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Sheelah McLean: A Call To Action

Listen to Priscilla Settee (professor, Department of Native Studies) and Sheelah McLean (BA’90, BEd’91, MEd’07) talk about Idle No More’s roots, goals and future on YouTube.

The following article appeared in the Spring 2013 Arts & Science magazine.

A Call To Action
By Tom Eremondi (BA ’82)

Sheelah McLean ’s passion for Indigenous rights, born in Saskatoon’s inner city classrooms, has led the educator to the core of what is perhaps Canada’s most captivating and controversial movement.

“I had a background in native studies and critical theory but at Mount Royal (high school in Saskatoon), where I started teaching, I learned so much from my students and guest speakers,” said McLean (BA’90, BEd’91, MEd’07), one of the founders of Idle No More.

“I realized there was a context that I didn’t fully understand, particularly about racism, and knew I needed to learn more about that.”

After completing her education degree in 1991, McLean returned to the U of S to pursue a masters degree in educational foundations through the Indian Northern Education Program. She was mentored by Verna St. Denis, an education professor, earning her grad degree in 2007. Her studies focused on colonization, racialization and the effect of these forces on communities.

“In my studies, I wanted answers to fully understand what my students were experiencing. It was suggested that I work with Dr. St. Denis, who has a PhD in anti-oppressive, anti-racist education,” explained McLean.

McLean was also inspired by others, notably Priscilla Settee, a native studies professor at the U of S.

“I never took it but every time I was with her, I felt I was taking her class,” said McLean.

Settee said McLean has long shown strong leadership traits. She was instrumental in developing Students Against Racism and has worked in various other capacities to prevent oppressive education.

“(Sheelah) has a connected relationship with the Indigenous community. It didn’t surprise me to learn she was a founder of Idle No More,” said Settee.

After receiving her masters degree, McLean taught at Bedford Road but has since moved to Aden Bowman high school. She’s also a part-time sessional lecturer on campus. She explained that Idle No More began with co-founder Sylvia McAdam’s (LLB’09) concerns over the destruction of her father’s fishing lands in Whitefish, Ont. After studying Bill C-45, McAdam started a conversation with McLean and the movement’s other co-founders, Nina Wilson [BSc(Nutr)’08] and Jess Gordon.

“I knew Sylvia because I’d asked her to speak at a refugee rights rally I organized. She was impressed with its energy and contacted me to do the same against Bill C-45,” explained McLean.

McLean notes the movement’s focus is “two-pronged because the government’s is as well. We’re concerned about Indigenous rights but also how the bill scales back protection of our water and land. The government knows that, to become an extraction state, it must make these attacks on both Indigenous sovereignty and protection of the land.

“Canadians like me are questioning why these policies are embedded in a budget bill. It’s a 400-page document that many Members of Parliament have admitted voting on without reading or understanding. If this is happening, what are the chances of democracy being part of this process?”

Idle No More began with teach-ins in Saskatoon, Prince Albert, North Battleford and Regina before moving to Edmonton and Winnipeg.

“After that was the national day of action on Dec. 10 and that’s where it really took off,” McLean says. “We had thousands of people contacting us, asking what else they could do.”

The movement quickly expanded throughout Canada and even into the United States. Protests have been reported in several states including New York, Texas and New Mexico. With Idle No More’s rapid growth, McLean and her co-founders are working to ensure the movement remains true to its original purpose.

“It’s a grassroots, peaceful movement focused on education and building community and consciousness in
Canadians. It’s really a conversation about what we feel our nation-to-nation country should look like as opposed to the vision currently proposed,” she said.

“The ultimate goal is a shift in consciousness away from the thinking that profit is the only or best way to build this country. It can be part of it but sustainability also can be built into it.”

While continuing to be involved in Idle No More, McLean is also working towards a PhD.

“I’m dealing with the same issues, still asking questions about colonialism and racism. I want to learn what third generation, white settlers like myself can do to support the struggles of Indigenous people everywhere.”

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