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William Wuttunee in 1967.

As a boy in the 1930s, William Wuttunee would go hunting in the winter armed with a slingshot, using barrel slats strapped to his boots as cross-country skis. Young Bill's contribution to his family was to help put food on the table by killing any birds he could find in the bush around Red Pheasant Cree Nation, near Cando, Sask.

His hardscrabble upbringing on the reserve made him fearless and stoked his ambitions. He would grow up to become a trailblazing lawyer; a respected, though at times controversial, Cree elder; a courageous native rights activist; and one of the architects of the process for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Mr. Wuttunee died in Calgary on Oct. 31 of heart disease at the age of 87. The first Indian lawyer called to the bar in Western Canada, he worked for years to improve the lives of indigenous peoples and helped to launch native organizations, including co-founding the group that became the Assembly of First Nations.

"He was a visionary and a true leader … he pushed for people to become wholly independent of the reserve system and the treaty system," said his daughter Nola Wuttunee, a former APTN host who lives in Calgary. "My father saw the reserve as a very limited environment. He saw no future there."

William Ivan Clarke Wuttunee was born on May 8, 1928, one of 13 children (four of whom died young). His father, James, served as chief of Red Pheasant Reserve and trained as a teacher off-reserve. His mother, Priscilla, was a midwife.

The Wuttunee family survived the Depression years by subsistence farming. Their one-room log home, heated with a wood stove, had no running water and no electricity.

"If you look at Saskatchewan artist Allan Sapp's art – also from Red Pheasant – it's just like my father's childhood ... Dad grew up chopping wood and carrying water and many times they didn't have enough food to eat," Nola said.

When he was 12, Bill was sent to Onion Lake, an Anglican Church-run residential boarding school. Life was harsh for the children and he witnessed violent, prolonged beatings with straps. His brother, Paul, ran away from the school and was returned by the RCMP, stripped naked and whipped a hundred times.

When the residential school burned down in 1943, Bill returned home and his family moved to nearby North Battleford, where he completed high school.

When asked about his experiences at Onion Lake, he told his daughter Wanda Wuttunee, now a professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, that "reading books saved his life." He was able to cope with the abuse by getting lost in books.

Although he later testified about his experiences at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he rarely spoke about it with his family. He wanted to move on and leave that psychological burden in the past. When Wanda asked him to teach her to speak Cree, he said, "No, you need to learn English to succeed in this world" (though he did teach her his personal Cree song, learned from his uncle).

In 1948, his life changed dramatically when he won a scholarship to attend law school at McGill University in Montreal. "For a guy to go from Red Pheasant to McGill – that's like going to Oxford today," noted Doug Cuthand, a native activist and film producer in Saskatoon.

To get to Montreal, Mr. Wuttunee rode rough on a freight train carrying livestock. "Dad ate when they fed the cattle. He went across Manitoba to Ontario before they fed the cattle and he got fed. It was the early 1950s and this was your place [as an Indian]," said daughter Wanda.

It was 2 a.m. when the train arrived in Montreal and the young traveller started his long walk to a pastor's house where he was being hosted. He arrived at 6 a.m. Wanda said her father told her: "I thought it was a little early to call so I sat and waited outside of his house for an hour before knocking on their door."

At the time, he was one of only two native university students in all of Canada, so the pressure was on to keep up his grades. "He did pretty good," Wanda said. "But he didn't do well enough to keep his scholarship, so he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan's law school in Saskatoon."

While at U of S, he was apparently the envy of his roommate, said daughter Nola. Her father was a dedicated student and excelled at school, though he never took notes in class. When asked what his secret was, he replied: "I just listened."

The strategy worked, and in 1954, he was called to the bar at the age of 26, the first native lawyer to practise in Western Canada. His first job was as counsel for the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office. While in his 20s, he also found time to join the Canadian Army Reserves as a commissioned officer.

In 1955, he married Bernice Dufour, a non-native Catholic from Regina, with whom he had five children: daughters Wanda, Lauren, Nola, and sons Nisha and Peyasu. The couple divorced in 1970. Several years later, Mr. Wuttunee had another son, Jason, with his new partner, Rose.

In 1958, Premier Tommy Douglas asked Mr. Wuttunee to be a member of the Saskatchewan Provincial Committee on Minorities, whose mandate was to assist the CCF government in its aim of creating a new deal for Indians; it wanted natives to move off reserves and integrate into Canadian economic and social life while maintaining traditional rights. This was consistent with Mr. Wuttunee's views and experiences as an off-reserve trained Indian. He knew firsthand the hardships, and limitations, of life on a reserve.

He travelled to 58 Indian bands in Saskatchewan to lobby their leaders to improve living conditions on reserves; one immediate goal was to obtain the right to vote for status Indians.

In 1958, Mr. Wuttunee helped to organize a government-sponsored meeting of Saskatchewan chiefs at Fort Qu'Appelle, which saw the formation of what is now the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Mr. Douglas, who had been given honorary chief status a decade earlier, was keen to improve the lives of Indians and wanted the FSIN to be an essential link between government and the reserves.

One of the first things Mr. Wuttunee did in the FSIN was to help some native communities get electrical and telephone services.

Doug Cuthand's father, Stan Cuthand, was a teacher and Anglican minister who participated in the early formation of the FSIN. "William Wuttunee came up with the term 'federation.' The Union of Saskatchewan Indians was the current name but they needed a broader term. Wuttunee was the lawyer they all relied on when they drafted the constitution for the FSIN," Doug Cuthand said.

"Bill Wuttunee was light years ahead of everybody," he added. "He was way out there in his thinking, too. He clashed with some of the leadership at the time. He wanted change and there was quite a movement toward integration."

In 1961 Mr. Wuttunee co-founded the National Indian Council, which later became the National Indian Brotherhood and is now known as the Assembly of First Nations. The NIC was the first national organization to bring together the political voices of aboriginal peoples.

In 1963, after a short stint as counsel at the Canadian Citizenship Branch in Edmonton, Mr. Wuttunee moved to Calgary to enter into private practice, focusing on criminal and divorce law.

He expanded his practice to Yellowknife in 1966 when he took on a major case that became known across the country, representing Everett Klippert, a homosexual. Mr. Klippert was convicted of gross indecency and declared a "dangerous sexual offender," sentenced to indefinite preventive detention, which could have resulted in life behind bars.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the decision was upheld in 1967. The top court's controversial ruling sparked what would be a landmark social and legal change: In 1969, homosexuality between consenting adults was decriminalized under Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government. (Mr. Klippert, the last person to be jailed for homosexuality in Canada, was released from prison in 1971.)

Also in 1969, the Trudeau government published a white paper that proposed an end to "Indian status" and dissolution of the federal Department of Indian Affairs; native matters would be transferred to provincial hands. Many natives saw this as a threat to their culture and another step toward complete assimilation. "When it was published, it was universally panned by Canada's aboriginal leaders," Mr. Cuthand said.

Mr. Wuttunee, however, supported the white paper because it promoted integration. He believed a better life was to be had for Indians in cities, working and living alongside white people.

"The white paper really galvanized the Indian movement at the time … Wuttunee was the odd man out. Some band councils even passed motions that he was not allowed on the reserve," Mr. Cuthand said.

In 1971, Mr. Wuttunee published a controversial book, Ruffled Feathers: Indians in Canadian Society, in which he continued to promote his views on integration. This public statement of his beliefs widened the divide between the successful lawyer and his community, most of whom wanted to preserve their traditional way of life.

He received death threats and retreated from political life back to his law practice, and redoubled his commitment to his Unitarian faith.

In 1987, he was called before the Law Society of Alberta on allegations of conflict of interest; he did not attend the hearing, nor hire counsel to defend himself, and was disbarred. "Dad was a very proud man. When they had the hearing about the disbarment, he said: 'No, no, I'm not going to go to that,'" said daughter Wanda.

"Someone from the hearing later told him, 'We wish you had shown up for the hearing. If you had, we would have just suspended you. But because you didn't show up, we had no choice but to disbar you,'" she added.

Mr. Wuttunee bounced back from the career setback with typical resilience; he pursued new business interests and developed a grammar book for the Cree language.

Twenty years later, he was back in the public eye as a member of the oversight committee, from 2007 to 2010, for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2009, he travelled with a group of native leaders and residential school survivors to the Vatican, where they received an apology from Pope Benedict for the harm done to children in residential schools.

Mr. Wuttunee leaves his partner, Rose Wuttunee; his six children; nine grandchildren, and two sisters, Florence and Margaret.

"Wuttunee was a visionary," Doug Cuthand said. "And you pay a price. Whenever someone goes ahead there is usually someone who has laid some road ahead of you. But in the case of Bill Wuttunee, there really was nobody ahead of him. You really have to give him credit to him for that."

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