A lifelong advocate for Indigenous Peoples, Wilton Littlechild receives r honorary degree 

(photo by Steve Frost)

As a youth, Wilton Littlechild, like so many Indigenous children, was removed from his home and sent to a nearby residential school. Since then, he has devoted much of his life to helping others overcome the legacy of this experience and promoting respect and justice for Indigenous Peoples in Canada and around the world.

Today, in recognition of his inspirational and transformative advocacy for Indigenous rights and human rights, Littlechild will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the r.

Born in Hobbema, Alta. (now Maskwacis) in 1944, Littlechild was initially raised by his grandparents in the Ermineskin Cree Nation and taught the traditional ways of the Cree people. At the age of six, he was taken from his family and placed at a nearby residential school; he later attended others.  he recalled the physical abuse he experienced at the schools and the trauma of being separated from family. 

“Your family bond, if not broken, is really stretched to the limit,” he said. 

At school, he wasn’t allowed to speak his own language or practise his own culture. “They were outlawed completely,” he said. Nor was he permitted to see his siblings, even though they attended the same school.

To escape this grim reality, he started jogging – several kilometres around the school compound – every night. “I didn’t know why I was doing it and often times I’d break down and cry, but after I finished the run, I would feel better,” he said . “Sport became my escape and my salvation … it gave me an opportunity to go to university and play, to compete and travel the world.”

Wilton Littlechild is hooded by his friend Bruce Kidd during his honorary degree ceremony
(photo by Steve Frost)

Littlechild came to believe so strongly in the power of sport for personal advancement that he founded and coached the first all-Indigenous junior hockey team in Alberta, and helped establish the North American Indigenous Games and, later, the World Indigenous Games. “Finding that balance between looking after your physical health and your mental health, and being proud of who you are culturally, provides a wholesome foundation for life,” he said.

Littlechild excelled at hockey, swimming and baseball. At the University of Alberta, he swam competitively and played on the hockey team, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1967. He went on to get a master’s in the subject and then enrolled at law school, becoming the first status Indian from Alberta ever to earn a degree in law in 1976. 

After graduating, Littlechild established a law practice on Ermineskin reserve and in 1977 was invited to be part of the Indigenous delegation that contributed to the writing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

That experience marked the beginning of a lifetime of advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada and around the world. In 1981, he appeared before British courts to make a case against patriating the Canadian constitution until it included guarantees of Indigenous rights.

He decided to run for federal office, and in 1988 was elected as a Progressive Conservative in the riding of Wetaskiwin, Alta, becoming the first MP ever to hold Treaty Indian status. Years later, in Saskatchewan, he chaired a commission to investigate and make recommendations about the treatment of First Nations and Métis people by that province’s police and justice system. Its final report, issued in 2004, made more than 100 recommendations to address systemic racism against Indigenous people. 

Not long after, Littlechild was named a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Its final report, released in 2015, argued that the residential school program had resulted in cultural genocide. It made 94 Calls to Action. At the time,  that he saw the role as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to building a better Canada – one that is inclusive of everyone.”

In the Cree language, “reconciliation” is called Miyowahkotowin, which translates as “having good relations.” Sometimes, Littlechild said in the same interview, that means letting go of a bad experience and practising forgiveness. “There needs to be the truth, an apology, forgiveness and a sense of justice. Then we can talk about true reconciliation.”

For his advocacy for Indigenous rights and the advancement of Indigenous peoples, Littlechild has received numerous awards. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1998 and was promoted to companion in 2023. He received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and an Indspire Award for law and justice. In 2018, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.