Doris McLean was ahead of her time.
That’s how people are remembering the former chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation after her death at age 77, due to cancer, on Jan. 22.
“My sister told me she was known as ‘the rebel chief’ just because she questioned things a lot,” said Marilyn Jensen, McLean’s daughter. “She made people think.… She went against the status quo, man. She was always doing her own thing.”
As a court worker, McLean advocated for Indigenous people in the justice system across the territory.
As chief of CTFN from 1988 to 1992, she was involved in developing the Umbrella Final Agreement, which was finalized in 1993.
In the 1970s, she established the The Skookum Jim/Keish Tlingit Dancers, eventually acting as founding elder of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers.
“We’re feeling pretty lost right now,” said Jensen, a member of DKD. “Huge, huge, huge void.”
She said the dance group is managing by following the instructions McLean left them.
“We’re officially not doing anything,” said Jensen. “We’re in mourning for 40 days and then after that, she told us ‘I want you to keep going.’”
Shirley McLean, McLean’s daughter, said that kind of grace was typical of her mother. Even in the final days of her life, Shirley said McLean was thinking of others.
“The reason she got upset when I told her we were going to shut her room to visitors, she said ‘No, they are coming to see me for a reason. They want to ask me something,’” said Shirley.
Jensen said she knew people valued her mother’s advice and guidance, but this week has been a revelation in terms of hearing others’ stories of McLean.
A former classmate of Shirley’s told her how much it meant to her growing up that McLean visited the classmate’s mother at the correctional centre, to offer legal advice and support.
Another woman told Jensen that when she was a teenager in residential school at Yukon Hall, McLean befriended the woman, found her a job in Carcross, and drove her to the community.
“It’s just unreal how many people just absolutely love her and adore her and all the things that people are telling my sister and I that we didn’t know before (about) her kindness and how willing she was to share her knowledge and teaching,” said Jensen.
“Of course she’s our mother and we know her as a mother, a very strong, loving mother,” she said. “Through her illness and through her passing we’ve been learning about her in a whole other way.”
McLean, from the Dakl’aweidi (killer whale) clan, also acted as the Yukon legislative assembly’s first Canadian Indigenous woman Sergeant-at-Arms, and volunteered with the RCMP Citizens on Patrol, the 2000 Arctic Winter Games and the Yukon International Storytelling Festival.
Premier Sandy Silver issued a statement calling her “a passionate advocate for the preservation of Tagish language and gifted storyteller.”
“Ms. McLean’s dedication to community, culture and history has left a profound impact on all who came in contact with her,” said the statement. “Her absence is keenly felt and her legacy and influence in Yukon will continue for generations to come.”
Nils Clarke, speaker of the Yukon legislative assembly, said, “Ms. McLean conducted her official duties with dignity and efficiency, and was well-liked and highly respected by all those who came in contact with her.”
Jensen said that even though her mother was very involved politically, she was always present with everyone — she didn’t just want to talk to the politicians. She was out in the communities just as often.
“I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most about my mom, is that she always wanted to be there for her people including us,” said Jensen.
“I think her legacy really is on the lives of cultural revitalization, basic human rights for Indigenous people.”
A funeral service will be held at the Carcross Learning Centre on Jan. 27 at 2 p.m. It will be followed by a traditional potlatch.
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org