B.C.'s Len Marchand, first Aboriginal federal cabinet minister, dies

Canada's first Aboriginal federal cabinet minister, Len Marchand, has died. He was 82.

Marchand was a member of Pierre Trudeau's cabinet and became a senator in 1984

Len Marchand was active in the North American Native movement and worked on on a number of issues, including federal voting rights for First Nations. (gov.bc.ca)

Canada's first Aboriginal federal cabinet minister, Len Marchand, has died. He was 82.

Born in Vernon, B.C. in November 1933, Marchand was a member of the Okanagan Indian Band.

As tributes poured in Friday, the word that cropped up most often to describe Marchand — a man who pursued academic excellence despite the restrictions of the Indian Act and made it his life's work to improve the lives of First Nations people — was "trailblazer."

"Canada has lost a trailblazer," Prime Minister JustinTrudeau posted to Twitter. "My condolences to the family of Len Marchand, the first federal cabinet minister of First Nations descent."

Speaking for the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson said that Marchand was a "champion of democracy" whose contributions to advancing Aboriginal issues "cannot be understated.

"Sen. Marchand's achievements," Gottfriedson said in a statement, "are testimony to how one man, through sheer courage and tenacity, can rise up to the challenge and make a difference in the lives of Aboriginal peoples and countless others across the country."

A determined young man

Matt Hughes, who co-authored Marchand's 2000 autobiography, Breaking Trail, told CBC News that Marchand overcame enormous obstacles that began in childhood.

"He was the son of illiterate parents," Hughes said. " He grew up on a reservation. He managed to graduate from a public high school when it was still technically illegal for Indians to even go there."

Marchand grew up in Six Mile Creek and, in the first of many such successes, was the first person of Aboriginal descent to graduate from public high school in Vernon. Even then, he didn't realize he was enrolled in a program designed to turn out farmers and so returned to do an extra year in order to graduate in 1955 with university entrance qualifications.

He studied agriculture at UBC at a time when the only First Nations students were a handful of those accepted into the nursing program, received his Masters from the University of Idaho in 1964 and, Hughes says, was on his way to a PhD, before politics took him down another path.

A life in politics

In the 1950s and 60s, Marchand was an active member of the North American Indian Brotherhood, working on a number of issues, including federal voting rights for First Nations. He became a federal political staffer in 1965, when he became a special assistant to ministers within the Ministry of Indian Affairs.

Still intending to return to his academic studies, Marchand was persuaded to run against longstanding Kamloops-Cariboo MP, Progressive Conservative Davie Fulton as a symbolic gesture — he wasn't expected to win.

But Trudeaumania swept the country in the 1968 general election and win he did, making Marchand, the first status Indian to enter parliament.

He became parliamentary secretary to Jean Chretien in 1972, when the latter was Minister of Indian Affairs.

And, in 1976, Marchand achieved another first, becoming a member of Pierre Trudeau's cabinet, first as Minister for Small Business then, from 1977-79 as Minister of the Environment.

He lost his seat when the Liberals were ousted in the 1979 general election and subsequently worked for the Nicola Valley Indian Bands and the Western Indian Agricultural Corporation.

He was appointed to the senate in 1984, and retired in 1998.

In 1999, he received the Order of Canada, and in 2014 he received the Order of B.C.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark issued a statement of tribute Friday, noting that when Marchand was born, First Nations were not even permitted to vote.

"His legacy," she said, "will be a reminder that by working collaboratively and bringing people together, people can effect real and lasting change."

With files from Josh Pagé.