Tag Archives: Truth and Reconciliation Commission

BILL WUTTUNEE remembered 1928 – 2015

November, 2015

bill_wut2My hero and longtime friend William Wutunee has gone to meet the Great Creator at the age of 87. Or maybe not. Although Bill was a shaman who sometimes donned his Grand Chief eagle feather headdress to lead our Unitarian congregation in healing circles, he was also an intellectual who enjoyed reading atheist Richard Dawkins and debating his talking points.

Bill’s life changed Canada, not just for Native people, but for all of us. He was:

  • the first Native lawyer in Western Canada,
  • a friend and political ally of Tommy Douglas,
  • an early defence lawyer on human rights issues such as homosexuality,
  • a key person in convening the first national Chief’s conference (and the first national Chief),
  • and above all, an Assembly of First Nations strategist around the issue of residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I’ve known Bill for more than a decade, as well as his daughter Nola, a former anchor person with cable TV network APTN, and some other members of his family. I’m glad he lived to see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission deliver meaningful recommendations, even with the discomforts of his worsening health.


Helping to set up Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was just the latest work in Cree Elder Bill Wuttunee’s lifetime of activism on behalf of Native people, and indeed, of all Canadians who face discrimination.

Bill was born in 1928 and grew up on a farm on the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan. His parents, James and Jane Priscilla Wuttunee, were both well-educated for their time. James earned the equivalent of a Grade 12 diploma in the early 1900s, when few Canadians attended high school at all. The couple ran a small mixed farm, with livestock as well as crops. During the Great Depression, they had plenty of food and intellectual stimulation to share with their 13 children, of whom four died young.

When he was 12, Bill said, he was reading a Hansard report on the joint House-Senate committe on Indian Affairs, and came across a case where a lawyer told Indians they were “estopped” from making their presentation. He taunted them that they did not know what “estoppel” means. Bill vowed he would become a lawyer, and defend his people. He was called to the Bar in Saskatchewan in 1952, becoming the first Native lawyer in Western Canada. And he fulfilled his childhood vow in 1959 when, “I appeared before that very same committee,” he said, “and I was a lawyer, and I could answer any question they asked.”

In 1958, (then) Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas asked Bill to work on the Provincial Committee on Minority Groups. That summer, Bill visited 56 Indian bands across the province and organized a conference on the topic of what the province could do for Natives. When the band representatives voted to ask for provincial voting rights and access to liquor, Tommy Douglas promptly introduced the legislation to grant their requests.

“So that’s how all the provinces began to get involved with Indians,” Bill recalled in an interview in 2009. “And the next year, the federal government passed a law so that Native people could vote across Canada.” Bill spent the next few years working on getting electricity and then telephone services to the reserves. Saskatchewan Telephone didn’t want to put a phone on a reserve because they said nobody would pay the bill. “So I said, put in a pay phone,” said Bill, “and they did.”

In 1962, Bill moved to Edmonton to work for the Canadian Citizenship branch – for one year. “I was fired because I’d been talking with Indians about independence,” he said. “I never made a fuss over that. But at the same time, there was a fellow named Marcel Chaput, in Quebec. He was fired at the same time, for advocating independence for the French. He made a fuss, and that hit the papers.”

Bill decided to set up his own law practice in Calgary handling criminal cases and family law. “I didn’t know anybody here. I came here because the weather was nice and the people seemed nice, and I’ve never been sorry. Alberta has been good to me, and good for my family.” Bill and his first wife, Bernice, raised five children together, all of whom now follow professional occupations, in academia and education, media, law, and the civil service. He and his partner, Rose, have a son who is a lawyer.

In 1966, Bill opened a branch office in Yellowknife, where one of his cases was to defend Everett Klippert in a case that led to changes in the law against homosexuality. Charged with “gross indecency” because he admitted to having had sexual relations with four separate men, Klippert was sentenced to “preventive detention” (that is, indefinitely) as a Dangerous Sexual Offender. He served five years while his appeal worked its way through the courts to the Supreme Court, where it was finally dismissed in a controversial 3-2 decision.

Then Tommy Douglas raised the issue in the House of Commons and, within six weeks, Pierre Trudeau introduced changes to the Criminal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality. Said Bill, “Trudeau cited the Klippert case when he said that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Meanwhile, in 1961, Bill had attended a conference in Winnipeg, which led to the formation of the National Indian Brotherhood (later renamed the Assembly of First Nations). Bill was elected the first Chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, a position he filled until 1965. He still has the eagle feather headdress that came with the job. Until recently, in his role as shaman, he wore that headdress to conduct healing circles.

“I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins lately on the God Delusion,” Bill told me. “And I’m re-thinking the shaman business.”

In his latter years  Bill Wuttunee was a bundle of contradictions: thoughtful and intellectual, yet playful and unpredictable; living among French Provincial furniture and wearing Holt Renfrew sweaters, yet proudly rooted in his Native history and traditions. Although he no longer practices law, he keeps busy. To name only one among his many pastimes, he researched and compiled an extensive Cree grammar, and plans to put it on a website someday.

He had enduring influence with the Assembly of First Nations, and representing the AFN advisory group helped shape the federal government’s response to the tragic effects of the Indian Residential Schools. Bill was a residential school survivor himself – he attended the Onion Lake Residential School for two years in his teens, so knew what the issues are and (in a very real sense) where some of the bodies are buried.


Bill helped set up Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings across Canada, helped select the lawyers (including from, he noted proudly, some 2,000 First Nations lawyers today), and helped create the format: “I urged them to honour Native traditions – for example, to have witnesses hold an eagle feather instead of swearing on the Bible.”

Of his own experiences in residential school, Bill told the congregation of the Unitarian Church of Calgary, “I came from a reserve that had lots of land, more than 36,000 acres. We could do anything we wanted. We could go horseback riding. We could gallop across the plains. We could go hunting. And we had good parents, they cared for us, they weren’t disciplinarians. Then one day, a Black Mariah drew up, and all the kids got in there, and a white guy took us off to Onion Lake, to a three story brick building, where we had to line up for everything.

“There was one bathtub, for about a hundred boys, and two or three showers, and about eight toilets. One time I saw a little boy being strapped. I had a wrist watch on at the time, and I looked at my watch. And do you know, that little boy was strapped for 20 minutes, on his bare arms. Sometimes people who were punished tried to run away. And if you ran away and you got caught, you were severely punished. My brother Paul ran away, with some other boys, and the RCMP brought them back. They were stripped naked, and whipped a hundred times. Then they had their hair cut off, and they were put in dresses.”

As Bill described some of the unspeakable behaviour that went on in residential schools, listeners could only shake their heads numbly. Finally he asked, “What can we do about it now?” and he answered, “We have to trade our tears of sadness for tears of joy, for the people who were put to great distress, at a time when they were only children. Those children became parents, and passed all their unresolved stress unto the next generation. We can now show the oppressed, and the oppressors, that we can work together to bring about reconciliation.

“…The plans to destroy an indigenous nation so their lands could be taken over by the settlers have been done all over the world, for instance the British in India, and continues to happen here and in other countries. This is done because of greed, and selfishness, and the search for gold, land, minerals, at any cost. But the native people don’t amass wealth, like other people do. We have enough in our land, in our lives, and the people and animals around us, and that’s the big difference. As time goes on, I’m sure we will have similar values. You will learn from us, and we will learn from you.”


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one aspect of a $4 billion court settlement reached in December 2006, as a result of a class action suit that the Assembly of First Nations filed in August 2005. The AFN Task Force had been collecting evidence on the Indian Residential Schools since 1998.

Residential schools operated for about 100 years, starting from the 1850s. For several decades in the early to mid-1900s, federal law required all Aboriginal children aged 7 to 15 to attend Indian Residential Schools. This aspect of the 1857 “Gradual Assimilation Act” was strictly – sometimes brutally – enforced. RCMP, priests and Indian agents literally tore children from their parents’ arms, and sent them away to distant schools run by the Catholic or United Church, where the children were forbidden to speak their own languages or hug their own siblings. Most students found the experience traumatic, to say the least. Few of them ever did assimilate into the larger society.

In the 1980s, former residential school students began disclosing that they had endured physical and sexual abuse at the schools. The Assembly of First Nations struck a task force that reported in 2005, “There are approximately 87,000 residential schools survivors still alive in Canada. The average age of survivors is 57 years old. The government has an ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution’ process in place, but at the current pace it will take 53 years to settle all claims, at a cost to Canadian taxpayers of $2.3 billion dollars in administrative and legal expenses alone.” Instead of waiting 53 years, the AFN launched a class action suit on behalf of the survivors.

Under the class action settlement reached in 2006, every Indian Residential School survivor is eligible to receive a Common Experiences payment of $10,000, plus $3000 for each year of school, and to be individually assessed for more benefits. In addition, there are funds for commemorating what happened, for an Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Copyright Penney Kome

Part of this story was adapted by Penney Kome from her original piece in 2009 in Alberta’s Legacy magazine, no longer in existence.

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Learning from Mandela

Published December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela is inextricably linked to the emergence of post-apartheid South Africa. Although he long withdrew from active politics after a one-term presidency (1994-99), he remained his country’s moral conscience in terms of domestic issues, and a principled defender of human rights internationally.

But despite the numerous biographies published so far – and with many more likely to appear – as well as his own 15-million-copies-sold autobiography, with a movie version soon due for release, we are still lacking a full understanding of why Mandela has emerged as a truly global icon. Bitterly opposed ideological foes all praise Mandela. From the Iranian regime to the Israeli prime minister, from Cuba’s Castro to the Bush administration, Mandela has been unequivocally endorsed. When the savvy former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer was asked by Der Spiegel in 2006 to name the international personalities who had most impressed him most during his time in office, the interviewer expected him to mention Bill Clinton. Not so: Fischer insisted on Mandela and Pope Paul II.

Yet Mandela is not a Churchill, Martin Luther King or Obama-style charismatic leader or populist ideologue in the Castro mold who mesmerized masses. His model was Gandhi, although with less philosophical depth and austerity in fashionable clothes .Mandela resisted the personality cult some wanted to develop around him in South Africa, because that would “reduce followers to blind sheep” instead of critically engaged citizens. Mandela himself always rejected the idea of hierarchical leadership and had subjected himself consciously to the ‘organizational discipline’ and collective decision-making of the African National Congress, sometimes to the point of personal humiliation when he inveighed against his successor’s HIV/Aids denialism.

Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mandela’s glowing reputation is much greater abroad than among his own ranks at home. In the United States, Hollywood celebrities, rockstars and corporate executives paid heavily to have their pictures taken with the obliging visitor, although the US conceded to official contacts with the “terrorist” ANC only in 1988. Thus Mandela became indispensable as the unabashed fundraiser for the ANC during the 1990s. Since few would dare to turn down Mandela’s often vaguely worded requests for contributions, he could act as the generous benefactor to many worthy – but also unworthy – causes, including a problematic contribution of SAR 1m ($ 100.000) to a financially troubled Jacob Zuma , a few days after he was sacked as ANC deputy-president in 2005. At the same time the many hangers-on exploited the Mandela name, including his trusted personal lawyer who sold forged ‘Mandela’ paintings.

Internationally, Mandela’s iconic status impacted beyond South Africa’s borders. He pressed the warring factions into a power-sharing constitution in Burundi, although the civil war did not cease. Before his retirement, he continued to lead by example, whether on AIDS education or as the lone critic of a Nigerian military dictatorship when nobody dared to follow him. In contrast, his successor, Thabo Mbeki, supported the Nigerian military strongman Sani Abacha after the execution of the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Mandela also intervened successfully in the long simmering Lockerbie bombing crisis, by sending his chief of staff to work out a deal with Ghaddhafi in Libya.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mandela considered it the “great moral problem of our times” and pronounced that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. However, unlike Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who together with many ANC activists, advocates boycotts and sanctions of Israel, Mandela shied away from the apartheid analogy. In 1999, he made a low-key stopover in Israel after his presidency, and once remarked that many countries had invited him for an official visit, but not Israel after his release in 1990. In light of Mandela’s basic solidarity with Palestinian self-determination, that caused no surprise. While he resented the military and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and the apartheid regime, Mandela also paid tribute to the involvement of many South African Jews in the anti-apartheid struggle. On his only Middle East excursion as “a private person” Mandela visited Iran, Syria and Gaza and was received everywhere as if he were a serving president. However, he was mistaken in hoping that he could act as a peace broker in similar ways as he had demonstrated in South Africa.

Why a leader appeals to followers is a useful route for assessment. Followers often project subconscious desires onto romanticized leaders. Mandela has been mythologized and made into a magician, from triggering rugby victories (as portrayed in the Hollywood film Invictus) to preventing racial wars. When The Economist (in October 2012) editorializes about a Mandela “whose extraordinary magnanimity helped avert a racial bloodbath”, it implies that without him blacks would have slaughtered whites. However, all things considered, there was relatively little racially motivated violence against whites by the black majority. It was the potentially dangerous white right-wing that was appeased by Mandela’s conciliatory gestures. Former racists could absolve themselves by praising Mandela as the savior and reconciler of the country. Above all, Mandela calmed the deadly interparty animosities between the ANC and Inkatha by practicing inclusiveness and preaching forgiveness. He appointed controversial Inkatha Chief Buthelezi as his minister of Home Affairs.

Mandela’s historic contribution lies in his willingness to risk starting negotiations with his adversary, when such initiatives were unpopular among his own comrades. Alleviating simultaneously white fears about black revenge, and black suspicion of collaboration, was no easy task. Mandela grasped the historical moment as a true leader. Even without a Mandela, the transition from racial minority rule to a universal franchise would have happened sooner or later. Mandela hugely facilitated this process by his realistic assessment of the political forces at play. While the “insurrectionists” in his ANC exhorted the slogan that “you cannot win at the negotiating table what you have not won at the battlefield,” Mandela persuaded the movement that neither side could win at the battlefield, unless you risk destroying the country in a drawn out civil war. In this stalemate only negotiations with the opponents promised a solution. One can learn from this insight that demonizing a hated enemy as evil is counterproductive to peaceful coexistence. Evil begs to be eliminated. However, if you have to live with a collective enemy in the same country elimination or retribution is no option for reconciliation. The enemy has to be redefined as a political adversary. Only a freely negotiated political compromise guarantees peace.

In these negotiations during these difficult four years after his release from 27 years of incarceration, Mandela proved no sellout, as his divorced wife Winnie has falsely suggested. His relationship with his white counterpart of the initial power-sharing arrangement, F.W.de Klerk, was always tense. Yet in crucial moments Mandela also assisted de Klerk when peace was at stake. When the popular leader of the ANC military wing (MK) and Communist Party chair, Chris Hani, was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic on Easter 1993, the country teetered at the brink of mass violence. At the request of de Klerk, Mandela went on TV and calmed the country down by pointing out that it was an Afrikaner woman who gave the police the decisive tip for arresting the assassins.

It was common knowledge that Thabo Mbeki was not Mandela’s first choice as his successor in 1998. Mandela’s choice would have been Cyril Ramaphosa, the popular leader of the National Union of Mine Workers and ANC chief negotiator with the Afrikaner nationalists, later turned billionaire businessman, and finally elected ANC vice-president by an overwhelming margin in December 2012. Mandela subsequently praised Mbeki as “the best president South Africa ever had.” In turn, Mbeki basked in Mandela’s glory, but simultaneously resented operating in his shadow. Insiders knew about their policy differences and private spats to the extent that an annoyed President Mbeki at one stage would not even take phone calls from his predecessor for several weeks. It was also reported that a retired Mandela conducted sensitive conversations in his garden, because he suspected his residence had been bugged.

Mandela’s example of engaging in open-ended negotiations without preconditions should inspire political leaders of other intractable ethnic conflicts around the world. A Mandela on both sides of the Syrian civil war or the Israeli-Palestinian strife would not guarantee a solution, because historical conditions differ. Yet at least both sides could truly claim to have exhausted all avenues of pragmatic compromise instead of letting a conflict simmer without hope. Are millions of lives lost in intractable wars worth the insistence on a socialist revolution or the capitulation of an ethnic adversary in a stalemate?

Copyright © Heribert Adam 2013

Nelson Mandela died the evening of December 5, 2013, age 95, after an extended illness.

Heribert Adam is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and a Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS). His new book, with Kogila Moodley, is Imagined Liberation. E-mail: adam@sfu.ca

 Further reading:
Heribert Adam’s site at Simon Fraser University: http://www.socanth.sfu.ca/people/heribert_adam
Behind Houghton Walls: a poem published by F&O about Nelson Mandela’s last days. By Iain T. Benson.
Facts and Opinions’ Frontlines roundup about Nelson Mandela’s death December 5.

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