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Bill Lightbown came into the world April 14, 1927. He lived as a non-status Indian because his Kutenai mother married a non-native man, Bill’s experience of discrimination and displacement was a defining force. His fight for freedom began when he was jailed for vagrancy (being an Indian in an alley at night). After breaking out of jail, twice, he soon got involved in politics. His work for Indigenous Peoples' organizations, including co-founding the United Native Nations, spans more than 70 years.
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It is with bitter sorrow that EMP shares news of Bill Lightbown’s passing.
In the last days before he died, he fought the end. I believe it was because he never felt his work was done.
In the last few years of his life, with his eyesight failing, Bill read the daily newspaper with the assistance of reading glasses and an enormous stand-up magnifying glass with lights set into the frame. He didn’t want to miss a thing. He cut out every article that made him bristle with frustration at the audacity of the media’s maligning of Indigenous issues and individuals: every article he felt obliged to contradict for some matter of egregious factual error, historical revision, or incitement to hatred.
Alas, too few of those replies were ever made. But there can be no doubt that Bill’s work was done. He did more than his share.
From the moment he was politicized by being thrown in jail for “vagrancy” – otherwise known as the crime of being native and walking down an alley at night – and discovered that most of his contemporaries were in there too, young native men, he never rested again. He saw the whole picture and understood himself. It all made sense: the 6 year old school girls who called him and his brother dirty little Indians; the school principal that refused to allow him to complete his grade 12; the employers that took advantage of his energy and talent; the shocking contrast between the appearance of Indian Reserves and non-native communities. The revelation provided by meeting all those other young fellows in prison inspired the transition from 'the outsider,' to 'the freedom fighter.'
A question is raised by the fact that Bill felt his work is not complete. It’s obviously not done: the prisons are still full of young native men; the foster care system is full of native children; the land is subsumed by a steady stream of newcomers, exporting the natural wealth of the Indigenous nations across the globe, and leaving no power of decision for the Original Inhabitants and little if any benefit by it. This unresolved problem was never Bill’s alone.
The question arising is: who now represents urban, off-reserve Indigenous individuals? Who stands for unity among those forced away from home and those who remain? Who sees the question of eligibility for Band membership as a matter for the sovereign nations themselves to decide, according to their own processes, rather than a conundrum answered by Supreme Court of Canada decisions? Who speaks out for an Indigenous future which is determined by the Indigenous themselves, resourced by their own natural wealth? Who sees all these – and every issue of concern to Aboriginal peoples – as one issue: Indigenous sovereignty?
The answer is uncertain.
Bill had several proposals for achieving some measure of certainty that everything which makes Indigenous Peoples what they are – the land, the language, the culture – will be defended and protected and absorbed back under the nations’ own jurisdictions. Unity among Indigenous Peoples was the first. Of all the differences the nations have amongst themselves, none of those is as severe as the difference between Aboriginal and newcomer. The Indigenous should meaningfully align themselves; stand for the laws of the lands; put themselves first.
Bill would never have made anyone a distant second.
But the primary issue is one of sovereignty. One of the most atrocious crimes Bill lived with was the denial of his nationality, and his own nation unable to claim him as her son. From Canadians, he got all the racism but not the Indian Status. He challenged his own people on the matter of Non-Status Indians, and was involved at the inception of the British Columbia Association of Non-Status Indians. Bill was central to transforming that organization into the United Native Nations, open to all Aboriginal people whether with status or not.
Bill never accepted the idea that Indians are just brown Canadians. Indians are not Canadians, not until they choose to be, not until Canada recognizes the true extent of their place and role here and forges itself into a state which embraces that extensive place and role. Bill sought to bridge the divide between those two realities. He believed that solutions are more valuable than problems. He built houses and apartment buildings; he had a weekly radio show, following important news; he showed up when he was called upon.
His late great wife was known to say that she did not wish to cut down enough trees to build enough boats to ship all the newcomers home, and Bill went along with that.
So how do we live together? That is the question that troubled Bill until his last, dying days; that is the problem that made it hard for him to leave – when he proposed such an obvious answer. We recognize each other for what we are.
What are we? Well, we all have a story to tell. When Bill finally stopped driving, he used to solicit those stories from people he sat next to on the bus. And some of us enjoy a birth right to lands here, given us by ancestors over thousands of years. Others of us have come to this place looking for opportunities we did not have elsewhere. Still others were brought here under false pretenses, only to work on the train tracks or on the farms. And many here seem to be bent on domination. Those of us who want the kind of freedom Bill was fighting for, we need to listen to each other and recognize the truth when we hear it. And the Canadians must hear the truth of the Indigenous Peoples if they are going to live here. Hear it, respect it, and give back what they’ve taken from it. It is up to us to bring that change about.
When you grow up in the mountains with the trout and the bears and the mountain cliffs, like Bill did, you learn very quickly the balance of nature. Bill was only ever suggesting that the balance of nature be shown some respect. It’s past time that Canadians reversed their actions to assimilate Indigenous Peoples and all their lands.
The day must come when a man like Bill can finally rest in peace.
Wishing love and courage to all Bill’s family, and in loving memory and admiration of an extraordinary life, Bill Lightbown: April 14, 1927 – March 1, 2019
A nametag for attendance at a First Nations leadership council meeting.