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August 26, 2005

Grey Owl Meets John Tootoosis

Paths Crossing in the Shadow of the Parliament Buildings

The August/September, 2005 issue of The Beaver “Canada’s History Magazine” features a story on Alberta & Saskatchewan’s 100th Anniversary.  A part of the article called “Men Who Made a Difference” includes a profile of the outstanding Cree activist John B. Tootoosis (1899-1989).  Tootoosis’ accidental meeting with Grey Owl in March 1936 in Ottawa in the shadow of the parliament buildings tells a lot about these two great Canadians. 

Gray Owl holding his and Anahario's daughter Dawn at the commemoration of Treaty Six August 1936.

John Tootoosis was born on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan in 1899.  His grandfather was a brother of the famous native leader Poundmaker who among other things helped negotiate Treaty Six in 1876.  John went to residential school and learned English and soon became a leader against the oppressive and patrionising Federal Government and their Indian Agents.  When he became the chief of his band at age 20 the agent said he had to be 21 and cancelled his election. 

In the 1930’s John worked with the League of Indians of Western Canada and became president in 1934.  He later headed the Union of Saskatchewan Indians.  He was a Senator for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians for 2 decades.  He was determined, courageous and stood up to external authority without hesitation. 

Restrictions on native people in those days are unbelievable by today’s standards.  Natives were not allowed to leave their reserves or enter other reserves without permission from the Indian Agent.  When John left the reserve without permission to organize against the restrictions the RCMP sent him back.  The Catholic Church tried to control him and threatened excommunication for his independence and criticism. 

When John became a leader an Aunt brought forward a hidden medal given to Poundmaker in 1876 and gave it to him to encourage him. 

John Tootoosis & Grey Owl 

In March 1936 John collected money from his supporters and took the long train trip to Ottawa to ask the Department of Indian Affairs why his people were getting no action on many requests that were sent to Ottawa by the League of Saskatchewan Indians. 

Details of the events of the trip are recorded in John’s biography (John Tootoosis: Biography of a Cree Leader, 1982) and in Donald Smith’s definitive book From the Land of the Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl 1990.  On the train John met an Anglican priest who knew of John’s criticism of residential schools.  The priest warned him that the RCMP would be looking for him when they found out he was off the reserve and challenging the government’s plan of assimilation. 

After several days of travel he arrived in Ottawa one morning and went to a small coffee shop in the shadows of the parliament buildings for some breakfast.  In a remarkable coincidence another Canadian icon Grey Owl in his prime, who was in Ottawa to visit the Prime Minister and the Governor General, came into the same lonely restaurant.  Grey Owl approached John and asked if he could join him and they talked at some length.  Grey Owl was living at Prince Albert Park in Saskatchewan but did not know much about the native struggle there. 

Grey Owl was busy all day and offered John his room where John slept until Grey Owl returned.  They spent the evening together talking further.  Grey Owl offered to introduce John to people at Indian Affairs.  John could not get access to senior staff there so left his papers with the highest ranking officer and left to come back the next day.  When he did the officer threw John’s papers to one side and was quite dismissive.  John got angry and other staff interceded.  John got some promises, which were ignored like those in the many treaties that were solemnly sworn by Queen Victoria before God. 

Grey Owl did not convince John he was native but John recognized a friend to the native cause.  A few months later Grey Owl with his daughter Dawn attended the commemoration of the signing of the Treaty Six with hundreds of native people and danced with some of the Chiefs in a scene repeated in the 1999 Grey Owl movie. 

Grey Owl died in 1938 and John Tootoosis lived to age 90, dying in 1989 leaving 10 sons, 3 daughters, 51 grandchildren and 36 great grandchildren.  His son Gordon was one of the stars of the CBC’s North of 60 and several movies.  A daughter Jean was a highly successful leader who had a long and successful career in Ottawa and wrote 4 books including (with Norma Sluman) her father’s biography.  She had an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University and the Order of Canada.  Tyrone Tootoosis followed in his uncle Gordon’s footsteps when he played the role of Poundmaker in the 1998 movie Big Bear.  He later played Poundmaker a couple of other times including a mini series on the History Channel.   

John Tootoosis is deservedly recognized on this 100th anniversary of Saskatchewan as one of those who made a difference in the development of native rights and an improved native way of life.

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