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Remembering ‘Auntie Shirley’ Adamson, pioneering Indigenous leader in Yukon

May 9, 2023

Adamson died in Whitehorse last month at age 70

Shirley Adamson in 2018. For decades, Adamson — Zhürá — was an influential and high-profile figure in Yukon politics, business and cultural life. She died in April at age 70. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

CBC News: A clear-eyed, fearless and no-nonsense leader, an accomplished artist, a champion of Southern Tutchone language and culture, and a loving matriarch — that’s how people are remembering the late Shirley Adamson, who died last month in Whitehorse at the age of 70. 

“Part of Mom’s legacy is that she will be recognized as a real role model,” said Chantal Genier-Tucker, one of Adamson’s daughters. “Anyone who sees something wrong in the world and knows that there’s a better way — they will look to Mom and her legacy and be empowered by that.”

For decades, Adamson — Zhürá — was a high-profile figure in Yukon politics, business and cultural life. She served as the first chairperson of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, Yukon vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations. She also served as CEO of Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon, chair of the board for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and director with Northern Vision Development, among other things.

At the centre of it all was family, according to Genier-Tucker. “Gosh, we have so many memories of being together in our childhood and even in our adult years,” said Genier-Tucker. “That’s something that I’m extremely grateful for, I think we’re all very grateful for, is the importance of family.”

Christine Genier, another of Adamson’s daughters, said it’s difficult to describe her mom and how she helped inspire and shape her life. “It is indescribable, this immense gratitude. This immense gratitude of being raised by someone who wasn’t gonna be shaken by what was happening around her,” Genier said. “And [I] hope that even just a little bit of that has been passed on to me. That would be good.”

‘Incredible Elder and matriarch’

Local leaders in the Yukon have also paid tribute to Adamson. In a statement after Adamson died, Premier Ranj Pillai said he was mourning the “incredible Elder and matriarch.” “Her passing is a profound loss to her family, community, and to all those whose lives she touched with her wisdom, kindness and leadership,” Pillai said.  The premier also said Adamson played an instrumental role in negotiating land claims as the founding chairperson of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council.

Ta’an Kwäch’än Chief Amanda Leas said in a statement that the loss of “Auntie Shirley” was immense for her community. Leas praised Adamson’s work toward self-government and Indigenous rights, and her dedication to preserving and promoting Southern Tutchone language and culture. “She gathered, kept and held her traditional teachings and was generous with sharing her experiences, knowledge, and wisdom with everyone she met and worked with throughout her life. She inspired us all,” Leas said.

A woman uses a megaphone to address a small group of people standing outside in winter.
Adamson at a rally in Whitehorse in 2018, demanding change in the justice system and supporting the family of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man who was fatally shot by farmer Gerald Stanley in Saskatchewan in 2016. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Kluane Adamek, Yukon regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Adamson “witnessed and lived through some truly remarkable moments.” “Zhürá was a truly remarkable leader. She was fearless in the face of challenges, and she blazed the trail for the future, especially for women,” Adamek said in a written statement.

Adamek also praised Adamson’s commitment to young people, and the work she always did to inspire them and give them opportunities. “She led with integrity, and when she spoke about the future, she proudly shared her life’s work with emerging leaders,” Adamek said.

Genier had a harder time defining her mom’s legacy, saying it will take time to see it fully. But she described how part of Adamson’s legacy will be visible in her own family, as they pass down stories in the traditional language that Adamson championed all her life. Genier also highlighted her mom’s commitment to young people, and how she always encouraged them to believe in themselves. “I’ve been approached by so many of these young people in the last little while, and that love is palpable,” she said.

With files from Leonard Linklater