Pioneer Indian lawyer speaks up for the rights of his people

William Wuttunee pounded the table softly. The white-haired lawyer, a Plains Cree, was talking of a recent case -- a custody battle over a 15-year-old Indian girl. He felt strongly that the mother, whom he represented, should regain custody of the child, and made his case in no uncertain terms.

``I raise Cain all the time,'' he admits. ``That is what I get paid for.''

Mr. Wuttunee has for many years been battling to improve the rights and position of Canada's 500,000 ``status'' Indians. Another half million or so ``natives'' of mixed blood also come under his watchful eye. And he keenly sympathizes with his mostly Indian clients.

``We have abnormal stresses,'' he says. ``We don't have normal problems. Many Indians get life beaten out of them at an early age.''

After he was graduated from the University of Saskatchewan's law school in 1952, Wuttunee became western Canada's first Indian lawyer. He subsequently became the first Indian lawyer to present a case before the Supreme Court of Canada. By 1959 he was much involved in setting up key Indian organizations, such as the National Indian Council, which eventually became the Assembly of First Nations. He also organized the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians. Further, he established the Native Council of Canada in 1969 for the m'etis (those of mixed Indian and white blood).

``I can see the fruits of my labor now,'' he says, referring to the activities of such organizations.

Marion Ironquil Meadmore, an Indian lawyer in Winnipeg who worked with Wuttunee in organizing the National Indian Council, comments: ``That guy gave as much as any person to this whole [Indian] movement. He was totally dedicated. I haven't seen the likes of it since.''

Interviewed over breakfast here, Wuttunee noted that ``historically, the Indians in Canada did not suffer the way they did in the United States.'' Canada's Indians, in general, were not slaughtered in wars or otherwise persecuted as they were south of the border.

However, they did suffer from isolation in reservations and from white man's diseases. For many years, they were not educated adequately and lacked proper medical care, notes Wuttunee.

``Now Indians are provided more services than they get in the US,'' he maintains. ``They have negotiated themselves into a better position than in the United States.''

In fact, Canada's 1981 Constitution gives Canada's Indians, m'etis, and Inuit (Eskimos) something of a special status by recognizing and affirming ``existing aboriginal and treaty rights.''

Canadian Indians have equal rights before the law with other Canadians. But Wuttunee argues that often the justice system fails in dealing with Indians.

``Our laws don't discriminate,'' he charges. ``But the people [in the police and justice system] often discriminate.''

Despite his pioneering role in fighting for a better deal for Indians, Wuttunee nowadays often finds himself disagreeing with today's crop of Indian leaders.

``That man was always years ahead of his time,'' says Mrs. Meadmore.

In 1971, he wrote a book entitled ``Ruffled Feathers,'' which became highly controversial in Canada. (He has also written poetry.) It argued, as he put it, that Indians must get off their bottoms, get to work, and stop depending on the government.

That view was not accepted by most Indians then. But it has become increasingly the goal of Indian organizations.

In many reservations, the Indian ``nations'' are striving for economic development with venture capital and other business activities. They see a need to be more economically self-sufficient as part of a movement toward greater self-government. In Saskatchewan, for example, the Indians now run their own schools on reserves. They have their own school of social work, of nursing, and of law. The number of children going all the way through high school into college has escalated rapidly.

A goal of Indians in some reserves is to establish their own court systems, says Meadmore. They want a sort of ``provincial status'' with the right to pass their own laws and govern themselves. They would like to be able to set up their own banks, since no Canadian bank now has a branch on an Indian reservation.

Since there are some 592 Indian reserves in Canada with an average population of under 500, this aim of self-government prompts some controversy.

The relatively new Progressive Conservative government has endorsed the basic idea of more self-government for the reserves. David Crombie, the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, talks about how this should proceed at a measured pace and respect the diversity of the various Indian bands.

Legislation is to be introduced into the House of Commons shortly that will give the Sechelt reservation in British Columbia more autonomy. The Nishawbe-Aski in Ontario are negotiating an agreement with both the federal and provincial governments giving them more authority. The Pointe Bleu group in Quebec is also working over a proposal.

Wuttunee gets some satisfaction from the fact that a 1959 submission of his to a joint committee of the federal House of Commons and Senate included a model Indian Act that forms the basis of some Indian arguments for provincial status for reservations.

However, though much in favor of Indian economic development and involved in some oil and gas promotions himself, the lawyer sees the idea of Indian ``separateness'' as bound to fail. He sees a continued need for economic and social integration with the white man's Canada.

Though noting that Indians have managed so far to remain an identifiable group, he says, ``Canadian Indians are becoming more and more integrated and assimilated, not because that is what they want, but because the forces of society compel them to.''

``People can't make a living on the reservations,'' he continues. ``So they go to the cities where the excitement is, where the jobs are. They aren't necessarily happier. Indian value systems are different. I am not sure the Indian is certain that what white civilization gives him is what he wants.''

Thinking of the hunting-trapping-gathering society of earlier Indians, he says: ``To put it very bluntly, the traditional Indian no longer exists. The Indian is in transition. That has always happened in history. It is not bad.''

``My children are not natives in transition. They are Canadians. It is that simple.''

Over time, he expects white society's remaining discrimination against Indians to diminish.

``We are all one people on earth,'' he says. ``Color should not matter.''

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