Northerners should lead the North: That is the idea behind the Gordon Foundation’s Jane Glassco Northern Fellowship. The two-year program trains young Canadians from the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut how to become leaders on northern issues such as the revitalization of Indigenous cultures and climate change.
Such issues are inherently northern, says Melaina Sheldon, who was recently named leader of the fellowship, starting in August. Sheldon, a recent alumnus of the fellowship herself, says she is excited to foster solutions by young northern Canadians, especially those looking to use what they have learned at universities farther south to strengthen their northern homes.
Arctic Deeply recently spoke with Sheldon about her upcoming position, the issues that are impacting the North and how she hopes to lead new cohorts of fellows.
Arctic Deeply: The Jane Glassco Northern Fellowship is about training northerners to lead the North. Can you expand a little on what that means?
Melaina Sheldon: The Gordon Foundation has a long reputation of supporting the North and building capacity across northern communities. I believe that if we have an educated and knowledgeable base of young northerners currently, we’re going to have a future of strong northern leaders – northerners creating policy that affects them. Having that knowledge of policy creation puts them at the forefront of identifying and addressing the issues that face their community.
Arctic Deeply: You were a fellow yourself. Can you describe the lessons you took from that into your new position?
Sheldon: I’m deeply honored to have had the experience as a fellow. I feel like, as a fellow, that I was welcomed into just an amazing network of young people and mentors and elders and advisers. I also feel that I was able to establish a network with my fellow fellows who were in the cohort and I was able to travel to these pan-northern communities that I had never had the opportunity to travel to before.
So, I went to Yellowknife for the first time, I went to Iqaluit for the first time. As somebody who has lived in the North my entire life, that was great – having your fellow fellows there, with firsthand knowledge, sharing their knowledge and love of their communities.
It does take a lot of work. There’s a lot of learning, a lot of traveling, a lot of new stuff and I think I can bring that personal experience to a new cohort and really be able to relate to them because I’ve walked in their shoes, in a way, before.
Arctic Deeply: You are Inland Tlingit and Southern Tutchone. Do you feel there are issues pertinent to these communities that you will be able to highlight or any lessons you feel you’ve learned from these communities growing up that you’ll be able to take to the new job?
Sheldon: Oh, yes. I’m very fortunate that I grew up in my home village of Teslin, and I grew up with my culture and with the protocols of the Inland Tlingit people. I am Southern Tutchone as well, but my grandmother was Tlingit and we come from a matrilineal society. There are a lot of inherent Tlingit values that we have.
One of them we call Haa Kusteeyí . This word encompasses our way of life. They’re our guiding principles, and one of those main protocols is respect and humility and respecting your elders and honoring your father’s people as well. I feel like those cultural teachings have guided me in many ways in my life and how I conduct myself – being a young person growing up in the community and knowing how integral my community was to my success, not just my mother and my immediate family, but the elders within my community, community members, teachers who taught my language and told me I was going to go on to do good things. I have a knowledge of community life and the importance of our communities in the North. And also my father is from Edmonton – he is Polish, Ukrainian.
What’s beautiful about the fellowship is that it includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous fellows because that is our reality in the North.
Arctic Deeply: There’s a lot in the North that’s quickly changing, especially with climate change, new technology and increased interest from other Arctic nations. How are these changes going to impact incoming fellows, and how will they impact your leadership of those fellows and the issues they’re interested in?
Sheldon: The age group is very unique. What I love about the fellowship is that we’re looking at young adults, 25–35. I think young northerners are very much aware of the changes that they’ve seen even in their own lifetimes. Young people have that local and cultural knowledge and perspective, but they also grew up with the internet.
We have more northerners teaching higher education at a higher rate. I think there are more young northerners, too, who are returning to the North, who live in the North. I think what we’ve seen a lot in the past, people go out, get educated and don’t return home. I think whatever generation that we have now, they see the need for us to be at home, in our communities, participating and being part of our community and working for them.
I think we need our young people. So, it’s not only having that university education and/or that bush knowledge, but it’s applying it within a policy framework so that we’re actually influencing how our territories are facing those changes, and we can adjust to them in a very realistic way, pairing those two types of knowledge.
Arctic Deeply: Do you have any concrete examples of an issue that is important for northerners to be leading the North on?
Sheldon: I’m not sure if you’ve seen “Angry Inuk”? It’s a documentary about seal hunting in the North. We actually premiered it in my community and I wanted the community to come out and say, “What if they did this with moose? We’d be hooped!”
Hunting seal is something that [Inuit] did to feed their family, but also to get the money to pay for the gas to continue their traditional pursuits. And then with a [European Union] ban on seal fur, the prices of fur drops, you can’t go to market. That means no money to put in the gas tank, no money to go hunting, no food to feed your family.
Arctic Deeply: Do you have any plans or dreams of where you hope to take the program?
Sheldon: I want to work on the network-building of our alumni and of our mentors – to maintain and strengthen those relationships.
We are really looking to build that alumni program because now there are, I believe, 29 alumni from the fellowship. Those are young people we have invested in, and you want to follow them in their careers, but you also want to keep them engaged because those are beautiful minds. And I want to help this current cohort, whoever they may be, and future cohorts formulate those ideas and articulate all of those amazing things going on in their head. I’d really love that. I’ve always talked about how my grandmother didn’t have a formal education, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have amazing intelligence about the land and the weather and the climate and the animals and the people, even.
What I love about the foundation is that it really honors both schools of knowledge.
We’re supporting our next generation of northern leaders because that is what we need. The capacity for creating policy, for leading, for government, for understanding how to think about policy. It’s not the South telling us how to guide our lives; it’s coming from within. Coming from within the North.
This article previously spelled the Tlingit word, Haa Kusteeyí, as haakusceeyi. It has been updated with the correct spelling.