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From Boarding School to Halls of Fame

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Years ago, a small boy in a Canadian residential school hid beneath his bed with a flashlight, reading, dreaming about hockey, and creating the building blocks of a life that later brought him many rewards.

Wilton “Willie” Littlechild, Treaty 6 Indian, Ermineskin Cree Nation, was that boy. Now, he is a six-year member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and on June 1 he will become a member of the U.N. Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

He talks about the way in which he devoted himself to his studies at residential school so he could play hockey and baseball “to run away from the abuse, and sometimes to get outside to be taken elsewhere with the team—or to have better meals.” He became a student/athlete at university, which was “my way out” of the residential school legacy, he said.

Littlechild spent 14 years in residential schools, the Ermineskin Indian Residential School and St. Anthony’s College, and has spent nearly all his life in Alberta, where he is a lawyer and was named an honorary Cree chief, the first Ermineskin resident to be given the honor in a century.

He was asked for some of his views when he attended the Boarding School Healing Symposium at the University of Colorado Law School, hosted by the American Indian Law Clinic May 14-15.

“I was not a gifted athlete, but I worked at it—I worked really hard,” he said, recalling that when other residential school students were watching full-length movies he would go away to practice skating “and consequently I developed an ability that was an asset for me.”

Although ice hockey and baseball were his sports in the past, now he swims and plans to compete in the future.He entered eight World Cups in hockey and competed in nine different countries in hockey and baseball. He has won medals for more than 75 provincial, regional, national and international championships since 1965.

In a word, his self-discipline paid off in the sports arena, where he has been inducted into the Wetaskiwin & County Sports Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Tom Longboat Award as Indian Athlete of the Year in Canada by the Sports Federation of Canada and was a co-founder of the North American Indigenous Games.He has received additional awards in law and in business.

Littlechild also has insight into the workings of the United Nations as it addresses indigenous issues, since he has participated in some 150 world conferences, U.N. expert seminars, and other meetings relevant to indigenous peoples’ issues, including acting as delegate/legal counsel for the four nations of the Maskwacis Cree from 1977 to the present.

He knows, for example, that the four nations that meet regularly—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.—are getting together soon and, though they supported the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “they became quite a force in opposition and they’re continuing it.”

The four countries used to meet so often they came to be called “CANZUS,” he recalls, an acronym derived from the first letters of the countries’ names.

With residential school issues coming to the forefront, the countries have been critical of the Declaration, which is “a framework for partnership and a solution, not a problem—they categorize it as a problem.”

Objections seem to center on provisions concerning lands and resources; free, prior and informed consent to government actions; rights to self-determination (“they don’t think it should be the same for us as it is for them”), and self-government issues, he said.

In terms of reparations for boarding school offenses, if the Declaration’s provisions on lands and resources are implemented the countries’ concerns would center on a fear that Native people would “claim all of Canadian and U.S. land,” he said. “But we’ve agreed to share by way of treaty, even though the notion is a mischaracterization.

“In all these, the answer lies in the Declaration itself,” he said. “By sitting down together, we could determine what the articles mean.”