A prayerful silence hovers over Saint John this week, as many mourn the tragic loss of a dearly loved elder, Sheila Croteau.
Heartfelt tributes for an unforgettable soul are flooding the mostly pandemic filled social media sites with joy for having known Sheila, mother of two and grandmother of six.
Sheila was a model world citizen. Participating in all forms of democracy from protest to politics, Shelia found common ground with friend and foe. Known for her witty optimism and insightful advice, all who ran into Sheila were left with a lasting impression.
Sheila was a High Plains Cree woman, born in Alberta on Nov. 14, 1953. Life was hard and painful for Sheila due to the loss of her language, family and culture after the 60s Scoop program took her at age seven. She experienced hardship and abuse for the rest of her youth until as blessed fate would have it, Sheila ended up in Saint John as a single mother. She raised her daughter, Amanda, and more recently united with her son, Ross, in Saint John. Sheila also opened her home to many other youth over the years as a community safe space full of support, guidance and love.
Sheila led instinctively. The lucky ones who benefited from her leadership included the local Scouts Canada troupe. During her leadership, the youth experienced numerous camping trips where she taught them everything from building snow shelters to campfires. One of the children, Don Durant, now grown, remembered Sheila fondly. “Sheila taught me so many things: how to start a fire, how to make the perfect grilled cheese, how to carve a walking stick, how to drum and most importantly in the 25+ years that Sheila was in my life she taught me how to be a good neighbour to not only those who live beside you but to your community.”
Shelia made and nurtured relationships like a gardener tends their seeds. As a mother, grandmother, friend, teacher and mentor, Sheila could often be found near the kitchen of St. Andrew and St. David’s in uptown Saint John during community lunches or evening gatherings. She adored her family and would speak of them often when not having heart-to-hearts with community members. Wayne Dryer, Pastor of Germain St Baptist at the time, said of his 25+ years of friendship with Sheila, “She was part of the fabric of the community and seemed to be connected to everyone in some way or another.”
Shelia lived in and with poverty all of her life but did not define herself as impoverished. She was always ready with a helping hand, a hug or a joke. People United in the Lower South End (P.U.L.S.E) paints her as “one to always help-out and share a smile or a joke.” One important legacy Sheila will be remembered for will most certainly be to chip in, speak your truth and then laugh.
PRUDE Inc. in Saint John considered Sheila a vibrant member of their community. Standing for Pride in Race, Unity, Dignity through Education may as well have been Sheila’s mantra. PRUDE’s Facebook tribute to Sheila states, “Her acts of community service, love and compassion were known by many and her generous spirit will be missed.”
Tributes to Sheila also include the Saint John Theatre Company’s Facebook testimonial to nearly 12 years of Sheila’s participation on the SJTC’s team. “She was the person who kept the BMO studio theatre so beautifully maintained since the day we opened,” said Stephen Tobias, executive director of the STJC.
Sheila was former Chief of the Local 10 New Brunswick Aboriginal People’s Council. In that capacity she reached out to Indigenous people from all over who have gathered in the Saint John area. She said that she knew people missed their home communities and traditions and helped fill that gap by providing Indigenous content, cultural education and traditional guidance whenever and wherever possible. Sheila was also a close friend of the Saint John Multicultural Association, participating and sharing cultural practices to the greater Saint John community.
Sheila will be remembered by many for her large sacred drum that has been the heart of so many ceremonies and celebrations in the Saint John area for decades. Sheila was a part of a drumming group, Spirit of the Four Winds, and helped the University of New Brunswick in Saint John develop Indigenous curriculum.
Sheila’s life was a beautiful example of a person living their faith which led her to years of service with members of KAIROS, a “Canadian ecumenical faith-based human rights and ecological justice movement.” Sisters of Charity based in Saint John were long associated with Sheila and recently honoured her passing. In their newsletter they recalled, “In spring 2018, Sheila was part of a team facilitating the KAIROS Blanket Exercise among Sisters and Associates. Focusing on reconciliation, the exercise brings awareness of historical policies and practices harmful to Indigenous peoples. Sheila’s life was scarred by such policies. She went on to celebrate and share her rich cultural heritage with many.”
Sheila’s path led her into politics in the past two elections for the Green Party where she ran for Portland in Saint John. Fellow Green Party candidate, Sharon Murphy recalls Shelia’s participation in the Energy East Pipeline hearings in 2016. “Sheila brought her grandson and spoke on his behalf. She told the story of the seventh and eighth fire and of the importance of water for life. It was very powerful and there was total silence when she finished and left the room.”
Sheila’s family welcomes financial aid to help with Sheila’s memorial and accompanying family expenses. Email Jennifer with donations for this immediate need at Jenniferl.firstname.lastname@example.org
A legacy fund honouring Sheila, to be known as Sheila’s Fund, will be administered by the Saint John Community Foundation. This yearly gift will give a helping hand to youth in Saint John in Sheila’s memory. Link to the legacy fund information here.
Sharon Murphy is a long time Saint John eco/social activist, business woman, natural health and birthing expert who sometimes plays politics.
Lynaya Astephen is an environmental and social justice activist in Red Head.