Hamilton activist, author and Wet’suwet’en ally dead at 73

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Published February 8, 2022 at 5:51 pm

Hamilton author and activist Shawn Selway walked his talk, even while he was receiving chemotherapy for the cancer that would take his life.

In November, the lifelong Hamiltonian and North Ender of the Year Award honouree, was arrested for mischief after helping paint a message on Bay Street North during a demonstration in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Selway, who had Stage 4 cancer, helped paint a message, “ALL OUT FOR WEDZIN KWA,” in hot-pink block letters in front of a federal government building, in support of the Wet’suwet’en, who are challenging the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their traditional territory. Wedzin Kwa is the Wet’suwet’en name for the Morice River in British Columbia, which would have a tunnel drilled beneath it under the current pipeline plans.

As he left the rally on a chilly autumn day, Selway was arrested and held by the Hamilton Police Service for four hours. But he had the courage of his convictions, which were strengthened through writing his book, “Nobody Here Will Harm You: Mass Medical Evacuation from the Eastern Arctic, 1950–1965” (Wolsyk and Wynn, 2016). The book was an account of how how Inuit tuberculosis patients were moved to a sanitarium in Hamilton for treatment. Selway’s mother, Gerda, worked as a nurse there during that period. The book earned Selway the Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award for Non-fiction.

“So why was I there? I’m a 73-year-old guy, not in the best of health. Why was I down there that Sunday afternoon?” Selway said last month in an interview with Hamilton Wet’suwet’sen Solidarity about his arrest.

“When I wrote the book, the background research that I did for it really made me aware, for the first time, of just the enormity of the harm that has been done (to Indigenous people) over many generations,” he explained. “So it is time for every for Canadian to step up and affirm that reconcilation must occur. That means Indigenous rights must be recognized. That Indigenous culture must be recognized. That in order for Indigenous culture to be fostered by Indigenous people, they require the resources to do so. That means land, and that means rights to all of the resources over the land that have been taken from them over many generations

“Whether those pipelines should go or not, it it not my business to say, nor the Canadian government’s. It is the business of the Wet’suwet’en people. The Crown has recognized that this is unceded territory.”

The mischief charge was withdrawn last month.

On Monday, Selway died peacefully at home at age 73. His daughter, Zoe Branigan-Pipe, a highly regarded Hamilton social justice activist in her own right, announced the news on Twitter.

Selway is survived by his spouse of 42 years, Sheri; their daughters Zoe (Brad), Patricia (David) and three grandchildren: Jackson, Nathan and Kira. He was predeceased by his father, Bernard Selway. Shawn Selway is also survived by his mother, Gerda Selway, and his siblings Maureen (Caleb), Michael (Linda), Sharon, Denise (Kevin) and Charles (Caroline).

‘Relation between the technical and political solutions’

On his bio at the Writers’ Union of Canada site, Selway described himself as sonmeone who spurred to explore and understand “the relation between the technical and the political solutions to problems.”

The lifelong Hamiltonian was a Stelco-trained millwright and a religious studies graduate of McMaster University. He also put his knowhow as an industrial mechanic toward operating Pragmata Historic Machinery Conservation Services, which provided consulting and technical services to preservationists.

One of Selway’s other passions was improving housing conditions in Hamilton, which has become a front-burner issue in a city that has the third-highest relative-to-income housing costs in North America. In 2018, Selway assisted in the seven-month-long Stoney Creek Tower rent strike.

Following Tuesday’s death announcement, Downtown Sparrow, a volunteer-driven Hamilton information site, shared several of Selway’s articles and essays that explored his love for Hamilton, and dedication to improving life in the city.

In lieu of flowers, Selway’s family has asked for donations to Indwell (indwell.ca/donate) and the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI; donation link at canadahelps.org). Indwell is a Christian charity that creates affordable housing communities that support people seeking health, wellness and belonging.

(Cover photo via Hamilton Wet’suwet’en Solidarity.)

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