich and money poor. They were always well nourished but amenities like electricity and running water weren’t a part of their lives, at least not until later. Funds were scarce for luxuries like new clothing but the Nickels were resourceful and self-sustaining. Lester’s philosophy was to never buy anything that you’re weren’t paying cash for. Joanne recalls her frugal mother seeking out war supply parachutes at the discount stores which she then fashioned into all kinds of clothing so they were wearing parachutes from U.S. forces – now that was patriotism.
Going to school in Hector had its challenges, especially for a child of mixed ethnicity. People of German ancestry like the Nickels were subject to persecution during the war including at times having to publicly renounce their roots and episodes of having to trample the German flag. Besides those challenges, Joanne also had difficulty with letter reversals and dyslexia. Fortunately one talented teacher figured it out and helped with strategies which enabled her to succeed. Eventually Joanne loved school and certainly she was a strikingly talented individual who was destined to make a difference in the world.
Little did her parents imagine when she graduated from Hector High in 1957 that she was about to embark on eight-and-a-half years of post-secondary studies, practically making her a professional student.
Joanne’s Evangelical United Brethren upbringing in Minnesota prepared her for a decade of learning experiences beyond high school in Hector.
Her first taste of post-secondary life was in the early 60s when she attended North Western College in Minneapolis, an hour to the east.
This religious institution – founded by Billy Graham, the famed television evangelist – was her first bit of independence and the beginning of a world of opportunity.
Money for college didn’t come easily. Joanne’s parents couldn’t afford it and student loans weren’t an option, but Joanne had a belief in destiny and trusted the Lord would provide.
But she also knew she would have to work to supplement her funds.
Joanne was resourceful and wasn’t about to starve. During those years of study she earned the needed money by ironing clothes for folks, modelling for independent designers and designing windows for Penny’s Department Store.
She also worked in the college main office as a casual secretary and switchboard operator.
There she came to know Billy Graham and met her first husband, Don, who was training to be a minister. Joanne too was training to serve the Lord as a youth pastor.
After a taste of city life in Minneapolis, Joanne and Don turned their sights west to the Rocky Mountains. They attended the Denver Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary where she distinguished herself as a trail-blazer, being the first woman to attend the seminary.
During the college summer breaks they got their introduction to Canada as summer relief missionaries in remote villages on BC’s coast including Bella Bella, Klemtu and Kitkatla where they conducted Bible studies and even burials.
Money was scarce and over a couple of summers they supported themselves with supplementary work on a fish packer named Wamega. It was a good life but they didn’t have much. In fact they were so poor that in travelling back to Hector from BC all they had was canned salmon and diet pills for sustenance and just enough money to keep fuel in the car.
In addition to journeys north to Canada, Joanne and Don landed scholarships which took them to Israel. Joanne’s scholarship was in archaeological research through the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem.
Joanne began to question the direction she was headed and it wasn’t long before she and her husband had other plans. Don had landed a job as an army chaplin in Texas, so their focus shifted southward.
No doubt, Joanne’s parents wondered if their daughter would ever tire of the gypsy life. Would she ever serve the Lord and would she ever settle down?
With other opportunities beckoning, Joanne abandoned her theological pursuits. This time she enrolled in the University of Texas in a program of archaeological studies and communications.
Joanne’s southern life in El Paso was truly a roller-coaster. In addition to archaeology she began work in broadcasting, working on air with KVOF campus radio.
There wasn’t much Joanne wouldn’t take on. She wasn’t meant to be a by-stander, she was a doer and when an opportunity presented itself, she seized it.
While she studied in Texas, Don headed off with the forces to Korea. Unfortunately their long distance relationship did not survive.
In 1967 Joanne again set her sights on Canada. She landed in Smithers where she had various jobs. She worked for a while at CN Railway and Northern Interior Forest Products, the Ministry of Mines and she worked again in broadcasting at BVLD radio.
She also found time for extended archaeological working holidays in Mexico, sifting through Mayan ruins at Chi Chin Itza.
You just couldn’t stop her.
It was in Smithers that she met and married Paul Monaghan. When the couple moved to Kitimat soon after Joanne headed in new directions.
She became CN Rail’s first female billing agent and she and Paul purchased Lahakas Shell and OK Tire.
Joanne was working several jobs and doing the books, soon establishing her own gift shop in the City Centre mall, calling it Ye Wise Owl.
Little could she have suspected that she was about to embark on more than three decades of public service.
Taking up where we left off, Joanne Monaghan’s introduction to Kitimat’s local politics came when husband Paul was elected mayor. She says she attended every council meeting and, after two years of watching how council worked, decided she had something to offer Kitimatians.
After a rush course in Canadian citizenship in Vancouver she was ready to throw her hat into the ring which she did despite a former mayor warning her, “You’ll never make it.” Like British PM Margaret Thatcher, whom she admired, she would just have to show him. And she did, being elected councillor in November 1980. As Joanne says, she wasn’t meant to be a bystander so once elected she got involved beyond the basic job of councillor duties and committee work that were part of that. That included being Kitimat’s representative on the Kitimat-Stikine board where she served a total of eight years as its chairman. Spreading her wings further she served as president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities for two years.
And the next natural step was the presidency of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) where she again served two years. She remembers at the FCM working with an upstart Toronto councillor named Jack Layton who eventually went on to lead the federal New Democrat Party to Official Opposition status. They eventually became a working duo with Joanne president and Jack vice-president. Joanne recalls that they got on famously despite their political differences.
Her position in FCM meant many long air flights, including travelling with a softwood lumber trade mission to the United States. It also meant hobnobbing with national figures like prime ministers Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.
Joanne’s connections enabled her to serve in other ways beyond the political sphere of the Northwest. She was recognized for her leadership role as a woman and was able to work in Ecuador, Ghana, South Africa and other locales successfully mentoring women in politics, some of whom went on to become MPs in their own countries.
Joanne also served in CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.
Talk about travel, she was a frequent flyer in the extreme.
Joanne estimates she made about 5,000 flights over the years with only five of those being free of political commitments. That meant being away from home a lot which she notes was not conducive to long term relationships: it just wasn’t fair on a spouse or a family to be gone so much and it wasn’t good for establishing long and lasting friendships. But this life of advocating for her community is what she had chosen.
After 28 years as a councillor, running for mayor just seemed like what she was destined to do and in 2008 she successfully ran for the big chair and was re-elected three years later. Joanne admits being mayor had its moments, especially for one who never made her dyslexic tendencies an excuse. Over her two terms she faced the inevitable barrage of critics but through it all remained on call night and day.
And she can today look back fondly on the accolades she received and her achievements over the years: being named Northern Woman of Distinction, elected Yellowhead Association president and receiving the prestigious Order of B.C. while at home she was named Citizen of the Year and Lady of the Year. The accomplishment she is proudest of is her work to gain financial clout and status for municipalities, which was achieved in September, 1996 when the province enacted municipal protocols, providing legal status for communities. As president of the UBCM, Joanne helped to establish a guarantee of municipal funding throughout our province.
Then there was her work with the committee on the Highway of Tears, getting post-secondary college and university instruction in the north, getting 911 service to Kitimat, gaining superior Class A road designation for our highway and work on provincial incentives for enhancing home based businesses.
She even found time to work for the Heritage Trust and all this while providing for her elderly mother who lived with her for a decade. Locally, establishing both the Giant Spruce and Kemano parks are lasting green space accomplishments, a 15-year sponsorship of the Miss Kitimat pageant was satisfying and securing provincial grants for both the Luso and Sikh facilities was at times a challenge. She treasures the Sikh sword which was given in gratitude.
Joanne will always be proud of her town and she hopes that with greater development we won’t have to rely on Terrace for everything. She also hopes that someday Kitimat will be a destination for conventions and clinics and just maybe we will have stronger salt water connections to First Nations to our south including Hartley Bay, Klemtu and Bella Bella.
Joanne’s 34-year public service career ended on November 15, 2014 when she ran for a third term at the helm. As so often happens in politics, a wind of change was blowing through the municipality and the voters decided to pass the torch on to another generation. But her achievements during that career are a fine testimony to what women can achieve – and her advice to all is if you see an opportunity, seize it.
In retirement we can bet Joanne will be busy enjoying her passtime of feeding birds and squirrels while continuing to advocate for our community.