making change through perseverance

a unique journey through making change

Guide to the Good is pleased to feature Leaders & Followers – a series of guest blogs that, among other things, dig a little deeper into what motivates and inspires our community of change-makers. Among her numerous roles in politics, advocacy, and community, Sheilagh O’Leary is a member of the Guide to the Good Advisory Committee.  

As a long time art photographer and social justice advocate, I never anticipated nor planned an entry into political life. Human biology was my fascination as a child and I initially made plans to pursue this field of study. Interestingly enough, my fascination for the human body took a twist and evolved into a 25 plus year art photography career where my niche became black and white portraits and nudes. Studying the human form took on another meaning and manifestation after stumbling into one of MUN Extension Arts photography courses, led by my friend and mentor Manfred Buchheit. I discovered an avenue for self expression and never looked back.

When I think of this fascinating journey, I realize that my recent foray into politics truly began at an very young age when I recognized and questioned how the preferential treatment of my three older male brothers differentiated the workloads from myself and my sister. As a young child, I wanted to be a boy, not because I identified as such, but because I knew they plainly had the advantage. The social inequities became apparent though I did not understand this until much later. Of course, I completely embraced my womanhood later as I matured but was cognizant that the ride would be tougher. Here lay the roots of my understanding of inequities and my lifelong pursuit of feminism. As a generation X’er, our roles were clearly delineated. Smashing glass ceilings began early and organically.

I now find myself 10 years deep as a municipal leader where I presently serve as Deputy Mayor for the City of St. John’s – an honour and a privilege, and a true lesson in the gorgeous fluidity of life. Experiential living is my mantra and staying open to lifelong learning and challenges has kept me passionate and my soul fed. I am always learning to crawl.

But if I have to pinpoint a starting point in my pursuit of peace and social justice, I would have to say it was in the planning and organizing of the Peace A Chord. This grassroots, youth-led peace festival featuring alternative, punk and folk music intertwined with social justice information, fueled a lifelong passion for social and environmental justice and ultimately in just giving a damn. With a group of like-minded friends, musicians, and artists; and influenced by international aid organizations like Oxfam Canada; we developed a ‘think global, act local’ mindset and pursued taking on the establishment by setting seeds for social change in our very own Bannerman Park.

Moving beyond the status quo, I continue to work towards being a proactive rep interested in seeing positive changes that economically benefit our city. As someone who likes to challenge the predictable, this is most often a tedious task that requires much perseverance and tenacity. I have been fortunate to have had several successes. Environmental stewardship became a major focus since I was first elected to St. John’s Council in 2009. I questioned our environmental role and pushed to re-instate the city’s long forgotten Environmental Advisory Committee which deals directly with issues that impact our city and which would likely never be discussed on a public works agenda where building and maintenance of roads and snow clearing can dominate.

Sheilagh found her passion for social justice when she helped organize the Peace A Chord grassroots movement in the 1980’s.

I lobbied (for over 8 years!) to get tree development regulations implemented in our landscaping requirements to avoid seeing stripped out urban landscapes and continuing the public education on the health benefits of an urban forest.

In partnership with the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, I successfully helped instate legislation for a provincial cosmetic pesticide ban to help prevent unnecessary chemicals from entering our soil and water table.

As an avid hiker, I discovered the old American Garbage dump on the White Hills and brought that issue to the forefront which saw the federal governments’ eventual remediation of the site.

Truly, most of these important issues I stumbled upon, again, going back to the fluidity and importance in staying open to the journey.

Most recently and in conjunction with East Coast Trail Association, Municipalities NL, and a few equally determined individuals, a provincial single use plastic bag ban is in our very near future. Reducing unnecessary plastics in our environment is a must and this is one great step towards a healthier lifestyle.

Socially, my goal is to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our city, i.e. those with low income, mental health issues, addictions, new immigrants, refugees, Indigenous persons, and women have proper representation in local government.

A lover of ocean swimming, I conceived and founded the ‘Tickleswim for Mental Health’, a 5 km swim from Portugal Cove to Bell Island as a fundraising/awareness event for the Canadian Mental Health Association of NL. We are now in our 7th year and going strong. The swim helps fund invaluable programs and fosters open discussion about mental health in our province.

As an elected representative, it is an honour to be in this position of trust….to acknowledge, respect and potentially solve problems for constituents is as well implement higher level planning opportunities that can benefit all in the city. I take responsibility to be a strong mentor for women who are interested in getting involved in political life. As a former chair of Equal Voice NL, I spend a great deal of time encouraging women to step up to run for City Council and to help ensure that we have a proactive and diverse group of voices representing the citizens of St. John’s. The 2017 election year was an anomaly whereby we finally achieved gender parity, something never achieved until this time.

And so, I will continue on this unknown creative journey, working to respect people and our planet, and all with the knowledge that only tenacity and persistence will ever be the thread that truly get things done.

this article is republished from a previous version of Guide to the Good.

Sheilagh has campaigned avidly to ban single use plastic bags in Newfoundland and Labrador, and this ban is set to come to fruition in the coming months.

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Sheilagh O'Leary

St. John’s Deputy Mayor, Sheilagh O’Leary, is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker and art educator. She has been a strong, passionate voice in supporting positive change in our communities.