Bill Wuttunee remembered

The Calgary Chinook Fund supports charitable organizations providing services, programming, and education, for and about the LGBTQ2 community. They also annually present a hero award. Notably, this year’s hero was consequential to our historic human rights struggle. At their October fundraising dinner, the hero award was given to Bill Wuttunee, posthumously, in the presence of family and friends. Here is what was said at the event by the Chinook Fund’s Gordon Sombrowski.

Oki

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the proclaiming into law, the amendments to the criminal code which partially decriminalized homosexuality and therewith began the process of change that has led toward equal rights for the LGBTQ2 community in Canada. In seeking who to give our Hero Award to this year, we wanted to recognize the fiftieth anniversary of the change to the law. In working with the Calgary Gay History Project and Kevin Allen, the Chinook Fund Committee happened upon an incredible man who was a stalwart ally and champion for the gay community in Calgary and who has all but been forgotten. Unfortunately, we did not discover this man until after his passing. However, this evening we are joined by his daughter Nola, son Nisha, and family and friends.

I am thrilled to announce that our Hero Award Recipient for 2019 is William (Bill) Wuttunee.

Bill Wuttunee lived his life by the following words he expressed at age 85:

“Get active in your world to make it better. Don’t sit by and wait for others to do it.”

The lawyer, activist, and humanitarian from Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan co-founded what today is known as the Assembly of First Nations. The first indigenous lawyer in Western Canada, Wuttunee, also helped to secure voting rights for status Indians.

Yet the life of one of Canada’s true pioneers began in humble circumstances. Raised on the reserve in a family of 15, Wuttunee survived the residential school system. After moving to Battleford, Saskatchewan, to finish his last years in school, he won a scholarship to attend McGill University.

His presence there gave him the distinction of being one of only two First Nations people to attend university at that time; years later, he would also become the first indigenous lawyer to appear before the Supreme Court of Canada.

We honour him today because Wuttunee was one of our allies as an early and proud champion of LGBTQ2 rights at a time when others went out of their way not to help us. Wuttunee was Everett Klippert’s lawyer. Thus he gained the distinction of defending the last person in Canada to be prosecuted for homosexuality — his work helping to lay the groundwork for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s later famed phrase in 1969, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

This came about because Bill Wuttunee decided in the 1960s to set up his own law practice in Calgary handling criminal cases and family law. He said, “I didn’t know anybody here. I came here because the weather was nice and the people seemed nice, and I’ve never been sorry. Alberta has been good to me, and good for my family.”

In 1966, Bill opened a branch office in Yellowknife, where one of his cases was to defend Everett Klippert in the case that led to changes in the law against homosexuality.  Charged with “gross indecency” because Klippert admitted to having had sexual relations with four separate men, he was sentenced to “preventive detention” as a dangerous sexual offender. He served five years, while his appeal worked its way through the courts to the Supreme Court, where it was finally dismissed in a controversial 3-2 decision: meaning imprisonment for life.

Then Tommy Douglas raised the issue in the House of Commons, and within six weeks Pierre Trudeau introduced changes to the Criminal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality. Bill Wuttunee proudly shared that, “Trudeau cited the Klippert case when he said that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Wuttunee one

William Wuttunee in 1967, 39 years old.

However, Bill Wuttunee did not only work on high profile cases like Klippert’s for our community; he was also known for handling small local matters. Courtesy of the Gay History Project I found this wonderful statement by Bill in his own words.

Paul Jackson, city editor of The Albertan (which became the Calgary Sun), in November 1969 wrote: A Growing Cult, Homosexual Club Thrives in Calgary. Jackson quoted Bill Wuttunee as follows:

“They, homosexuals, are all members of a minority group. Like all members of minority groups, they have been subjected to persecution. My job is to see that they get the same rights as any other Canadian citizen. After all, they are not breaking the law.”

Wuttunee was to continue to be a champion for human rights to the end of his life, and even In his early 80s, Wuttunee sat on the Oversight Committee for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the organization responsible for resolving thousands of residential school claims.

Dear supporters of the Chinook Lesbian and Gay Fund, it is my privilege and honour in this year of the fiftieth anniversary of decriminalization and in the spirit of reconciliation to ask you to rise in honour of William Bill Wuttunee, our Hero!

The gathered audience leapt to their feet for a tremendously long, heartfelt, standing ovation. Nola Wuttunee, a former APTN host, as well as actor, musician, and film producer, rose to accept the award and shared memories of her father. There were several moist eyes in the room, and we felt the warm glow of a shared humanity.

Chinook Fund and Nola

Chinook Fund Members: Tony Hailu, Michel Bourque, Chris Post and Gordon Sombrowski with Nola Wuttunee (centre).

{Wishing you a reflective holiday season and a happy new year!}

{KA}

 

3 responses to “Bill Wuttunee remembered

  1. What a wonderful tribute to Bill and the work he did for so many us and the LGBTQ2S+ communities. Thank s to the Chinook Fund for honoring Bill.

  2. Katherine Griebel

    Hi,

    Katherine Griebel here. Thanks for the nice e-mail. In the past, I remember Mr. Wuttunee’s name being mention when my mother spoke of Uncle Everett’s case in the N.W.T. I also remember that his sentence was “indeterminate detention” and not what was spoken about in this message. I could be wrong. Please advise.

    Blessings, Katherine Griebel

  3. This is so awesome and inspiring. Thank you and Happy New Year!

    Love, Lolly

    >

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