Honouring Our Past - Dr. Frank Calder

August 3, 1915 marked the 100th birth year of (late) Dr. Frank Arthur Calder - as part of NLG's 'Honouring our Past' series, we re-share Dr. Calder's eulogy that encapsulates the life and achievements of Dr. Frank Arthur Calder

In 1915, a Nisga'a matriarch had a dream in the village of Gingolx.  Her dream was so powerful, she commanded a young man to row her 11 kilometers along the Nass River to the home of Chief Nagwa'un (Arthur Calder).  She carried urgent news for the chief's wife, Louisa.

The matriarch told Louisa that her youngest sister Emily was pregnant with her third child.  She predicted that child would be male and would bear the spirit of the son Chief Nagwa'un and Louisa had lost earlier, drowned in the Nass.

That baby boy was born on August 3, 1915, at Nass Harbour Cannery to Job and Emily Clark.  By way of traditional adoption, he was raised by Chief Nagwa'un and Louisa Calder.

As a baby, Frank Calder was presented to a gathering of elders discussing the issue of the Nisga'a Land Claim, a cause which some likened to an "immovable mountain".  There, Chief Nagwa'un famously declared, "This boy is going to learn the laws of the k'amksiiwaa, the white people.  And when he comes home he's going to move the mountain."

At the age of seven, Frank was sent south to Coqualeetza Residential School at Sardis.  He returned each summer, however, to fish the Nass with his father or work in the cannery.

Frank's long and distringuished life was marked by a series of significant "firsts".

He was the first status Indian to study at Chilliwack High School.

The first admitted to the University of British Columbia.

In 1949, Frank became the first Aboriginal person to be elected to British Columbia's legislature and the first appointed a Minister of the Crown in Canada.  Frank served in the legislature for 26 years.

In 1952, Frank addressed the legislature and reminded his fellow members that they are newcomers in this land.  He began by speaking in the Nisga'a language, paused and said: "Mr. Speaker, for those who have arrived in B.C. more recently..." and continued in English.

In 1955, after nearly a century, the Nisga'a Land Committee was reformed as the Nisga'a Tribal Council and it elected Frank its first president.  He served for 20 years.

Among Frank's many awards and honours are:

  • Officer, Order of Canada
  • Aboriginal Order of Canada
  • Inductee to Canada's First Nations's Hall of Fame
  • Doctor of Divinity
  • Doctor of Laws
  • Licentiate in Theology
  • National Aboriginal Achivement Award, and
  • President Emeritus, Nisga'a Nation

Yet for all his work and honours, Frank Calder will forever be remembered for his roles in the settlement of the Nisga'a "Land Question" and the 1973 Supreme Court of Canada decision that bears his name.  After the British Columbia Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal both rejected the claim, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and led to the Calder Decision.

This landmark decision established, for the first time, that Aboriginal Title exists in modern Canadian law.  The decision not only opened the possibility of a new future for British Columbia's First Nations - it reverberated across Canada and around the world.  It provided the legal foundation on which the B.C. treaty process started after 113 years of opposition by provincial and colonial authorities, and led to the landmark Nisga'a Final Agreement - British Columbia's first modern treaty.

The Calder Case sought a clear declaration that the Aboriginal Title of the Nisga'a People had never been extinguished.  The case was led by Thomas Berger and ultimately argued before the Supreme Court of Canada with Aboriginal Title as the sole issue.  The Justices were equally divided with three in favour and three against.

It is generally agreed that the frist significant outcome of the Calder Case was the famous Dissenting Judgment of Mr. Justice Emmett Hall, who unequivocally placed responsibility for action back in the political sphere.  The effect was to move the issue of Aboriginal Rights and Title onto British Columbia's and Canada's agenda.

In 1973, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who had long maintained that it was impossible to right historical wrongs, famously "changed his mind" and said that Aboriginal people had "a lot more Rights than I thought you did, but it will take us a decade to define what they are."

Even in the year 2000, as the final objections to the Nisga'a Treaty continued through the courts, Frank stood firm in the witness box, supporting the contention that the "inherent right of self-government" had survived Confederation.  This was Frank in his 8th decade.  The court agreed that all the rights set out in the Nisga'a Final Agreement are Treaty Rights that are protected under Canada's Constitution.

The Calder Case is the backbone of current and future Aboriginal land claim negotiations in Canada.  Prior to this landmark case, there was no clarified process for land claims settlements.  No one was certain which lands were negotiable and which were not.  The case resulted in 40% of Canada land mass becoming negotiable and Canada launching a land claim policy to guide negotiations.

In the words of Iona Campagnolo, (former) Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia: "Few of us are privileged to change history; Frank Calder is one who has done so.  Had there not been an Honourable Member for Atlin, elected in 1949, in the person of the "Little Chief" Frank Calder, and for his presence in the Legislature of British Columbia, we would all today be the poorer."

For his efforts, Frank was named "Chief of Chiefs", an unprecendented tribute by all four Nisga'a clans.

Frank last addressed the Nisga'a people at a Special Assembly of the Nisga'a Nation at Gitwinksihlkw on May 3, 2006.  Dr. Calder was invited by Nisga'a Lisims Government to unveil the newly dedicated Nisga'a Highway '113' with his long-time colleagues and friends, Mr. Hubert Doolan and Dr. Joseph Gosnell.  The significance of the dedication of the new name is the number of years it took generations of Nisga'a men and women to achieve a just and honourable settlement with the Queen in Right of Canada and British Columbia.   It was with humour, love, nostalgia, and happiness that Frank addressed the Assembly of Nisga'a Citizens celebrating the dedication.

For his part, Frank Calder fulfilled the prophecy and helped "move the mountain" of land claims.  He helped redress past injustice and secure a brighter future for British Columbia's and Canada's Aboriginal Peoples.  He has left behind a freer, stronger, and ever grateful Nisga'a Nation.


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