Celebrating the life of Saint John elder Sheila Croteau, who died in weekend house fire

The life of Sheila Croteau, who died in a house fire early Sunday morning, will be celebrated by all who knew and loved her in Saint John when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and large gatherings are allowed.

“I think it will be like a state funeral,” said Jennifer Mitton.

A close friend to the family, Mitton has temporarily taken charge of Croteau’s personal Facebook page to manage the many messages, questions and condolences being posted there.

“So many people will want to pay their respects. I’ve received about 300 messages already,” she said.

Mitton’s four-year-old son, who is Miꞌkmaq through his father, had Croteau as a godmother and Mitton grieves for the future mentorship that her son has lost.

She said Croteau felt a strong sense of Indigenous identity and embraced it with all her heart, even though she didn’t grow up Cree.

Sheila Croteau was a passionate advocate for Indigenous culture. (Submitted/Jennifer Mitton)

Instead, she was taken from her biological parents in Alberta during a period of Canadian history known as the Sixties Scoop — when Indigenous children were removed from their communities and adopted out to non-Indigenous families.

After spending some time in an orphanage, Croteau was adopted by a Ukrainian family in Mundare, Alta., according to her 31-year-old daughter, Amanda Murphy.

Murphy, reached late Monday afternoon, said she’s still in shock at the loss of her mother, whom she adored.

She was notified around 11:45 a.m. Sunday when the RCMP came to her door in Nerepis.

“They told me she died from carbon monoxide poisoning,” said Murphy, announcing the fact like it’s something she still can’t grasp.

Murphy said her mother had been living with her in Nerepis, but then decided to move in with a family in Rothesay to be closer to the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Murphy said her mother suffered a stroke in 2018 and was experiencing some health issues and was worried about getting medical help if she got sick out in the country, where her daughter did not have a working vehicle.

But Murphy said her mother had started to talk about coming home anyway and they had planned for her to return over the Easter weekend.

Police and fire crews were the house on Bartlett Road in Rothesay around 2 a.m. Sunday. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Murphy, who has four children ranging in age from two to 10, said they were all excited at the idea of having “nanny Sheila” back.

But the plan didn’t materialize.

Instead, police were called to a house on Bartlett Road in Rothesay at around 2 a.m. Sunday.

The house was in flames when the fire department arrived.

Unanswered questions

Murphy said she knows the three members of the family — mother, father and daughter — who were taken to hospital with minor injuries and then released.

Murphy said she has questions for them about why her mother did not make it out of the house alive but hasn’t spoken to them yet.

“My mother had trouble getting up and down the stairs,” said Murphy, who believes her mother was in a bedroom on the upper floor.

Sheila Croteau affected the lives of many, according to the people who knew her. (Submitted/Jennifer Mitton)

Murphy said she’s struggling to accept what happened and so is her 37-year-old brother, Ross McKay, who has two children of his own.

She said she tries to focus at times on happier memories, including the years she spent in the Scouts program with her mother as a leader.

“She was a single mother and always working — she was a workhorse — but that gave us time together,” said Murphy.

She said her mother had a huge heart and was a parental figure to many kids she knew, including 29-year-old Josh Ross.

‘She saw something in me’

Ross told CBC News he counts himself as one of those kids who was rescued by Croteau’s kindness.

He remembered when he was just 15 and needing a place to stay, when Croteau let him spend the night in her south end Saint John apartment and then helped him find another arrangement.

“She saw something in me,” said Ross, who shared Croteau’s fondness for Julius Pizza. 

To show his gratitude, Ross started volunteering at the breakfast program at the Germain Street Baptist Church. He worked alongside Crotreau and saw her gentle patience with everyone she met.

“She saw a broken world and she wanted to fix it,” he said.

Teaching Indigenous history, culture

As for Croteau’s ongoing projects, Mitton said she hopes to maintain the Aboriginal Saint John Facebook page.

She said it’s open to anyone, but it was created for the purpose of connecting Indigenous people living off reserve.

Mitton said Croteau was always interested in educating people about Indigenous history and culture.

Sheila Croteau, pictured in this childhood photo, was survivor of the Sixties Scoop. (Submitted/Amanda Murphy)

She recalled that Croteau taught the aboriginal badge when it was offered through the Portland Scout group.

According to Mitton, Croteau also taught a session to New Brunswick Community College nursing students about Indigenous life, culture and customs and what they should know if anyone Indigenous came into their care, and the “different things they might consider,” in terms of their approach and sensitivity.

Mitton said Croteau was political and wanted to serve in politics. In 2018, she ran as the Green Party candidate in the Portland-Simonds riding, although she wasn’t elected.

“There are so many groups that want to have a celebration of life for Sheila,” said Mitton, who is helping to raise money to pay for a funeral service at a later date, possibly at Trinity Anglican Church.

“She would do anything for anyone,” said Mitton. “People felt that they could talk to her and find peace, no matter what they were going through.”

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