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James Gladstone-Trailblazer

James Basil Gladstone, Kainai (Blood) interpreter, farmer, rancher, Indigenous rights advocate, senator (born 21 May 1887 at Mountain Hill, North-West Territories; died September 4th, 1971 at Fernie, BC) was of mixed Scottish-Cree-French Canadian ancestry. Gladstone devoted most of his life to the betterment of Indigenous peoples in Canada and was appointed the country’s first senator with Indian Status.

Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a fellow westerner, appointed James Gladstone to the Senate on January 31st, 1958 as its first Indigenous senator. This happened two years before status Indians were granted the right to vote in Canada, a cause that Gladstone championed. As a senator, he co-chaired many committees, including the Joint Committee on Indian Affairs, Special Committee on Land Use and Special Joint Committee on Indian Claims. Gladstone sat as an Independent Conservative in the Senate until he voluntarily retired on March 31st, 1971.

During his first speech in the Senate on August 13th, 1958, Gladstone briefly spoke in the Blackfoot language to put in the official record “a few words in the language of my own people…as a recognition of the first Canadians.” Translated, he said, “The Indians of Canada are very happy to know they have someone in Ottawa to represent them in the Government of Canada. I pray that I will be able to speak the right words for them.” He then continued with a lengthy speech which described some of the problems Indigenous peoples experienced across Canada, particularly in farming, ranching, fishing, trapping and education. He noted that many of these difficulties resulted from government paternalism toward Indigenous peoples in Canada and caused widespread frustration among them.

In August 1960, James Gladstone received the American Indian of the Year Award at a ceremony in Montana, US. He was the first Canadian to be so recognized. In 1969, the University of Lethbridge awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in its first honorary degree ceremony.

In April 2017, the Bank of Canada introduced a $10 banknote to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation. It features a portrait of Gladstone along with those of Sir John A Macdonald, Sir George-Etienne Cartier and Agnes Macphail.

While visiting British Columbia, James Gladstone died in the Fernie Memorial Hospital at 84 years of age. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery on the Kainai First Nation.

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