By Clint Buehler
EDMONTON – When Willie Littlechild receives an honorary doctorate at the University of Alberta’s Spring Convocation it will be only the latest of many honours he has received acknowledging his many achievements.
And those achievements are wide ranging, including athletics, politics, law and public service—locally, provincially, nationally and internationally.
If you’re looking for a poster boy to serve as a role model for Aboriginal achievement, you need look no further than Jacob Wilton Littlechild, O.C., Q.C., I.P.C.
His inspiring story begins on his home Ermineskin First Nation at Hobbema, Alberta and his elementary and secondary schooling at Ermineskin School and St. Anthony’s College.
A gifted athlete, Willie would go on to win more than 45 university, national and international competitions, including stellar performances as a member of the U of A hockey and diving teams, plus serving as general manager of the university’s football team. He ultimately earned Bachelor and Masters degrees in Physical Education.
His accomplishments in sports and health earned him both the Alberta Award for Excellence in Athletics and induction into the University of Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. He would later also be inducted into the Saskatchewan First Nations Sports Hall of Fame and the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
A passionate advocate for Aboriginal participation in sport, Willie began organizing an international sporting event for the indigenous peoples of North America, and in 1990 the first North American Indigenous Games was held in Edmonton, with games later taking place in various locations in Canada and the United States in 1993, 1995, 1997 and 2002.
For his contributions to this initiative, he was awarded the International Gold “Medaille d’Excellence” as Lauriette for Sports 1999/2000 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Willie was pursuing his interest in law, becoming the first Treaty Indian from Alberta to earn a law degree when he graduated in 1976 from the University of Alberta.
That was when—after 24 years spent gaining his education—the Elders called him into a teepee and told him that would be the first day of his “Indian Law School.” The Elders were concerned about violation of their treaties and, because the Ermineskin Treaty (Treaty 6) had been signed by Queen Victoria, they had decided that those violations needed to be dealt with in the international arena.
Littlechild, who had thought he would never have any use for knowing international law, would go from representing his own nation in international legal proceeding to the broader international jurisdiction of the United Nations and its affiliated organizations, with ever increasing responsibilities and influence.
In 1980 and 1981, he was a member of the legal team sent to the British High Courts in London, England as part of a lawsuit to block patriation of the Canadian Constitution until Aboriginal and Treaty rights were protected and included in the Constitution.
He would also successfully venture into partisan publics, elected in his home riding of Wetaskiwin in 1988 and serving five years in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government where he made a number of significant contributions.
(While some unofficial biographies credit Willie with being the first First Nations person elected to the Canadian Parliament, that achievement goes to Len Marchand of the Okanagan Band, who served as parliamentary secretary to Jean Chretien when he was Indian Affairs minister, and as Minister of State for Small Business, and who was later appointed to the Senate by Chretien. He is credited with significantly advancing the Aboriginal cause during his more than three decades in public life)
As a Member of Parliament he served on several senior committees, including the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution, and as a parliamentary delegate to the United Nations. Working at the international level, Willie organized a coalition of indigenous nations that pursued and gained consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations which led to him being appointed to the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples by the ECOSOC President.
He was the key player in securing a voting seat for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples at the International Labour Organization, and was a founder of the International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development, and a founding member of the Indigenous Initiative for Peace. He is currently one of 16 members on the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
He is also the current Alberta regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
For those and many other achievements, Willie Littlechild’s contributions have been acknowledged in many different ways.
He is acknowledged by the law profession as Queen’s Counsel and Indigenous Peoples’ Counsel, and is a member of the Order of Canada.
Reflecting on the motivation for his activism, he has written: “Our ancestors in some areas have secured our traditional ways and food systems in Treaties. These international agreements were signed ‘for so long as the grass grows, the rivers flow and the sun shines.’ For sharing our lands, we were to maintain our ‘vocations of hunting, fishing, trapping’ and gathering through certain tracts. We were to be able to do these for food at all seasons of the year. In others, we were to be assisted by Treaty ‘to be engaged in cultivating the soil’ as a right to development. There are other principles in international covenants which state that ‘Peoples’ may not be denied ‘their own means of subsistence.’”