Indigenous

Remembering William Wuttunee: Cree lawyer was a trailblazer

William (Bill) Wuttunee left a trail that was both controversial and prescient. He was Western Canada’s first status Indian lawyer at a time when most reserves had no electricity, people lived in log homes and horses were the chief means of transportation.

First status Indian lawyer in Western Canada was 'man before his time,' says Doug Cuthand

William Wuttunee became western Canada’s first status Indian lawyer in 1954. (Nola Wuttunee/Facebook)

William (Bill) Wuttunee was a man before his time. He died Fri. Oct. 30, leaving a trail that was both controversial and prescient. 

Wuttunee was born May 8, 1928 on the Red Pheasant First Nation, located south of North Battleford, Sask. The reserve had a day school for the earlier grades but he had to attend residential school in Onion Lake to complete his high school.

He graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1954, becoming Western Canada's first status Indian lawyer at a time when most reserves had no electricity, people lived in log homes and horses were the chief means of transportation. His people were beginning a period of rapid change that would be for both better and worse.

Wuttunee was a family friend — our families are related, although distantly. He and my dad were contemporaries who worked together to lay the foundation for the modern Federation of Saskatchewan Indians. In 1956 the leaders gathered in Fort Qu'Appelle and developed the constitution and bylaws for the federation.

Later he would work on the national level and assist in the creation of the Native Council of Canada, which evolved into the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.

In the early 1960s he decided to concentrate on his law career and he set up a law office in Calgary. For years he practised law, later setting up a branch office in Yellowknife.

I recall the Sarcee band owed a company money and Wuttunee sued Sarcee on behalf of that company. It was considered an act of betrayal at the time. But he showed that everyone had to pay their bills and First Nations couldn't hide behind the Indian Act.

Wuttunee was also a bit of a free thinker and he publicly disagreed with the Indian Association of Alberta, in particular the organization's leader, Harold Cardinal. He felt that too much emphasis was being placed on the treaties and not enough on individual initiative.

William Wuttunee was a strong proponent of integration. It was the topic of his book, Ruffled Feathers, published in 1971. (Bell Books)
He was a strong proponent of integration. It was the topic of his book, Ruffled Feathers, published in 1971. It was met with scorn and derision by First Nations leaders at the time.

In retrospect, differing points of view are needed for the creation of democratic First Nations communities. His book, though now largely forgotten, was a model for other writers who would speak their mind and be critical of their people.

Gradually he reunited with his people and became accepted by the younger generation. When the first group of aboriginal lawyers set up the indigenous bar association he was invited to join.

Later, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up, he played the role of elder advisor and was one of the architects of the process.

He told his story of his days at residential school and the brutality and pain that many students suffered. He spoke of experiences that he had previously not shared with his family.

By now his life had come full circle. He was respected for his work and acknowledged as a trailblazer. And he had seen the members of his profession grow to a community of over 2,000 indigenous lawyers. 

Bill Wuttunee died last Friday, at age 87, and began his next journey. 

About the Author

Doug Cuthand is an Indigenous affairs columnist, freelance journalist and filmmaker who lives in Saskatoon. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation, Sask.