150+ Canadians Day 105: Harold Cardinal

Harold Cardinal contributed to peace by advocating for radical changes in policies affecting First Nations in Canada.

Harold Cardinal, an outstanding First Nations leader, philosopher, scholar, teacher, negotiator and lawyer was born in Northern Alberta in 1945. In 1968 at the age of 23, as a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation, Harold Cardinal was elected president of the Indian Association of Alberta (the forerunner of the Assembly of First Nations), its youngest president. During his unprecedented 9 terms in office 1968-77, he initiated many programs to affirm Indigenous culture, religion and traditions. After his Presidency he served as Band Chief to Sucker Creek First Nation.

Cardinal was a lifelong student of First Nations law and this study was complemented, but in no way supplanted, by extensive study of law in mainstream educational institutions. He earned a doctorate in law in his 40s, entered the Bar of Alberta at 59, and taught at the University of Saskatchewan. He completed his Masters of Law at Harvard University, and received his PhD in law posthumously form the University of BC. He was also a generous mentor and inspiration to a great many Indigenous and non- Indigenous students, professionals and political leaders.

Cardinal served as the Vice Chief of the Assembly of First Nations during the period of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in the early 1980s. He was instrumental in the creation, in 1984, of the Prairie Treaty Nations Alliance, representing all First Nations of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, to advance issues of concern to those First Nations with particular emphasis on their treaties with the Crown.

He is perhaps best known for writing “The Unjust Society”, his response to then Minister of Indian Affairs, P. E. Trudeau’s “White Paper”, which advocated the elimination of separate legal status for Indigenous people in Canada. The white paper amounted to an assimilation program which, if implemented, would have repealed the Indian Act, transferred responsibility for Indian Affairs to the provinces and terminated the rights of Indians under the various treaties they had made with the Crown. The result was a complete about-face by the federal government on the policies of the White Paper and the establishment of joint meetings between First Nations and the federal cabinet in the early 1970.

“If we are to be part of the Canadian mosaic, then we want to be colourful red tiles, taking our place where red is both needed and appreciated.”

Cardinal was not only an architect of change on the political level; he was also instrumental in engaging and redefining the manner in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous people related to one another. One of the foundations of his life work was the insistence of the need for mutual recognition, understanding, and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. While he acknowledged difference, he still fundamentally believed in the power of relationship: “Two more disparate people, speaking in different tongues, speaking from different worlds, would be hard to find anywhere and yet their dreams, their visions, their hopes, and their aspirations could not find any greater fusion”. Cardinal is also one of the first Indigenous scholars who actively sought “…a convergence between the knowledge systems of the Cree people and other First Nations and the knowledge systems found in Western educational institutions” (Cardinal, 2007, p. 65). Upon recognition of the power of colonization over both societies, Cardinal foresaw a bridge of understanding between them.

Honours and Awards

  • Honorary doctor of laws from the University of Alberta (1999)
  • Appointed Indigenous Scholar in Residence, School of Law, University of Alberta (1999)
  • National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2001)

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