Born on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan on July 18, 1899, John Tootoosis was the son of Mary Theresa and John Tootoosis. His grandfather was Yellow Mud Blanket, whose brother was the legendary Cree leader Poundmaker.
Tootoosis would say decades later quote:
“I come from the Poundmaker reserve. That Poundmaker Reserve is neither Saskatchewan nor Canada. It is my nation.”
As a child, he was taken from his family at the age of 13 and forced to attend the Thunderchild Residential School. He would remain there for four years before returning home. The experience at residential school would be traumatic for Tootoosis and it would lead him to criticize the system throughout his entire life. He was also harshly critical of the control the Roman Catholic Church had over the Indigenous. He would say of his time in the residential school that children learned discipline, but little else, in a daily routine of intensive prayer and manual labour.
Upon his return home, his father began to get Tootoosis involved in the political life of the reserve.
In 1920, at the age of only 21, Tootoosis was appointed as the chief of his band by those in his community. This leadership position was not recognized by the Department of Indian Affairs, which had put itself in charge of reserves and required chiefs to be 25 years of age and older. As a result of this, another chief was chosen by the department.
Tootoosis would continue to have a leadership position unofficially in the community.
In 1929, Tootoosis married Louisa Angus and together they would have 10 sons and three daughters. More on some of those children later.
In 1932, after the sudden death of his father, he replaced him officially as chief and became the secretary of the League of Indians of Western Canada.
Throughout the 1930s, Tootoosis would travel to meet with other Indigenous leaders. This was forbidden by the Indian Act which did not allow gatherings for political purposes. As a result, it often resulted in Tootoosis being at odds with Indian Affairs officials, including once at the Cowessess First Nation where he was arrested and put on a train back home. To do the travels to meet with other Indigenous leaders, Tootoosis relied completely on donations to pay his way throughout Western Canada. He walked, rode a horse, hitched a train, anyway he could travel, he would. He would recall one ride in which he was perched on the hood of a car that was being towed by a horse.
In 1936, he collected enough donations to take the train to Ottawa to meet with the Department of Indian Affairs to find out why the League of Saskatchewan Indians was not having its requests listened to. On the train, he met an Anglican priest who warned him that the RCMP would be looking for him.
Due to being labelled as a Communist and troublemaker, he often had to dodge the RCMP as he travelled without a permit from the Indian Agent. The Catholic Church and federal government were also unhappy with him and saw him as a disturber of the peace.
Tootoosis would say quote:
One issue was related to oil on reserves. Applications to drill on Indigenous reserves in Saskatchewan were put forward by several companies. These applications were put in place without consultation with the Indigenous on the reserves. To deal with this, he would be sent by his people to present their case to Indian Affairs over the issue of the government drilling on reserves for oil without permission.
Tootoosis always felt that the Indigenous nations should negotiate with the United Kingdom, not Canada. He would state quote:
“This treaty we made with Great Britain. There can’t be no third party come in there. We were two parties that made this treaty because a treaty is a contract which we have to live up to.”
One story that comes from his travels concerns another activist. While having breakfast at a shop near the Parliament buildings, he would come across Grey Owl, who was there to meet with the Prime Minister and Governor General. Grey Owl came up to Tootoosis and asked if he could join him for his breakfast and the two talked for some time.
Grey Owl, who would be busy all day, offered his hotel room for John to sleep in until he returned. The two then met in the evening and spoke further and Grey Owl offered to introduce Tootoosis to people at Indian Affairs. Unfortunately, Tootoosis was unable to meet any senior officials and those he did meet at Indian Affairs were very dismissive of him.
While Tootoosis knew immediately that Grey Owl was not Indigenous, he did see Grey Owl as an ally to the cause.
Despite his treatment from the government and other white people, Tootoosis was always willing to work with anyone who wanted to help his people. He would say quote:
“Working together, if you can help us on that, that would be wonderful. It would probably be the best thing that ever happened in Canada.”
During the Second World War, Tootoosis took up the cause of returning Indigenous soldiers, hoping they would not lose rights upon returning home. He would say quote:
“We want to make quite sure before they come back that they will not be neglected on their return.”
In 1946 at the Barry Hotel in Saskatoon, Tootoosis would become the president of the new Union of Saskatchewan Indians.
The Saskatoon Star Phoenix would write quote:
“Tootoosis has frequently been the spokesman for his people in matters pertaining to their treaty rights and more than once has stated the Indian viewpoint before officials in Ottawa.”
Tootoosis also wanted there to be an Indigenous representative in the House of Commons to deal with matters that impacted the Indigenous.
He would co-found the organization with Henry John and Joe Dreaver after realizing the Indigenous needed to unite to counter the broken promises by the federal government.
Tootoosis would say quote:
In 1951, Tootoosis was called to Ottawa to represent the Saskatchewan Union of Indians in discussions over the new Indian Act, Indian Bill 267. Tootoosis and his organization rejected many of the features of the new bill, especially with how it related to the enfranchisement of the Indigenous.
Tootoosis would say that the Saskatchewan Indigenous were not anxious to see changes to their present Bill of Rights, made by proclamation in 1763. At the time, to vote they would have to give up their treaty rights, something Tootoosis was not happy about. He would state quote:
“We do not want the right to vote. We wish to keep our treaty rights.”
Later in that year, Tootoosis would help to translate the new federal Indian Act into Cree so that it could be read by more Indigenous in the Canadian Prairies.
In 1952, a large cairn was unveiled at the Poundmaker Reserve to commemorate the Battle of Cut Knife, fought during the 1885 North West Resistance. On hand was Governor General Vincent Massey, while Tootoosis translated his words into Cree for the gathered Indigenous.
In 1959, the Union of Saskatchewan Indians became the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and Tootoosis was named as its first president. He would remain as its president for 13 years.
The Regina Leader-Post reported quote:
“John Tootoosis of the North Battleford Indian agency was elected president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians sessions of the second annual conference of Indian chiefs and band councilors.”
When the Indigenous were granted the right to vote in 1960, Tootoosis worried about the loss of certain rights under treaties once again, and the eroding of Indigenous culture. He would say quote:
“I don’t know what the Indians are going to say about this. Premier Douglas has told us on more than one occasion that it was not the policy of his government to give anything to people they don’t want and that, if the Indians asked for the vote, we are prepared to give it to them. We did not ask for the right to vote.”
He would add years later on his decision not to vote, quote:
“I have no right to be voting for a government on the land which is no longer mine. That’s your business. But sometimes you make big mistakes by choosing the wrong man.”
Throughout these years, he would bring the message of Indigenous concerns beyond Canada’s borders. He would travel to South America, Sweden, Alaska and Australia so he could learn about Indigenous problems elsewhere and find solutions to Indigenous problems in Canada. Wherever he travelled in his life, he carried a copy of Treaty 6 and a silver medal presented to his ancestors as a symbol of the agreement.
He would say of his travels quote:
“We have to get acquainted with the other nations of the United Nations to get the recognition and try to get the support. By learning about what other Indigenous peoples have gone through, Canadian Indians will know better how to guide themselves here.”
In 1977, when the Saskatchewan of Federation Indians were looking to create a position paper for dealing with the Trudeau government, Tootoosis would say quote:
“We should stand together. We will be that much stronger.”
His son Gordon would say quote:
“The government would like to sweep our treaty under the carpet as something that is obsolete, but he would pull the copy out to remind them it is still a valid agreement.”
In 1970, he was appointed to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Senate, where he would remain for the next 19 years.
For Tootoosis, he was always committed to having the federal government live up to its treaty obligations, something he felt would aid Indigenous economic development. He would state quote:
“We never got what was coming to us, all we need is money from the department and we will build the economic base ourselves. We were promised that Indian rights would be protected for as long as the sun shines and the grass grow and the rivers flow.”
He would add in a later interview, quote:
“We made a promise. That is why we want to hold to the treaty. In our treaty, Indians were promised that Indians would have the same level of education as people that came in to live with us, which we never had.”
He was instrumental in ensuring that Indigenous rights were entrenched in the 1982 Constitution Act. He would lead a 20-member delegation of Indigenous from Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Tootoosis would say later quote:
“The Indian people have done a lot for you, but you’ve done nothing for me. For 114 years, we have been suffering here. Just lately, you have opened the door narrowly.”
In 1986, Tootoosis was awarded the Order of Canada. His son Gordon would say his father had mixed feelings about the award, stating quote:
“He did appreciate being honored by Canada but at the same time he felt like it was a bit of a token. You know, hey how about honoring our treaties.”
Tootoosis would pass away on Feb. 2, 1989, due to complications from a heart attack.
Roland Crowe, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, would say quote:
“We thought of him as a statesman, not a politician. He always addressed the tough issues head on.”
Before his death, the Regina Leader-Post said of him quote:
“When the white people of Saskatchewan hear the name John, they automatically think of the late John Diefenbaker but to the Indian people of Saskatchewan, John is John Tootoosis. He’s an articulate and passionate speaker. His energy and work capacity would put to shame most men half his age. He’s tough and determined. His piercing, dark brown eyes reinforce the intensity of his tone.”
As for his family, his son Gordon Tootoosis would become a celebrated Indigenous actor, with his most famous role coming on North of 60 where he played Albert Golo. John Tootoosis’ daughter was Jean Cuthand Goodwill, the first Indigenous woman to graduate from a nursing program in Saskatchewan and someone else I have covered on the podcast. Both his son and daughter would also be awarded the Order of Canada. His grandson, Tyrone Tootoosis would become an activist, story keeper and actor who was awarded the Canadian Diamond Jubilee medal.
His son Gordon would write of him quote:
“Collision with the tough world of white politics never changed his view of the world. Spiritual and humanitarian concerns remained the highest values in his world view, which was the best articulated in his native Cree.”
Information from Regina Leader-Post, University of Saskatchewan, Past Forward, Wikipedia, Macleans, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Regina Leader-Post, Winnipeg Tribune, Ottawa Citizen, Red Deer Advocate,