When Sharon McNeill decided to return to learning at Selkirk College’s Nakusp Campus, the goal for the mother of six children was to simply finish the high school diploma that had eluded her while growing up in residential schools.
It was 1986 when McNeill’s youngest son had just entered Grade 1. She was 36 at the time and though she had been educated as a Licenced Practical Nurse, her education was accomplished without requiring a high school diploma. In order to show her children a proper example, McNeill set a modest goal of high school completion that eventually led her to graduating from law school at the University of British Columbia.
Sharon McNeill was provided the honour of Distinguished Alumna at the Selkirk College Graduation 2018 ceremony on the Castlegar Campus at the end of April. The lifelong learner addressed the Class of 2018 where she provided inspirational words for all those starting on a new chapter in their life.
“I walked up those very steep steps to the top of old Selkirk College campus building in downtown Nakusp,” says McNeill, who was recognized as a Selkirk College Distinguished Alumna at the Graduation 2018 Ceremony in April. “When I got to the top of the stairs, I met [now-retired Adult Upgrading instructor] Richard Allin. I will never forget that first meeting because he is really one of the loveliest guys you can meet. He was so kind and the striking thing about him was that he had no judgement at all, by that I mean that he was not given to prejudice. He believed in you without reservations. I told him that if he needed to, he could put me in in Kindergarten because I was going to get that certificate no matter where I started.”
Rebuilding the Educational Foundation
McNeill is proud of her Indigenous ancestry. She was born in a taxi cab near Little Fort, in her father’s traditional Simpcw territory in the North Thompson area east of Kamloops. As a young child her parents relocated to Halfway Indian Reserve in her mother’s Tsq’escen’ territory at Canim Lake near 100 Mile House.
An engaged learner in her youth, McNeill completed Grade 10 in the academic stream which also qualified her for the Grade 12 commercial steam. Because she could pursue credentials as a Licenced Practical Nurse after Grade 10, McNeill opted for that route rather than completing high school.
By the time she moved to Nakusp with her young family, McNeill was focused on raising her kids and working as the business manager for her husband, Dr. Colin McNeill. Once her four younger children were all in school, McNeill decided she needed fill in a void in her life.
“I simply became a statistic that never really quite made it,” she says of her educational past. “In the back of my mind, I always knew that I didn’t have my high school certificate and that really bothered me.”
Sharon McNeill (middle) at the Graduation 2018 ceremony with Selkirk College President Angus Graeme (left) and Selkirk College Board of Governors past-chair Sharel Wallace (right).
McNeill made the most of her time in the Selkirk College Adult Upgrading Program, quickly earning her high school GED and then onto completing her B.C. Dogwood Diploma. With strong support from her family, McNeill then went onto university-level courses through Okanagan College and via correspondence.
“When you are older, it becomes much easier because you are more motivated,” says McNeill. “I was having so much fun just doing homework and studying. It was so enjoyable just learning.”
McNeill had her sights set on a new career in journalism, but while researching the routes to success she found a spark for law school. After only three years of post-secondary study, she was accepted to UBC’s law school in 1991.
“I am fortunate because I never intended for my law degree to provide me with income, I wanted it to provide me with the skills to do whatever it was I wanted to do,” she says.
McNeill achieved her licence and was called to the bar, after which she worked for 10 years as in-house counsel for the Canim Lake Band. She then worked as project manager to set up the Centre for International Indigenous Law Studies at UBC until 2002, moving on to become an associate at Callison & Hanna Law Firm in Vancouver specializing in Aboriginal law.
In 2001, her husband left his practice in Nakusp and joined her in Vancouver to be close to their youngest children who were attending high school and university.
McNeill took a break from law practice between 2006 and 2009 to focus on family and travel with her husband. She returned to the profession in 2010 as a pro-bono consultant because she no longer had a desire to chase the billable hour. She has been providing free legal advice for the last eight years to help people through the early stages of the judicial process before passing the files off to recommended lawyers.
“I’ve worked very hard all my life and now I am fortunate to not have to work on a day-to-day basis,” says the 68-year-old, who has decided to fully retire at the end of the year. “I am now in a position to help people without having to charge them. Often times it is very small, but I am able to provide what the consequences of legal action will be so that their stress can be alleviated.”
Overcoming the Pain of the Past
For her next chapter, McNeill is eyeing one of her true loves—writing. Having attended residential school, she feels this might be the basis for sharing some of her ideas for Truth and Reconciliation now being sought by the public at large.
At the age of seven, McNeill was interned at the Cariboo Indian Residential School at St. Joseph’s Mission near Williams Lake and at 16 was transferred to Prince George College at Domano Diocese in Prince George. In comparison to her loving home on reserve with her parents, McNeill likens her 11-year residential school experience to being interned in a hospital with a prison environment setting reminding that the stated intended goal was to “kill the Indian in the child.”
“The issues surrounding residential schools are so complex,” she says. “For example, somebody could point to me and say: she did alright, how come you can’t? It speaks to the fact that every person that is born is their own individual in their own right… they have their own spirit. You do everything you can to make their spirit very strong.”
Sharon McNeill (middle) at the pre-grad Distinguished Dinner with her former Nakusp Campus instructor Richard Allin (left), her husband Dr. Colin McNeill (middle left), one of her granddaughters and her daughter Colleen Matchett (right) who all attended to celebrate the Distinguished Alumna honour.
The pain Indigenous people suffered because of residential schools is hard to grasp, even for those who went through it.
“Sometimes when a person is struck down and their spirit is struck down, they come back and they come back stronger, brighter and better,” she explains. “For others, you knock them down and it’s very difficult to get the spark back and the spark goes out easily. When you look at all the residential school children and those who have this background, it was so disheartening not to be able to get that spark back. So many people are the walking wounded. They have parts missing, but they are still walking along the street. You know something is missing, but you can’t see what that part is. That is the spirit and that is the whole devastation of having the spirit knocked out of you.”
When Selkirk College contacted McNeill this past spring to inform her of the honour she was about to receive, she was thrilled. At the April convocation ceremony on the Castlegar Campus, McNeill walked across the stage to receive her award where she felt final validation for her hard work toward the goal of completing high school and the graduation celebration she missed in her youth. McNeill addressed graduates, faculty and guests with a speech intended to inspire students not only to follow their dreams, but to become beacons and set good examples in order to lead the way for other learners striving to achieve their dreams.
As she had hoped when walking up those steep stairs at the Nakusp Campus in 1986, McNeill’s determination to complete high school to set a good example had an impact on her children and grandchildren with several attending post-secondary over the years. Her family now includes a lawyer, nurse, carpenter, teacher, social worker, silviculture technician, computer animator, Indigenous Education Liaison Officer and college administrator.
“Selkirk College gave me the opportunity,” McNeill says. “Having a place right in the community where adults can go to seek further education and get any type of imaginable skill, it’s an absolute vital connection to the community. Otherwise you cannot get the most education to pass onto the youth of your community.”