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Seven Aboriginal Senators: 40 years


Marie Burke, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Ottawa







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In the late 1950s, the Upper House of Parliament dusted off a seat for James Gladstone, a member of the Blood tribe of Alberta. He was Canada's first Aboriginal senator and his official appointment to the Senate was made on Jan. 31, 1958.

At the time of Gladstone's appointment, a person in Canada was described as anyone but an Indian, Native people did not have the right to vote in a federal election and few treaty Indians owned land. In fact, the lawful possession of land on reserve by Aboriginal people could be approved only by the minister of Indian Affairs through a certificate of possession. The Indian Act was used to provide protection of the land-base for First Nations communities.

Gladstone was the senator for Lethbride, Alta., and though he was described as an independent, (in the Canadian Parliamentary Guide, Gladstone stated he had no political affiliation as "treaty Indians do not have the franchise") he was seen as a Progressive Conservative.

John Diefenbaker, prime minister at the time, was quoted as saying a couple of years before Gladstone's appointment, that one of the finest gestures his government could make would be to appoint a full-blooded Indian to the Senate of Canada. There was, however, a hitch. Parliament's rules required that a senator, upon appointment, must hold real property, free and clear, that was valued at no less than $4,000. A senator must also reside in the designated area, or have real property in the division for which he was appointed.

When Gladstone accepted the Senate appointment in early January 1958, he was asked to buy land off reserve. Gladstone quickly bought property near Cardston, Alta., valued at $6,700, selling some of his cattle to do so.

In his inaugural speech, Gladstone addressed the Senate in Blackfoot. The Speaker of the House recognized only the two official languages, French and English, and no one knows what Gladstone said to the Speaker that allowed him to break the Senate tradition.

Gladstone saw several changes pass through the Upper House of Parliament. In 1960, he had the satisfaction of moving the bill through the Senate that gave federal voting privileges to Indians. During his 13 years in the Senate, he was also part of various stormy revisions to the Indian Act. At the time of his appointment Gladstone was nearly 70. He retired in 1971 when he was 84 and died later that same year.

The name "the Gentle Persuader" was given to Gladstone because of his efforts to bring attention to the needs and concerns of Aboriginal people in Canada. Hugh Dempsey is the author of The Gentle Persuader, a book about Gladstone.

Aurelien Gill, a member of Mashteuiatsh Montagnais First Nation of Quebec, is the most recent Aboriginal person to be appointed to the Senate. Gill, 65, appointed on Sept.17, is the seventh Aboriginal senator to sit in the Upper House. Gill remembers meeting Gladstone at a time when Canada saw the National Indian Brotherhood forming, the predecessor to the Assembly of First Nations. Gill was part of the brotherhood movement in Quebec and the founding president of the Conseil Attikamek-Montagnais. He was the chief of his home reserve for almost 10 years and took part in the establishment of several other Aboriginal organizations in Quebec.

"I will pursue what I started some 40 years ago," said Gill about his Senate appointment. He describes his work as attempting to lessen the gap between Aboriginal people and the rest of society. Gill expressed his surprise at the appointment and said his intent is to contribute his all to the work that needs to be done for Aboriginal people in the Senate. Gill has barely had enough time to catch his breath since the appointment and said he has much to learn about his new position.

Like Gladstone, Gill needed to quickly purchase property off reserve when he accepted the Senate appointment. He said he does not see it so much of a question of owning land while living on reserve, but as a matter f representing an area. Gill purchased property near his home reserve only four days before Prime Minister Jean Chretien's official announcement of his appointment. Gill is the Senator of Quebec and is listed as a Liberal in the Senate of Canada. He is required to retire from the Senate in the year 2008.

Today only four Aboriginal people are among the 104 members from across Canada that make up the Senate. Thelma Chalifoux, a Metis activist from Alberta, is listed as a Liberal representing Manitoba, and was appointed Dec. 2, 1997. Charlie Watt, a Liberal Senator of Quebec who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples was appointed Jan. 6, 1984. Willie Adams, a Liberal Senator of the Northwest Territories was appointed April 5, 1977. The other two Aboriginal people who once held seats in the Senate are Len Marchand, a Liberal from British Columbia, and the late Walter Twinn, a Progressive Conservative Senator of Alberta.

In the past 40 years, the Senate has seen only these seven Aboriginal people in the Upper House of Parliament, only seven to speak for the diverse and numerous Aboriginal people in Canada.