James Gladstone, Canada’s First Native Senator
A farmer and lobbyist for rights, James Gladstone of Alberta’s Kainai Reserve arrived in the Senate of Canada with one big problem – First Nations people could not vote.
In native headdress of long feathers held with a band crafted of beautiful, fine beadwork, and dressed in an elegant beaded coat to match, James Gladstone posed for a formal photograph in Ottawa, Ontario. On May 12, 1958 at age 71, Gladstone was sworn in as a member of the Senate of Canada, the first native to hold the position.
Born on May 21, 1887 to a Cree father and Kainai mother, James Gladstone – his Indian name was Akay-na-muka, meaning “Many Guns” –
spent his childhood on the Kainai Reserve in southern Alberta. He attended the Anglican Mission School in his early years, then in 1903 attended the Indian Industrial School in Calgary as a printing apprentice. Two years later, Gladstone returned to the Reserve, working as an interpreter and in Fort MacLeod as a cattle wrangler. He also found work with the RCMP as interpreter and scout.
James Gladstone an Alberta Cattle Farmer
Marrying Janie Healy in 1911, the Gladstones had six children. As years passed, the two sons joined with their father to operate a large ranch with 400 cattle and over 700 acres of land. Gladstone was an innovative businessman, bringing the first tractor to the reserve, said Alberta Online Encyclopedia, and he urged “the Kainai Nation to adopt modern farming and ranching practices”. His progressive ideas took him to join the Indian Association of Alberta (IAA) in an effort to bring change for native people. With his strengths in leadership and consensus-building, Gladstone was voted president of the IAA in 1950, serving until 1953, and from 1956 to 1957. The group lobbied the Alberta and Canadian Governments for revisions to the oppressive Indian Act.
Gladstone Appointed by Prime Minister
The Canadian Prime Minister in that era, John Diefenbaker, acknowledged “government’s willingness to work towards improving life for Aboriginal Peoples in Canada,” said Alberta Online Encyclopedia, and also recognized James Gladstone’s work over many years to improve Native rights. Diefenbaker appointed Gladstone to the Upper House in 1958, enabling the new Senator to push for reforms on issues from a stronger platform. In his first speech to the House, Gladstone spoke in the Blackfoot language, “to place in the official debates a few words in the language of my people… as a recognition of the first Canadians,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
No Right to Vote for Status Natives
One urgently-needed reform was to give the Aboriginals the right to vote in Canada. While Gladstone had risen to the prestigious post of Senator, as a Status Indian, he still did not have the voting franchise. Women had received the right to vote decades earlier; Natives could vote if they gave up their “right to be registered under the Indian Act, their treaty rights,” and, said Elections Canada, “their statutory right to property tax exemption.” Though Gladstone lobbied, the right to vote was not bestowed on Status Indians until two years later, in 1960.
James Gladstone remained in the Senate until he retired on March 3, 1971, just a few weeks short of his 84th birthday. Living in Fernie, British Columbia, he died six months later on the 4th of September, 1971. Thirty years later, his important work on native issues was celebrated with the unveiling of a bust of Gladstone in the Senate on October 25, 2001. Several of his children were present for the honour.
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2009. Copyright Susanna McLeod.