From painting public murals to spearheading a citywide challenge that grew into a movement to build a better Canada, Cheri Macaulay made an indelible mark on the world around her, driven by her belief in the power of civic engagement.
Led initially by a desire to get to know her neighbours in suburban Calgary, Ms. Macaulay became an influential community advocate. She died of cancer on Nov. 17 in Calgary. She was 57.
“In her work with all these community organizations, she wanted to get down to how, on the most basic level, in the most simple ways, people can help each other,” her son Michael said.
In addition to leading a multitude of community initiatives, Ms. Macaulay also spurred those around her to act.
“One of her great talents was for making people feel able to join in a thing and contribute to it,” said Chris Turner, an author and journalist who worked closely with Ms. Macaulay on CivicCamp, a grassroots citizens’ organization she founded that worked on a range of initiatives to make Calgary better.
“She had an extraordinary natural ability to get people on the same page, keep them moving along and get people to commit to things and volunteer and follow through, without ever seeming demanding about it,” Mr. Turner said.
Cheri Lynn Martelle was born on June 8, 1962, in London, Ont. Her mother, Annetta, was a nurse and her father, Leo, worked for a food service company. His job required the family, including younger sister Michele, to move several times.
Ms. Macaulay attended high school in Tilbury, Ont., where she got involved in theatre and gained a lifelong ability to recite parts of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance.
While studying mathematics at Queen’s University, she started dating Robert Macaulay, a second-year student.
The couple moved west when Ms. Macaulay took a summer job with Dome Petroleum in Calgary after her third year of university. The company then offered her a full-time job in land administration, and she took night classes to finish her degree.
In 1985, they married in Ball’s Falls, Ont. Settling in Calgary, they had two sons, Michael and Graham.
When Graham was six months old and Michael was 4, the family relocated to Oman, where Mr. Macaulay worked for Shell and Ms. Macaulay stayed at home with their sons.
To get involved in her new community, Ms. Macaulay took painting lessons, started an annual Calgary Stampede party with other expats and joined a step aerobics class.
When the family returned four years later to live in Calgary’s Brentwood neighbourhood, Ms. Macaulay missed the closeness of the community she left in Oman.
“It bugged Cheri that in Brentwood, nobody knew each other. Everyone got in their cars and drove away. And she thought that wasn’t right,” Mr. Macaulay said.
Ms. Macaulay volunteered with the community association; edited an official community newsletter; started a guerrilla newsletter (called the Brentwood Blab) to amuse her neighbours; organized street parties; and joined a neighbour to start “Meet Our Neighbour” days, which involved walking around and talking to strangers on Mondays.
Each community project led to another and her involvement bloomed.
“If something was up and running, then it was time for her to move on, because she had thought of 10 new ideas," Mr. Macaulay said.
More initiatives followed, including four community murals. Ms. Macaulay also asked for a neighbour’s help to build Calgary’s first Little Free Library, and placed it in her front yard.
“It all kind of fed into each other, into one delightful growing mess of things,” Mr. Macaulay said.
In a coffee shop in 2009 with Mr. Turner and others, Ms. Macaulay founded CivicCamp. After one of CivicCamp’s early members, Naheed Nenshi, was elected mayor of Calgary in 2010, Ms. Macaulay became the first member of the new Mayor’s Civic Engagement Committee.
Mr. Nenshi said getting to know Ms. Macaulay through CivicCamp influenced his decision to run for office.
“When I met her, I realized that it was about more than writing op-eds and complaining about things,” Mr. Nenshi said. “It just was not enough to be a bystander. And in understanding all the amazing things she did, I felt like maybe I’d been being a bystander.”
Nancy Close met Ms. Macaulay through Mr. Nenshi, who passed her the phone one day as he was talking to Ms. Macaulay and said, “Meet your new BFF.”
Ms. Close, community-relations coordinator in the mayor’s office, went on to work with Ms. Macaulay on many projects, and did indeed become a best friend.
“You’d listen to one another and get excited and your hands would wave in the air about fantastic ideas, and then you’d just go do them,” Ms. Close said.
Through the mayor’s committee, Ms. Macaulay started citywide initiatives: Votekit, a tool for first-time voters; City Hall 101, a workshop on municipal government; and 3 Things for Calgary, a challenge for citizens to take action to make the city better.
The latter program went national in 2017 as 3 Things for Canada, encouraging people to do three acts of service in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Accolades followed for Ms. Macaulay, including a City of Calgary Community Achievement Award, Alberta Centennial Medal and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
In January, 2017, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer that had moved to her liver. Faced with a terminal illness, Mr. Macaulay said, his wife tried – and succeeded – at balancing the reality of the situation with genuine hope.
“She never hated her cancer. She never treated it as an invader or a battle or any of the metaphors,” Mr. Macaulay said.
In June, 2018, Ms. Macaulay spoke publicly about her cancer, describing how she allowed space for hope to grow in spite of the odds.
“I don't think I've ever seen anyone bring that lightness to something so intense,” Mr. Turner said. “Even in the most difficult thing she had to face in her lifetime, she was inspiring in it.”
Ms. Macaulay died Nov. 17. She leaves her two sons and husband, as well as her daughter-in-law, Anna Norris; mother, Annetta Martelle; sister, Michele Donais; and extended family.
The day after her death, Mr. Nenshi spoke about Ms. Macaulay at a city council meeting. He asked those gathered to remember “to be inspired about how every single one of us has the chance to make this place better, every single day.”