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The Cree Nation – Profiles: Lillian Pruden

“I’m confident that the Indian economy generally will be better if our young people take advantage of education opportunities.”
- Lillian Pruden, from interview with Jack Deakin of the Edmonton Journal, 1961.

Lillian Priden

Cree custom, while placing a high value on the role of women in society, did not initially set aside a place for Cree women in band leadership. Traditionally, band chiefs were men. As a result, the election in the 1960s of Lillian Pruden as chief of the Beaver Lake First Nation was a significant shift in the traditional notion of Cree leadership. Pruden became not only the first female chief of the Beaver Lake First Nation, but also the first elected female chief in Alberta.

Pruden was born Lillian Whitford on 30 January 1917 at Northbank near Smoky Lake, Alberta, the third of eight children born to her parents, John Alexander Whitford and Liza Jane Anderson. She grew up on her parent’s farm, and received a basic education. In September 1940, she married Percy Pruden, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, and moved to  Beaver Lake, becoming a member of the band herself. The couple farmed on a quarter section of land southeast of Lac la Biche, and had five children together: Margaret, Denise, Phyllis, Floyd, and Ellen.

Pruden became a strong and respected member of her adopted community, and so it came as no surprise when in the early 1960s she was approached by some members of the Beaver Lake band to run for a term in office as band chief. Despite the fact that a woman had never been elected band chief before, and that three men also ran against her for the position, Pruden won the 1961 band council election, becoming the first woman in Alberta and the second in Canada to be elected as a First Nations band chief. The council election proved to be a time of firsts, for a second woman, Martha Gladue, also won a position on the band council that year, marking the first time that two women served together on a band council. Pruden’s dedication quickly made an impression on the Beaver Lake Cree community. Upon the completion of her first term in office in 1963, she ran for a second term and won.
 
The key concerns for Pruden during her time as chief were the development of education and the fostering of a strong sense of identity among her people. An uncompromising leader who was concerned for the welfare of the Beaver Lake Cree, she felt that it was necessary for First Nations people to build a sense of cultural and social independence, and that a sound education was essential for this to happen. Linking Beaver Lake Cree people to education was one of the things she worked hardest to achieve, hoping to instill a sense of pride in Cree youth and adults alike, as she and her husband Percy had tried to do with their own five children. This concern for the youth of the community was something expressed by Pruden with more than words. She opened her home to high needs children, creating a place and a shelter for them when they had no place else to go.  

Apart from building on the human resources of her community, Pruden also used her time as band chief to build the infrastructure on the Beaver Lake reserve. Housing projects were started, as well as efforts to improve electrical and water utility distribution and to build better roads. Concerned about the abuse of alcohol on the reserve, Pruden saw to the construction of the first detox centre there.

Lillian Priden Lillian Priden

After completing her second term as chief of the Beaver Lake Cree, Pruden continued to work for the band in other capacities, earning certification from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in band administration and serving as band administrator right up until the time of her death. Also during this time, she was a founding member of the Blue Quills First Nations College in St. Paul, Alberta, serving that institution’s Board of Directors for twenty-five years, an achievement she later received a posthumous award of recognition for in 1996. Behind the scenes of her public life, Pruden was committed to raising her family on the farm with as much resourcefulness and creativity as she applied to her public endeavours.

A trailblazer both for women and for First Nations people, Pruden died at home on the Beaver Lake Cree Reserve on 6 May 1981, leaving behind an impressive legacy of sound leadership for her family and community to inherit.

TEXT SOURCES:  

Biographical information compiled by Margaret Johnson, daughter of Lillian Pruden, and Margaret’s brother-in-law David Rankin.

Tribal Chiefs Institute of Treaty 6 and Indian and Northern Affairs. In Their Footsteps: Contributions of First Nations People in Alberta. Edmonton, Ottawa, Duval House Publishing, 2001.

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