Breaking Trail: The Autobiography of Len Marchand


Growing up on the far corners of the furthest reaches of the Vernon reserve, little did Len Marchand - or anyone around him - realize that he would end up spending most of his life in Ottawa. The first elected aboriginal member of parliament in all of Canada, Len Marchand was involved in some of the most exciting, heady days of Canadian politics. Not only was he the first elected native person, he went on to serve as the minister of various portfolios, perhaps his favourite being the Ministry of Environment. Here...
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Growing up on the far corners of the furthest reaches of the Vernon reserve, little did Len Marchand - or anyone around him - realize that he would end up spending most of his life in Ottawa. The first elected aboriginal member of parliament in all of Canada, Len Marchand was involved in some of the most exciting, heady days of Canadian politics. Not only was he the first elected native person, he went on to serve as the minister of various portfolios, perhaps his favourite being the Ministry of Environment. Here he was able to use his background and education to affect one of the most sensitive issues of the 20th century, the environment.

This is Len's story, and it is a story of courage and hope that should inspire us all. Len Marchand grew up in a society that said people of his background couldn't vote, couldn't buy liquor, couldn't do much of anything without the approval of the Department of Indian Affairs. Yet he overcame all odds and served Canada - this country which relegated his people to second class - faithfully, first as member of parliament and then as senator.

His collaborator, Matt Hughes, is no stranger to politics, having worked as a speech writer on both the provincial and federal level. He has written several books and currently is under contract with Warner Aspect of New York for two thrillers, one of which is completed.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780920576809
  • Publisher: Caitlin Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/1/2000
  • Pages: 230
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Len Marchand was born during the depths of the Great Depression to illiterate parents on a reserve in the then remote Okanagan Valley of BC. Len pursued education with single-minded determination. His love of learning earned him a Masters Degree in Forestry, and he was on his way to a Ph.D and a satisfying career as a teacher and a research scientist. But a growing involvement in the North American Indian Brotherhood's fight for full citizenship for his people led into what should have been merely a two-year side-trip into politics. The NAIB prevailed on him to go to Ottawa as the first status Indian special assistant to the federal minister responsible for Indian affairs, a temporary job that segued into more than three decades in public life.

Matt Hughes was Len Marchand's speechwriter and co-communications aide during his term as Minister of State for Small Business and Minister of the Environment. Hughes is the author of two published novels and a number of short stories, but his main occupation for the past twenty years has been as a writer for hire, specializing in freelance corporate and political speechwriting, annual reports and ghostwritten newspaper articles for a wide range of clients in business and politics.

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Read an Excerpt


I hate being called an Indian. My old friend Dr. Gur Singh is an Indian-or at least he was before he became an Indo-Canadian. But I've been called - and have had to call myself - an Indian all my life, just because a certain Genoese explorer made a simple miscalculation of the circumference of the earth, five hundred years ago.

I have great respect for the peoples and ancient culture of India. But I am not an Indian. I am a Skilwh. That means I am a member of the Okanagan nation. But if I identify myself by that word throughout these pages, no one but my fellow Skilwh will know what I mean. And I will still have to refer to the Indian Act, and the Indian Affairs Branch (IAB), and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), Indian Reserves and Indian Agents, because Christopher Columbus's boneheaded mistake is woven right through the history of Canada's relations with my people.

I don't like the other choices: "aboriginal person" sounds like anthropologists' jargon and is too broad a term, since it includes Inuit and Metis; 'native' just means I was born here, but so were most Canadians; and 'First Nations' is a pretentious, politically-loaded phrase meant to remind the rest of the population that we were here long before the first Viking longships of Basque whalers or Portuguese fishing boats bumped up against Newfoundland.

I like the way the Inuit have reclaimed their true name, doing away with "Eskimo," a derogatory term applied to them by their enemies. I like the way they have renamed their territory Nunavut, which means "Our Land" in Inuktitut. I wish we Indians could do the same. If it were up to me, I'd be called a "Dene," like many of the people of the Northwest Territories, northern Saskatchewan and northern British Columbia. It's a dignified sounding name; it's easy to say; a lot of Canadians already recognize it; and it just means "people" or person, depending on how many you're talking about.

Maybe, a generation or two from now, we Indians will have found a name for ourselves that we can feel good about. But, for now and for clarity's sake, throughout this book I will continue to refer to myself and my people by the old, wrong word - although in my heart I am, and always will be, Skilwh.

CHAPTER 1: "Hey Indian..."

A few years ago, when David Lam was about to retire as Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, my name was one of those tossed around in the press as a possible successor. I told Peter O'Neill of the Vancouver Sun that I did not want to be considered for the post and that was the end of the talk.

I could not be the representative of a hereditary monarchy. I have always believed that sovereignty rests with the people, not with one particular family - and a foreign one at that. And, although I believe the Queen does a good job as our head of state, I think that any country that still has a foreign monarch in that position has a lot more growing up to do.

If it were up to me, we'd create our Lieutenant Governors and Governors-General from amongst our own - a Nancy Greene Raine (whose sister Liz Greene worked for me in Ottawa), or a Margaret Atwood perhaps - people who represent what is best in all of us. And even though I think the latest Governor-General, Adrienne Clarkson, is a fine choice, I'd still take that power out of the Prime Minister's hands. Instead, I'd form an electoral college from all the recipients of the Order of Canada and the Medal for Bravery - let those who have been honoured by the country for accomplishment or bravery choose a head of state we can all look up to, someone who makes us feel proud to be Canadians.

Still, to be considered as a suitable candidate to be BC's first Indian Lieutenant Governor, just as I was reaching a point in life where I was beginning to think back on where and how I had started out, brought home to me how much has changed during my lifetime. Then I got to thinking about some of the things that haven't changed, but should have. That's when I made up my mind to write this book.

I was born on November 16, 1933 at Vernon Jubilee Hospital. The town of Vernon is sixteen miles from my parents' house at Six Mile Creek on the Okanagan Reserve Number One. Since we didn't have a car until 1942 when my father bought a 1929 Plymouth four-door from my sister Josephine's boyfriend, Tim Voght, who was going off to war, my mom and dad must have hitched a ride into town, probably with my uncle Louie, who was the only one in the family who owned a car back then. I never thought to ask my parents for any such details surrounding my birth, and now it's too late.

I was the third child in a big family that mostly ran to girls. I have two older sisters, Josephine and Theresa, and four younger ones: Margaret, Joan, Pauline and Alice. A seventh girl, Martina Mary, died as an infant, and I also have a half-sister, Millie, who is my father's child from before he married my mother. It was twenty years after my birth before my parents produced my brother Raymond. By then, I had left home to get my education, so he and I never got to know each other as brothers do when they grow up together.

I didn't mind being the only boy in the household. I was well tended, and maybe even a little spoiled, as a child; my sister Josephine tells me she always used to carry me around on her back while our mother was working. And when I got big enough, I could get on a horse and go help our father with the cattle.

My Dad was Joseph Marchand. He was thirty-three when I came along, a strong man, about six feet tall and weighing close to two hundred pounds in his prime, and muscled from a lifetime of hard work. He walked with a limp, though: seven years before I was born he was bucked off a horse and broke his leg in several places. The doctoring of Indians being then a somewhat chancy business, the leg never set right.

When I was young, there was a story in the family that the Marchand name had come from a half-Indian French Canadian coureur du bois who had left his place as a guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition way back in the nineteenth century to marry an Okanagan woman down in what was then called the Oregon Territory. But in 1995 I asked Jean-Jacques Seguin, who lives in Hull and whose hobby is genealogical research, to cut through the legend and find the truth. He traced the family all the way back to a Normandy farm labourer, Jacques Marchand, who landed at Trois Rivieres in New France in 1656.

Mr. Seguin identified my great-grandfather, Joachim Marchand as the man who brought the name west from the Bratiscan region of Qu6bec. He seems to have left Quebec in 1840, as a young man of 24. By 1850, he was in St. Louis, Missouri, and went from there up into Montana to work for a fur company as a trader with the Blackfoot and Crow.

In 1854, he left Montana with a companion, each of them with three saddle horses, to come west into the then unsettled Washington Territory. Along the way, the horses were taken, likely by the Sioux, so the two men travelled on foot the rest of the way. Living off fish, game and berries, they followed the Missouri River to its head, then crossed the Rockies by the same pass Lewis and Clark had used, finally arriving at the Hudson's Bay fort at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River in 1855. Great-grandad Joachim squatted on a parcel of land that had fifty feet of river frontage, and took up placer mining with some success. He also married my great-grandmother, an Okanagan woman known only as Victoria. There is no record of whether they married in a church ceremony, or "after the fashion of the country," but they remained together till death did them part in 1911.

My mother was born Agnes Robinson. She was not sure who her father was: her mother, Lena Lawrence, had children with four or five men. She also had no recorded birth date, only a baptism certificate from the old church on the O'Keefe Ranch from when she was eleven years old. The old-timers used to tell me that my mother was a much sought-after beauty when she was a young woman. Boys don't recognize such things about their mothers until they grow up and see old pictures of them. I have my parents' wedding photo, and I have to say those old-timers were right.

My mother was a devout Catholic who went to mass every chance she got. She was hard on my sisters, always keeping them on a very short rein; she was so afraid of their running around and getting pregnant. As a boy, I had more leeway - I could go to dances at the band hall or to ball games in the summer. I felt kind of bad about it, sometimes.

Neither of my parents could read or write, though my father had learned to read a little and to sign his name. During the war years, when my cousin John was overseas as a gunner in the artillery, my older sisters and I would read the newspapers to Mom and Dad, so they would know what he was involved in. My sisters and I had been to school, and though I am now ashamed to admit it, I used to tease our mother sometimes when we went to the grocery store in town, pointing to signs and labels and asking her, 'What does that say, Mom?" or, 'What size is that tin?" But although my mother was not educated, she was an intelligent woman, and would manage to do her shopping even without help from her smart-alec son.

Later on, when I could call myself educated, I would think back on how it was for my parents, how they had to live in a tightly circumscribed world because they could not read, and I would feel an overwhelming sadness and a strong tinge of guilt. When I was in the Senate, and Joyce Fairbairn tried to get me involved in her literacy programs, I'd always beg off, I couldn't bring myself to do more than cheer her on from the sidelines. The memories hurt too much.

We were farmers and cattle ranchers in a very small way: subsistence agriculture is the anthropologists' term. My parents supplemented our farm income any way they could. Dad would sometimes go off the reserve to a logging camp for a week at a time, and Mom and the rest of us worked for the Chinese truck gardeners who leased land on the reserve. My first job was pulling weeds and thinning onions and so on for fifteen cents an hour. The mixed hay and alfalfa that we grew on twenty acres on the other side of Six Mile Creek went to feed our own stock - usually thirty to forty head of mixed cattle that we would sell to a stock dealer who sold them on to feed lots in Alberta - as well as the work and saddle horses that were needed to run the ranch.

When I was little, we lived in a small house, maybe sixteen by twenty feet with a tiny attic. It had rough planking on the outside and the interior walls were covered in shiplap and cheap, unpatterned wallpaper. Grandpa Louie Marchand had separated from Grandma Mary Anne, and came to live in a lean-to addition on the back of the house. One February morning in 1941, Grandpa left the dampers too wide open on his pot-bellied stove when he came to eat with us, and the whole place caught on fire. The wood was dry so it went up fast, filling the little space with smoke and flames. My parents rushed the five of us kids out into the air, and for a few moments there was near panic until we located my two-year-old sister Joan. There was no fire department, and the creek was too far away to form a bucket brigade, even if we'd had buckets. The house burned to the ground, and we lost everything we had.

Our next house was not much bigger - fourteen by twenty-four feet - heated by a wood-burning stove and lit by oil and gas lamps. It had one bedroom, but later on my parents added a sixteen-by-fourteen foot kitchen, and still later, another fourteen-by-twenty-four-foot extension. Out back was a corral and a hay barn, and a two-hole privy. When I was growing up on the rez, I would have had to walk for four hours to see an electric light or a tap you just had to turn to get water. Sometimes, when we went to town for supplies, my parents would buy us kids a couple of bricks of ice cream; but we had to hurry home to eat it before it melted, because there was no way to keep it frozen.

My mother would scrub our clothes on an old washboard in a steel tub outside. We'd haul buckets of water up from Six Mile Creek, and light a fire under the washtub. We were up with the sun to do the chores, and when the daylight went, the day was over. We lived like the pioneer families that today's kids read about in history books, except that we weren't newcomers to this land; we had always been here.

Some years, instead of putting in hay, my dad would rent out our land to the Chinese gardeners; at $35 to $40 an acre for the season, the proceeds represented a substantial part of the family income. Dad would also hire himself out to plough for the gardeners - they usually preferred soil that had been turned over by a horsedrawn plough because it was not compacted the way it would be if a tractor had been over it.

As a small boy, I went everywhere with my father, riding behind him on his horse, but it was my Grandpa Louie who taught me how to ride on his placid, patient cayuse, Ol'Bawley. My grandfather knew everything when I was little. He could speak French as well as English and Okanagan. He would take me out grouse hunting, or we'd just ride aimlessly, and he would tell me old tales and all kinds of fascinating lore about the woods and the animals.

Once I could ride, I spent as much time as I could in the saddle. By my teens, I was a genuine cowboy, and I loved the work. With dad or on my own, I rode the range and did all the things that come with looking after cattle: roping, branding, vaccinating, castrating. We'd make sure they got into the right places to graze, kept them off the open highways - there were no fences back then - and herded them in when it was time to feed them for the winter. I learned to sit a saddle as if I had been born there, and I could even do a few rope tricks.

I was at home on the range. I fit into the landscape in a way that I can't describe. I was happy; I didn't think about it then, but if I'd had to, I would have said that I was where I was supposed to be. It never occurred to me, then, that there was anywhere else to be. I assumed that I would be a farmer and a cattleman like my dad - only I would first learn more about the white man's way of doing things. Because, there was no question then, the white man's way was the right way.

Nowadays, when my people's pride and our sense of identity have been reborn, it is probably difficult for young Indian men and women to understand how it was for my parents' generation. For them, to be Indian was to feel inferior. Nobody had to stand on a street comer and lecture us on it - it was self-evident. The whites had nice homes; we had lousy homes. They had good clothes; we had crummy clothes. They had new cars; we had jalopies.

It wasn't that the whites were inherently better than us. But their ways were superior. They were better educated, knew more. That's why they were the doctors, the teachers, the storekeepers, the Indian agents. When I was growing up, and my parents were showing me how to do things right, they would say, "This is how a white man would do it." I can hear my father's voice saying it now, "This is how a white man would" do this or that. We heard it over and over again. It was drilled into us.

It was possible to learn the white man's superior ways. You did that by going to the white man's school, which in my childhood was a quarter of a mile down the dirt road from our house at Six Mile Creek. It was a white, wood-framed, single-roomed schoolhouse, the kind you would have found throughout rural Canada in the 1930s, with wood and cast-iron desks bolted together in rows, and a pot-bellied stove for winter heat. It offered grades one through six when I started, and was operated by the Indian Affairs Branch. I first went to school as an unofficial accompaniment to my older sisters. I'd have been three or four then; when my parents were working, there'd be no one to look after me, so they let me tag along rather than keep Josephine or Theresa at home, missing school to mind me. I don't recall that I made any particular impression on the academic world at that stage of my education, but by the time I was six and could begin grade one, I was hungry to learn.

My teacher for the first three grades was Tom Curteis, a kindly natured white man with a wife and two small children of his own. I was lucky to begin with such a dedicated educator. He pushed me as fast as I could go, challenged me to reach further and grab more, and I reached and grabbed for everything he put in my way. Before I finished the first year, he had me reading at a grade three level, and I was winning spelling bees.

After three years, he moved on and later became principal of a large elementary school in Victoria. By the time I was in university, he came back to the rez with his family for a visit. He said that he had been keeping an eye on my career, such as it was at that point, and that he had always believed that Theresa and I could have gone however far we wanted to. Theresa was the brightest of us all, but she didn't get the chance I got: she worked picking tomatoes and pulling weeds in the Chinese gardens and later was a housemaid for a Kamloops doctor.

After Tom Curteis there were a few other teachers through grades four through six, who did not make much of an impression on me. Then came Sister Patricia, a Franciscan nun who had previously taught at an Indian school in Ontario. I know that at some reserve and residential schools, a lot more emphasis was put on saving our souls than on developing our minds. But Sister Patricia made no bones about it: she was there to educate us, and she expected us to learn. On her first day, she told us she meant to work us hard, and that we would have to meet her high standards. She held up a scribbler, and said, "This is the kind, of sloppy work I don't want to see any more of." Of course, it was mine - I could read and spell just about anything, but my handwriting, then and now, was awful.

Grades seven and eight were being taught at the little school on our reserve by the time I finished grade six, so I didn't have to go off to the residential school, seventy miles away in Kamloops at the age of 12. That left two more years for Sister Patricia to pound away at four of us in the upper grades whom she had singled out for extra attention: Murray Alexis, Lloyd Wilson, Jim Cameron and me. Sister Patricia helped us prepare to write province-wide exams based on the provincial curriculum, spending many summer evenings taking us through Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped on her back porch.

Ours was not strictly a church school, but we were a Catholic reserve and the priests had great influence, so all of our teachers were Catholic. We had no community centre or even a grocery store on the rez in those days, and although people would sometimes hold dances in their houses if they had a big enough room, the church was the only real social focus in the community. The old religion, from before the missionaries arrived, was almost all forgotten by my parents' generation. We still referred to the Creator, Koolenchooten, and remembered that Coyote was his messenger. And I recall that the old-timers had their songs; they'd beat the drum and chant on certain occasions. But all our prayers were translations of the Our Father and the Hail Mary into Okanagan - except for some hymns sung over the dead. At funerals, people still said the old words.

Okanagan is in some ways a more complicated language than English. It makes narrower distinctions in some respects. For example, English distinguishes between siblings to the extent of identifying brothers and sisters; Okanagan has separate words for older brother and younger brother, and for older sister and younger sister. We always called my mother's mother Tumma, the Okanagan word for maternal grandmother; my father's mother would have been Kukna, but for some reason we always called her by the English word Gramma.

Gramma's name was Mary Anne Marchand. She used to lead the prayers at all the funerals, and when she died in 1958, my father took her place. He was reluctant to accept the role, but people expected it of him because he was an authority on the Okanagan language. He knew all the words to the prayers and the old names for plants and animals. 'If Joe doesn't know it," people would say, 'nobody knows it.' Dad didn't think much of the old spiritual ways. He didn't believe that the "Indian doctors," as we called them, had any special powers to curse or to cure. 'You can't change people's lives by dancing and blowing smoke around," he told me. But Gramma prepared medicines from plants - the way the old people used to. She'd mix pine resin with axle grease and make a poultice to put on cuts and scrapes, or chew up wild rose leaves to put on a bee sting. I still do that myself; it cancels the stinging right away. When my mother was dying from colonic cancer, she would make a tea from twigs of the Saskatoon berry bush; it seemed to give her comfort.

Both of my parents were quite intelligent people. If they were young today, they would be getting an education. But they were born into a generation that was still culture-shocked from contact with the whites. So they did the best they could with what they had. They never really knew what education was. Even when I came back from university to join the scientific staff at the Kamloops agricultural research station, my mom and dad weren't all that clear about what a university degree was. But they always knew they wanted me to be educated.

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Table of Contents

Chapter One: "Hey, Indian..."
Chapter Two: "You should have a bullet..."
Chapter Three: A Willing Horse
Chapter Four: A Crack in the Wall
Chapter Five: "No oil port, No Way"
Chapter Six: "Go back to the reserve..."
Chapter Seven: Righting Some Old Wrongs
Chapter Eight: Our Land, Our Voice
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