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Kainai Nation - Profiles: James Gladstone

Senator James Gladstone and his 2-year-old grandson Jeffrey

James Gladstone (or Akay-na-muka – “Many Guns”) is a notable individual not only among those of the Kainai Nation, but also among Aboriginal Peoples across Canada, for he holds the distinction of being the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Gladstone was born on the Kainai Reserve near Mountain Hill, Alberta on May 21, 1887. Though he was considered Cree through his birth father, according to the Indian Act at the time, Gladstone’s mother was Kainai and Gladstone was ultimately adopted by the reserve as a member of the Kainai Nation. He spent his childhood on the reserve and attended the Anglican Mission school until 1903; shortly after, he left the reserve to become an apprentice printer at the Indian Industrial School in Calgary. In 1905, Gladstone returned to the Kainai Reserve to work as an interpreter. During this time, he also worked as a cattle wrangler on several ranches in and around Fort MacLeod. Later, he worked as a scout and interpreter for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and as a postal carrier on the reserve. In 1911, he married Janie Healy, who was the daughter of one of the Kainai community’s most respected families. Together, they would raise a family of two sons and four daughters.

Gladstone was notable for his forward thinking about ranching and farming, and he and his sons established a successful farm and ranch with cattle numbering 400 head on 720 acres of land. In the early 1920s, he brought the first tractor to the Kainai reserve and pressed for the Kainai Nation to adopt modern farming and ranching practices.

Gladstone became involved in the political life of the Kainai reserve, and his mixed heritage of Cree ancestry and Kainai culture placed him in a unique position to spearhead the greater involvement of the Kainai in the Indian Association of Alberta (IAA) during the 1940s. As a southern Alberta tribe, the Kainai had traditionally distanced themselves from the Indian Association of Alberta, holding it to be dominated by Native Peoples from central Alberta, particularly the Cree and Stoney Nakoda. In 1946, the Kainai Nation formed two local IAA chapters and sent them to the annual IAA convention in Hobbema, Alberta. Gladstone spoke on behalf of the locals, and demonstrated his strong capacity for leadership and persuasion. As a result, he was appointed a director of the IAA.

Gladstone’s leadership and ability to bring intertribal disputes to a consensus led to his serving the IAA as President from 1950 to 1953, and again from 1956 to 1957. During this time, Gladstone worked hard to bring order to the IAA and to endorse initiatives to lobby the provincial and federal governments to make revisions to the Indian Act, which had placed strict controls on the lives of status First Nations peoples.

Gladstone’s work on federally appointed committees to review the Indian Act would lead him to make history in Canada. On 31 January, 1958, then Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker, appointed Gladstone to the Canadian Senate in a show of his government’s willingness to work towards improving life for Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Gladstone accepted the appointment, and was sworn in as Canada’s first Aboriginal Senator on 12 May, 1958.

His appointment as Senator placed Gladstone in a position to work more effectively towards positive changes for Aboriginal People in Canada. It was ironic that, even though he held a seat in the federal Senate, as a Status First Nations person, he did not have the right to vote. He pressed for the enfranchisement of Aboriginal Peoples, though it would be two years before this dream would become reality. He also worked towards changes in a number of other issues of Native rights, and helped bring such issues to national attention in Canada.

Gladstone retired from the Senate on 3 March, 1971. On September 4 of that same year, James Gladstone died in Fernie, British Columbia, at the age of 84. He was honoured posthumously for his remarkable legacy of service in a sculpture unveiled at the Senate on 25 October, 2001.

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