Obituary: Chief of Chiefs Dies at 91

By Staff Writers

Chief Frank, The Chief of Chiefs of the Nisga’a Nation, Frank Calder, died Saturday November 4, in an assisted living home in Victoria at the age of 91. He was born August 3, 1915 at Nass Harbour Cannery and adopted by then Nisga’a Chief Naqua-oon and his wife (Arthur and Louise Calder).

His death reminds us that a generation of pioneering leaders of First Nations are passing, but their legacy lives on in the ever increasing strength of Native communities all over Canada.

Frank Calder in his long and productive life achieved success in many different areas of public life. After being sent at age seven to the Anglican Church’s Coqualeetza residential school at Sardis, he was the first Indian to study at Chilliwak High School and then went on to earn a degree in Theology at UBC.

He then ran successfully as a provincial NDP candidate in the Aitlin riding in 1949, and later when Dave Barrett led the party to power in 1972 by defeating W.A.C. Bennett, Calder became British Columbia’s first aboriginal Cabinet Minister. In his first speech in the legislature (February 1950) Calder called for the establishment of a B.C. Bill of Rights. This turned out to be the opening salvo in his life long fight for ancestral Nisga’a rights and the Nisga’a land claims campaign.

He seemed to have been destined to lead this fight. His father had presented the child to a gathering of elders meeting shortly after he was adopted, and holding him over his head had proclaimed: “This boy is going to learn the laws of the K’umsiiwa (the white people). And when he comes home he’s going to move the mountain.’ That mountain was the pile of seemingly unresolvable obstacles that stood in the way of making progress on the issue of historic land claims.

In 1955, the moribund Nisga’a Land Committee formed in 1909 re-established itself as the Nisga’a Tribal Council and elected Calder president. In 1968 Calder and the Council sued the government and forced the land claims debate into the courts and the public consciousness. Seven Supreme Court judges agreed that natives had once held title but were divided on whether title still existed. That first legal case was lost on a technicality, but it had served to begin to move the mountain.

The Chief of Chiefs (Chief Lisims) is a title designating Calder’s success in uniting the Nisga’a people of all four clans in order to bring the Nisga’a land claims campaign to completion in 2000. He also rose to a position of leadership in the Anglican Church, and was a member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. Calder’s lawyer and friend Ian Izard, law clerk for the B.C. legislative assembly, had this to say about his passing.

“He was always wonderfully inspirational. He always truly believed the Nisga’a would win out in the end.” And indeed on April 13, 2000, the Nisga’a Treaty was finally proclaimed law and the mountain was moved, fulfilling the prophecy made almost a century earlier by Chief Naqua-oon at the gathering of elders to whom he presented his adopted son. This is the legacy of Frank Calder, Chief of Chiefs. A memorial service is to be held at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria.