Chief Wilton Littlechild, from the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, overcame the adversity of residential schools through sports, leading to academic and athletic success at the University of Alberta. He became the first Treaty Indian in Alberta to earn a law degree and has significantly contributed to Indigenous rights globally, including the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
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Early Life and Cultural Roots
Chief Littlechild’s inspiring story began on the Ermineskin Cree Nation Reserve at Maskwacis (Bear Hills) Alberta. He came from a large family of seven sisters and four brothers. He was raised by his grandparents, who nurtured and taught him cultural and traditional practices while encouraging him to pursue formal education.
As a young boy, he learned the importance of community and gained a sense of responsibility to strengthen his community for future generations. He emphasizes maintaining a balance between four key elements in life: physically being well, mentally being well, a celebration of who you are culturally, and finally, your spiritual beliefs.
These are essential for success and winning in life. Chief Wilton Littlechild’s exemplary life as an athlete and his contributions in his community continue to honour these teachings and serve as an outstanding role model for all.
Challenges of Residential School Life
Chief Wilton Littlechild was taken to the Indian Residential School at the tender age of six, living 14 years in these institutions. During this period, he witnessed and experienced many tragic cases of abuse. He was removed from his traditional home and not allowed to speak his language or practise his culture.
Residential School also separated Chief Wilton Littlechild from his siblings, particularly an older brother who might have served as a mentor to him, not only in sports but also in life where young athletes face many challenges along the way including peer pressure to conform or use alcohol.
He never received this mentorship, nor did he enjoy the support of family cheering him on while participating in sport. In his own words, “I search in my mind if ever my parents saw me play any sport, and I played a lot of sports. And they were never there.”
Finding Solace and Strength in Sports
Despite the horrors of abuse and challenges of what was clearly a difficult situation for Chief Wilton Littlechild and so many Indigenous youths, he still focused on only the positive things he could control in his life burying himself in sports. He participated in ice hockey, football, baseball, and swimming.
Finding peace and solace in sport helped him find the strength and resilience to endure and escape from an environment of institutional abuse and separation from his family.
He learned the valuable lesson early in his life that if he worked hard in sport, he could become a good athlete and student, fulfilling his potential even in the most difficult circumstances.
Academic and Athletic Achievements at the University of Alberta
Sports also paved his way to the University of Alberta, where he participated as a member of the Golden Bears ice hockey and swimming teams. Many would struggle to participate in two varsity sports while going to school full time.
In his desire to give back and help others, Chief Wilton Littlechild also managed the football and basketball teams. Being of service to others and their community has always been important to him. It was a valuable lesson he learned from his grandparents early in life.
Legal Career and Political Milestones
In university, Chief Wilton Littlechild was a gifted athlete and diligent student.
Athletically, he would win over 70 Regional, National, and International competitions. He would be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.
He completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Physical Education, and a law degree becoming the first Treaty Indian from Alberta to become a lawyer. He would also be inducted as a member of the order of Canada in 1999.
Later, he would also become the first Cree person elected as a Member of Parliament in Canada. As a very modest person, he takes no credit for this success but he thanks his grandparents and other Elders who provided him valuable life lessons.
What are the Successes that Chief Wilton Littlechild Achieved
Chief Wilton Littlechild won over 70 Regional, National, and International competitions throughout his athletic career.
Beyond his athletic victories, Chief Wilton Littlechild achieved significant successes in various fields:
- Academic Achievements: He completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Physical Education, followed by a law degree, becoming the first Treaty Indian from Alberta to become a lawyer.
- He was named one of the 2000 outstanding intellectuals of the 21st century in 2004.
- In 2010, Willie was named the first Indigenous Torch Bearer and an Ambassador for the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
- Legal and Political Career: Littlechild was also the first Cree person elected as a Member of Parliament in Canada, marking a significant milestone in his legal and political career.
- Advocacy for Indigenous Rights: He has pioneered the global Indigenous Rights movement, contributing over 30 years of work with the United Nations. He was instrumental in creating the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
- Community Service: Littlechild has been deeply involved in serving his community and advocating for the rights of Indigenous Peoples around the world, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a balance between physical wellness, mental wellness, cultural celebration, and spiritual beliefs.
- Through leadership with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he has raised awareness of former Canadian policies that decimated the livelihood and culture of Indigenous Canadians. Chief Littlechild has a lifelong love of sports and is an accomplished athlete. He is one of the founders of the North American Indigenous Games and is helping to host the World