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There have been many Indigenous trailblazers when it comes to the world of politics. Today, I am looking at the man who paved the way to the Senate, James Gladstone.

Born on May 21, 1887, he would choose the name of Akay-na-muka, which means Many Guns when he was 10-year-old. Gladstone was not born with Indigenous status. His maternal grandfather was a Scottish Canadian who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and married a Metis woman. Their daughter, Harriet, was born in Rocky Mountain House and she would marry a white frontiersman. Together they would have Gladstone.

Pushed into Residential School as a child, Gladstone remained at the St. Dunstans Indian Industrial School until 1903 and then went to Calgary to intern as a printer at the Calgary Herald.

In 1905, Gladstone returned to the Blood Reserve south of Calgary to work as an interpreter and ranch hand.

In 1911, he began to work for the Royal North West Mounted Police as a scout, interpreter and mail carrier.

He would marry Janie Healy, a member of the Blood Tribe and in 1920 she petitioned the government for the inclusion of Gladstone on the Indian Registry, which was approved.

He would say years later quote:

“I wasn’t officially adopted into the Blood Tribe until 1920. Oh, I’d lived with the Bloods all my life. I’d gone to school with them, and I’d married one of them. I was in effect one of them.”

Once he gained Treaty Status, he lost the right to vote in federal elections. He would say quote:

“It was before that time, in 1911, that I voted. I voted Conservative. The country was just opening up. Settlers from the east came by rail but most of the settlers were Americans from the south. There were no fences to stop them. They came in covered wagons with their cattle, horses and household effects.”

Gladstone then worked to establish himself on the reserve. He said quote:

“In five years I will have a comfortable house.”

He would be right. In 1927, he would bring the first tractor to his reserve, while also being the first person on the reserve with electricity and a privately-owned threshing machine. By the 1950s, he would have 400 head of cattle and 720 acres under cultivation.

Gladstone would criticize the government for how it limited the Indigenous. He would state quote:

“If the Indians and the Indian Agency people in the field had given a freer hand and not had to get approval all the time from Ottawa, they would have progressed faster.”

In 1945, Gladstone attended a meeting of the Indian Association of Alberta. The meeting inspired him to become involved in Indigenous activism.

In 1949, Gladstone was elected as the president of the Indian Association of Alberta. He would go to Ottawa three times to seek improvements to the Indian Act.

Gladstone would work at a number of issues, including announcing improvements to education facilities located on reserves, while encouraging a larger number of Indigenous to move on to secondary schools.

One of the major issues that he tackled were proposed changes to the Indian Act that would have only given Indian Status to those born full-blooded Indigenous, rather than anyone who had mixed ancestry like Gladstone. The Calgary Herald reported quote:

“The meeting also agreed that there should be no change in defining Indian Status in relation to membership in bands which as presently constituted permits admission by birth and by vote of the band. Some felt that the proposed act would restrict membership to pure blooded Indians of the most primitive type.”

He would serve until 1954, but in 1957 he became an honorary president of the association.

He would also stand as the representative of the Indigenous people of Canada in the House of Commons when Queen Elizabeth II opened Parliament for the first time in history.

In January 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker nominated Gladstone for the Canadian Senate. This was two years before Status Indigenous could even vote in federal elections.

Gladstone would say of his accomplishment quote:

“My accomplishment is not exceptional. The men I grew up with who have worked hard and made full use of their opportunities have done as well as I.”

He would also speak of the task ahead, stating quote:

“You must learn to treat every Indian individually according to his ability and interests. The Indian can’t be driven and only an understanding and interested leadership can aid him in the realization of his potential.”

Gladstone would state that while he was from Alberta, he would speak for all the Indigenous. He would state quote:

“The fact they chose me is recognition of all the Indian people of Alberta and the two other western provinces. But I am definitely going to try to know how all the Indians of Canada feel about problems affecting them.”

He would state that he planned to enter the Senate Chambers in his full Indigenous ceremonial dress.

“My work in the Senate will be aimed at improving the position of Canada’s Indians, obtaining gradually for them better conditions as they want them and are ready for them and without changes being forced upon them.”

Upon his appointment, the Whitehorse Daily Star described Gladstone as such quote:

“His hands, stained by the smoke of home-made cigarettes, are a worker’s hands, large and calloused. His face, like the arroyo, cut country of his native southern Alberta, is creased with deep wrinkles from long exposure to the sun and wind of the plains. Beneath a shock of white hair, his eyes peer out at you, friendly, inquiring and lit with the quiet humour of a man who has seen the brawling and brash little settlements of the Canadian West grow up into brawling and brash big cities.”

To meet the requirements for property to sit on the Senate, Gladstone and his wife drove to nearby Cardston and bought a five-room bungalow.

Entering the Senate chambers, Gladstone soon found that few other senators, or other politicians, would even speak to him. One that did was Jack Horner, a Senator from Alberta who had been elected the same year that Gladstone was appointed.

In order to fit in, Gladstone’s wife would cut off her braids and leave her ceremonial costume at home.

As a senator, sitting as an Independent Conservative, Gladstone would push for the Indigenous to receive the right to vote. In his first speech in the Senate on Aug. 13, 1958, he would speak briefly in Blackfoot so he could put in the official record quote:

“a few words in the language of my own people, as recognition of the first Canadians.”

He would serve as the Chair of the Standing Committee on Indian Affairs.

Gladstone would say quote:

“I am here to make the white people see that the Indians have been downtrodden for more than 50 years, that they should have been given equality in the first place. We must help the Indians get back their pride and go on from there.”

In August 1960, he received the American Indian of the Year Award in Montana, becoming the first Canadian to receive the honour.

That same year, the Indigenous of Canada were finally given the right to vote in federal elections. Gladstone would state he approved of the move in giving the franchise to the Indigenous without taking away their treaty rights. He would say quote:

“It is what the Indians want. After my appointment, the Indian people had the vote extended to them. They should have had it long before. Compare the statistics showing Indian volunteers in both wars with any other group.”

He would state that if he had felt the bill would be detrimental to the Indigenous, he would have voted against it. He would say quote:

“If I thought for one moment that any of these fears were justified, I would fight this bill to the very end.”

In 1969, changes to the Indian Act were proposed in a white paper, which was widely criticized by the Indigenous. Gladstone would state quote:

“They made a bonfire out in Vancouver and that was the Indian reaction throughout Canada. I was amazed at how the Indian people themselves argued and threshed out each point publicly before the Minister. I was proud of them. The young Indians showed they can hold their own and take part effectively in Canadian affairs.”

In March 1971, Gladstone retired from the Senate. In his final speech to the Senate, he stated that he looked forward to seeing Indigenous senators from every province, not just one. He would state quote:

“All people of this good country, wherever they come from, will forget their national differences and make the country into one nation.”

Speaking on a future Canadian Constitution, one that would come over a decade later, he would state quote:

“I would like to see an improvement which would make my own people full partners in all the responsibilities of being citizens of the country. Our people have been citizens within the meaning of the word anyway. I do not think we needed to go before a judge to become citizens, we were so born.”

The Ottawa Journal would write of his retirement quote:

“He rejoins the Blood Indians who adopted him over 50 years ago and who shared the honor of his Senate appointment. He rejoins his six sons and daughters, all well respected in their own right. He has recommended, remonstrated and reminisced. He has no regrets.”

His retirement party included John Diefenbaker, who praised the senator for his work over the previous 13 years.

Gladstone would say that he would miss the committee meetings, and he would miss sitting in the Senate when he was home in Cardston.

On Sept. 4, 1971, he died of a heart attack in Fernie.

The Calgary Albertan would write quote:

“James Gladstone’s appointment as Canada’s first Indian senator in 1958 was regarded in some quarters as a grandstanding gesture on the part of the newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. There was probably some justification for that view, but if Senator Gladstone secretly shared it, he did not act on it. On the contrary, he saw his appointment as an opportunity to advance the cause of his people in Parliament, and he pursued that goal, quietly and constructively, for 12 years, until his resignation.”

His funeral was attended by Len Marchand, the only Indigenous member of Parliament, Senator Earl Hastings, Willie Scraping White, a 100-year-old elder who gave the eulogy, and Jean Chretien, the Indian Affairs Minister and future Prime Minister of Canada.

On Oct. 25, 2001, a bust of Gladstone in full ceremonial headdress was unveiled in the Senate.

In 2017, Gladstone was featured on the Canadian ten-dollar note in honour of Canada 150.

The North Bay Nugget would say of Gladstone, and I will end the episode with this, quote:

“He strove all his life to better conditions among Canada’s Indians and, after he became a senator, urged that they be encouraged to achieve by individual effort rather than collective action.”

Information from New Federation, Canadian Encyclopedia, Windspeaker, Calgary Herald, Whitehorse Daily Star, Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, North Bay Nugget, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Albertan, Ottawa Journal

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