Vancouver Sun

Frank Calder, Canada's first Indian MLA pauses in his work at Sunnyside Cannery on the Skeena River to ponder his recent election to the BC Legislature as a member from Atlin. The 34 year old Neas River native, who defeated his coalition rivals, W.D. Smith by six votes took his victory calmly. He intends to continue as head talleyman at BC Packers, Sunnyside Cannery until the session opens this fall. Province Staff photo. Photo Digitization Project 2016. [PNG Merlin Archive]Frank Calder became Canada’s first native MLA after winning the 1949 election by six votes.

To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

In 1913, the son of Arthur Calder (Na-qua-oon, hereditary chief of the Nisga’a Wolf Clan) and his young wife Louisa, was drowned in a canoe accident on the Nass River. Not long after, a wise woman at Kincolith, a village 10 kilometres downstream from Arthur’s house, dreamed that Louisa’s youngest sister, Emily Clark, would soon conceive, that the baby would be a boy, and that he would be the spirit of the chief’s drowned son.

On Aug. 3, 1915, Frank Calder was born to Emily and immediately adopted by Arthur and Louisa according to Nisga’a law. Four years later, in 1919, at a tribal gathering of chiefs discussing the unresolved question of their legal ownership of lands settlers sought to take, Na-qua-oon picked up his son, held him high and said: “This boy is going to learn the language and laws of the K’umsiwa (the white settlers). When he comes back, he’s going to move that mountain.”

And that’s just what happened. Frank Calder attended the Coqualeetza Residential School run by the Anglican Church. He studied theology at the University of B.C. and became one of Canada’s first aboriginal university graduates, worked in fishing and forestry, then in 1949 was elected to the B.C. legislature as the Atlin candidate for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner of the New Democratic Party. He was the first aboriginal elected to a legislature in the Commonwealth, the first to hold a cabinet post, and spent 26 years in public office.

But in the Nass Valley, he led the fight to move the mountain as his father, who died in 1937, had promised. He was founding president of the Nisga’a Tribal Council and was an aggressive activist in aboriginal land claims. In 1969, represented by lawyer Thomas Berger, he sued the provincial government and asked the court to affirm unextinguished Nisga’a title to traditional territories. The suit was dismissed in B.C. Supreme Court, lost again before the B.C. Court of Appeal, but then in a split decision at the Supreme Court of Canada, a minority opinion argued by Justice Emmet Hall persuaded the federal government that aboriginal title existed and had to be negotiated.

For B.C., everything changed. Provincial denial of aboriginal rights was dead. The Nisga’a, Canada and B.C. signed the first treaty of the modern era, defining and affirming their title. Frank Calder died Nov. 4, 2006, having moved the mountain.