He bears a Scottish name, has never lived on a reserve, and didn’t have Indian status until the 1980s, but McDonald identifies himself as aboriginal. He also describes himself as bi-cultural.
From childhood, McDonald’s mother taught him to always be aware of where he comes from. “(She told me) you come from humble roots in northern Manitoba. You’re a product of Cree and Saulteaux ancestry. Be proud of that. But you’re also part Scottish, and be proud of that and respect that too.”
While the oral history of McDonald’s family starts long before contact with Europeans, the written history begins with his paternal great-grandfather’s diary.
It’s kept at the Canadian Archives in Ottawa and details how he left Inverness at 16 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company in what is now Manitoba. He never went home again. He met, fell in love with, and married a Cree woman from the Peguis First Nation. One of their sons — McDonald’s grandfather — married a Robertson.
On the other side, McDonald’s mother was born Verna Campbell. She’s a member of the Norway House First Nation. But because the Cree and Saulteaux women in her family married Scots fur traders, they were disenfranchised. Up until the 1980s, women who “married out” lost their Indian status and couldn’t pass it on to their children, even though men who “married out” were able to retain Indian status for themselves and their children.
McDonald’s paternal great uncle — George Brander Campbell — was among the more than 4,000 status Indians who enlisted and among those who died in the Second World War.
Between the First and Second World Wars, McDonald’s paternal grandfather also enlisted. As a condition of joining, he was forced to renounce his Indian status rights.
If there was an upside to having been stripped of their cultural identity, it was that McDonald’s parents, aunts and uncles were spared from attending residential schools. Instead, they and their children were educated and worked in small, non-native communities.
Growing up in northern Manitoba, McDonald spoke Cree, learned how to hunt, fish and make beaded moccasins. His dad was a commercial fisherman until the 1960s, when mercury from pulp and paper mills contaminated Lake Winnipeg so badly that the fishery was eventually shut down. (It later re-opened and is now the second-largest, freshwater fishery in North America.)
The family moved west. His dad, Mervin, worked for B.C. Hydro. Every year, the family went back to Manitoba for powwows, hunting and to visit relatives. McDonald still does. Only now, he goes with his wife, Leanne Warawa, and their two children.
At 55, McDonald is re-learning the art of moccasin making because of his son, Mitchell. He is a fine arts student at Langara and is learning his heritage through art. For his 22nd birthday, Mitchell asked for lessons in moccasin making. His father found a teacher and now the family is learning together.
Heritage informed McDonald’s career path, as well. As an undergraduate at UBC, he changed majors several times as his interest in aboriginal culture and First Nations history developed. The structural basis for why and how aboriginal people have been treated legally, socially, economically and politically was what interested him, and led to law school.
“My father encouraged me to focus on commercial or business law and the constitutional side of things because, he said, ‘One of these days, we’re going to win, and we’ll have money and we’ll have resources and we’re going to need to keep it and grow it and build our own economy and independence with it.’
“Now, he wasn’t as articulate about that in his own contractor/construction/fisherman talk, but that was what he suggested.”
McDonald entered law school with that intention and it is what he has been doing for the last 30 years.
“I focus on building, generating, creating wealth for aboriginal peoples and assisting on aboriginal governance so they can manage and maintain that wealth, and hopefully govern their own peoples, members, citizens well and somehow create a bit more independence and autonomy as a result.”
Ironically, it has led McDonald — “a B.C. Hydro kid” — to represent some of the First Nations whose land and lives were impacted by the same Peace River dams that provided work for his dad and many others.
McDonald is now a senior partner and was recently appointed co-chair of Clark Wilson LLP’s aboriginal business group. Among his clients is the Peguis First Nation, which after a 13-year court battle finally has a tentative agreement with the federal government to regain title to a 160-hectare site in downtown Winnipeg.
McDonald is celebrating National Aboriginal Day this year with his family and his neighbours on Musqueam lands.
“On the one hand, I’m hopeful,” he says of the future. “Canadians have shown tremendous resiliency to stare themselves in the mirror and say, ‘We have not treated aboriginal peoples and our most vulnerable people — that means our children — well.’ I’m proud of being a Canadian in that regard.”
But his optimism is tempered.
“I’m excited about the opportunities, but at the same time I don’t see the social aspect of the indigenous population of Canada improving significantly. That’s a bit of a heart breaker. Well, no — it’s a lot of heart break.”
His concerns echo those of many Canadians: The disproportionate number of aboriginal people in prisons, the high number of children who are in care (a higher number now than at the height of the residential school system), lack of legal aid and support for aboriginal people in the court system.
He is concerned that of the billions of dollars spent federally on aboriginal peoples, 60 per cent or more goes to bureaucrats.
And he is also nervous about the disconnect between aboriginal leaders and the more than half of Canada’s First Nations people who live off reserve. Many live in poverty in cities like Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary and Regina.
“They can’t be left behind, and they can’t be left alone,” he says.
McDonald believes the way forward is through education and an acknowledgment that years of separation and segregation caused significant harm to non-aboriginal people who have “missed a huge part of Canada by not knowing about aboriginal peoples’ cultures and history … and our humour.”
Getting there requires open hearts and open minds and a refusal to be defined by either history or ethnicity.
“We put ourselves into too many of these boxes,” says McDonald. “Life isn’t that simple.”