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Electoral Insight - Technology in the electoral process

Electoral Insight – June 2000

Leonard Marchand

Leonard Marchand

The First Status Indian Elected to Canada’s Parliament

Wayne Brown
Electoral Insight, Elections Canada

In 1968, Leonard Marchand became the first Status Indian to be elected to Canada's House of Commons, as Liberal member for the British Columbia riding of Kamloops–Cariboo. At that time, Canadians were not used to seeing Aboriginal politicians on the campaign trail or serving at any level of government. Until 1960, Status Indians could not even vote in a federal election unless they first gave up their right to be registered under the Indian Act, their treaty rights and their statutory right to property tax exemption. The 34-year-old Marchand defeated a prominent Conservative who had held the seat in Parliament for 23 years. Marchand would later become the first Aboriginal Canadian to serve in the federal cabinet, and subsequently, in 1984, he was appointed to Canada's Senate.

Marchand's early years

Leonard Marchand was born in Vernon, British Columbia, in 1933. A member of the Okanagan Indian Band, his first education was at the Okanagan Indian Day School at Six-Mile Creek, a one-room schoolhouse with only 25 students, where he completed grades one through eight. Subsequently, he became the first Status Indian to attend and graduate from the public high school in Vernon. "The Indian Agent of the day enrolled me in a dead-end vocational agricultural program," says Marchand, "but along the way they found I may have a few brains." When local education officials urged him to go further, he took an extra year and completed his academic subjects. When Marchand later attended the University of British Columbia, only two or three other Aboriginal students were enrolled there. Marchand graduated in 1959 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture. He married Donna Isabelle Parr of North Bay, Ontario, in 1960 and they have two children, Lori Anne and Leonard Stephen Jr. Marchand would finish one more degree in 1964: a Masters in Forestry, at the University of Idaho. His specialty was range management and, during the first half of the 1960s, he was employed as an agricultural research scientist at the Kamloops Research Station.

His first Ottawa experience

Leonard Marchand was active in the National Indian Brotherhood. Some of its members encouraged him to go to Ottawa, to promote their views to the politicians. This goal is largely what led Marchand to travel to Ottawa, where he became the first political assistant of Aboriginal heritage to work in the office of a federal cabinet minister. During the late 1960s, one of the two ministers from British Columbia he wouldwork for was Arthur Laing, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

When Pierre Trudeau announced to the House of Commons that he was launching the 1968 election, Marchand was watching from the gallery of the Chamber. He thought that this election would bring an end to his working days in the capital; he planned to go home and perhaps pursue a career in scientific research. But, he says, Liberal friends began to phone him and send telegrams. They wanted somebody new and young to contest the Kamloops–Cariboo riding. They wanted Leonard Marchand.

The 1968 election

Leonard Marchand and Pierre Trudeau
Leonard Marchand and Pierre Trudeau addressed the huge crowd at a Liberal rally on June 3, 1968,
when the Prime Minister visited Kamloops, British Columbia, to assist Marchand’s first election campaign.

"Who, me? I can't beat Davie Fulton," was Marchand's first thought. Fulton, who had held the riding for over two decades, was a former Minister of Justice in the Diefenbaker cabinet and had sought the leadership of the Conservative Party himself. But Marchand went to Kamloops and, at a coffee party, he was amazed to find almost 300 people looking for a new candidate. "It was incredible, the number of people in that group who wanted me to run."

Marchand decided to seek the Liberal nomination. There were two other prominent candidates, but they both backed out and Marchand won by acclamation. And then on June 3, 1968, "Trudeaumania" hit town. Nine thousand people, almost one-third of Kamloops' residents, turned out to see and hear Pierre Trudeau. Marchand won the riding by more than 3 000 votes. He thinks he might have been elected to Parliament on his own, but Trudeau's visit certainly helped. Marchand remembers John Diefenbaker expressing surprise that he was elected so soon after Status Indians obtained the right to vote.

In Parliament

"I was treated well as a parliamentarian, but I took a few cheap shots from my own people, which really hurt," recalls Marchand. For his historic, maiden speech in the Commons, he was given the honour of seconding the address in reply to the Speech from the Throne. He became Parliamentary Secretary to the then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jean Chrétien. Marchand remembers them being invited for lunch with Trudeau at 24 Sussex Drive, where he helped convince Prime Minister Trudeau to commence First Nations land claims negotiations. "If I weren't in Parliament, I could not have done that," says Marchand. One of his chief satisfactions was helping to devise federal policies that recognized the rights of Status Indians to negotiate compensation for loss of Aboriginal rights.

Marchand was twice re-elected, in 1972 and 1974. Of the British Columbia Liberals first elected in 1968, he was the only one to retain his seat at the 1974 election. In 1976, Trudeau appointed Marchand to his cabinet as Minister of State (Small Business). As the first Aboriginal Canadian to attain that level, Marchand scoffed at the suggestion it was his heritage that got him the post. "If Mr. Trudeau had wanted to make me a token, he would have done it a long time ago," the newly named Minister told an interviewer.

When Joe Clark and his Progressive Conservatives came to power in 1979, Marchand was defeated. He blames an anti-Trudeau trend, his own personal stand on gun control and the fact that he had voted in favour of abolishing capital punishment. Marchand decided not to run again in the 1980 election. He says his wife didn't want him to contest the seat again, and he had the responsibility of teenage children. For five years, Marchand then became the administrator for the Nicola Valley Indian bands.

Senator Marchand

Another appointment came from Prime Minister Trudeau in June of 1984: this time, to the Senate of Canada. Marchand became the fifth Aboriginal person in Canada's history to sit in the red chamber. Pierre Trudeau had invited him to take the position just the day before announcing his appointment, and in the conversation said, "Sorry for taking so long." Marchand was instrumental in the establishment of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and served as its Chairman. He says his most important Senate work for Aboriginal Canadians was in producing a report on Aboriginal veterans which recommended an Aboriginal Veterans Scholarship Trust for students. Several hundred students have benefited from it so far. Many of his years in the Senate were on the opposition side, and Marchand says that left him very frustrated with what he could accomplish.

Aboriginal electoral reform

While he was a Senator, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing asked Marchand to lead a series of preliminary consultations with Aboriginal peoples on the concept of Aboriginal electoral districts. He consulted with national and regional leaders and found they enthusiastically favoured the idea. Senator Marchand then chaired the Committee for Aboriginal Electoral Reform, composed of three sitting members of Parliament and one former member. The committee's consultations were based on the proposal that Aboriginal constituencies would be contained within provincial boundaries, but they would geographically overlay other electoral districts within a province or even cover an entire province. Aboriginal constituencies would thus form part of a province's total number of seats, rather than forming a separate group. Aboriginal electors would have the choice of registering as Aboriginal voters or on the regular list of electors. Among Aboriginal leaders, the committee found general support for its proposal, including a majority view that this would not detract from, but rather complement, the objective of self-government and other Aboriginal political objectives.

The Royal Commission recommended that the Canada Elections Act provide for the creation of Aboriginal constituencies and that the name of each one be in an Aboriginal language. As well, to make the concept a reality, it stated that Aboriginal electors should have the right to register on an Aboriginal voters list in their province. Parliament did not enact those 1991 recommendations and Marchand remains "terribly disappointed."


Two years ago, at the age of 64, Marchand resigned from the Senate. By law, he could have served for another decade but, after 28 years of flying between British Columbia and Ottawa, he was tired of the long journeys. He also didn't want to stay on in the Senate if he could not attend regularly.

When Senator Marchand retired, his colleagues in the upper chamber had warm words of praise for him and his work. Senator Alasdair Graham, Leader of the Government in the Senate, stated, "Through his presence over three decades on the national stage, he has done what he set out to do. He has brought the voice of Canada's First Nations to centre stage." Fellow British Columbia Senator, Gerry St. Germain, added, "Senator Marchand had a dual responsibility, not only to represent the people of Kamloops and that area but also Aboriginal Canadians from across Canada. Honourable senators, Senator Marchand did so with great dignity, pride and humour."

Marchand remains an Honorary Chief of the Okanagans and in recent years has raised funds toward the building of a war memorial for the thousands of Aboriginal Canadians who served and died for their country. He believes that their voluntary participation rate in World Wars I and II was greater than that of any other group in Canada. Marchand hopes that some day a memorial to them will stand in a park located near Canada's national cenotaph in Ottawa.

Last year, Leonard Marchand was awarded the Order of Canada, and also received an honorary doctorate from the University College of the Cariboo. His autobiography (written with Matt Hughes) will soon be published by Caitlin Press in Prince George, British Columbia.


The franchise barrier for Status Indians was removed very late in Canada's history. It was not until 1960 that Parliament passed a new Canada Elections Act, which confirmed the right to vote, without conditions, of all adult Aboriginal Canadians. Women, the other large group of previously disenfranchised Canadians, had received the right to vote forty years earlier.

Status Indians in most parts of Canada had the right to vote from Confederation on – but only if they gave up their treaty rights and Indian status through a process defined in the Indian Act and known as "enfranchisement". Understandably, very few were willing to do this. Métis people were not excluded from voting; few were covered by treaties, so there were no special rights or other basis on which to justify disqualifying them. Inuit were not excluded either, except from 1934 to 1950. Most were geographically isolated well into the twentieth century, so in the absence of special efforts to enable them to vote, they had no means to exercise the franchise.

Aboriginal peoples had well-established social groupings and elaborate systems of government long before their first contacts with Europeans. Many, therefore, looked unfavourably on nineteenth-century proposals for enfranchisement for at least two reasons: first, it would mean an end to their recognition as distinct nations or peoples – as signified by their treaties with France, Great Britain and later Canada – and the beginning of assimilation into non-Aboriginal society.

Second, voting in Canadian elections would mean participating in a system of government that was quite alien to the traditions, conventions and practices of governance of many Aboriginal peoples. Further, electoral participation would have been essentially redundant – Aboriginal Canadians already had their own systems for choosing leaders and governing themselves.

In short, Aboriginal people were unenthusiastic about having the right to vote, if it meant giving up their individual and group identity. Thus, until the government of Canada extended the vote to Status Indians unconditionally, there is little evidence that Aboriginal people wanted it or sought it.


A great many Aboriginal people served with distinction in the Canadian forces during the Second World War, and this was among the factors leading many Canadians to realize that full rights of citizenship for all Aboriginal people were overdue. A parliamentary committee recommended in 1948 that Aboriginal Canadians be given the right to vote.

Finally, on March 10, 1960, after a debate marked by virtually unanimous support, the House of Commons gave Status Indians the vote without requiring them to give up any rights in exchange. Two years earlier, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had appointed James Gladstone to the Senate, where he was the first member of Aboriginal origin.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.