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Harry Daniels: A Profile

Harry Daniels: A Profile

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A retrospective look at the life of Harry Daniels writeen by George and Terry Goulet (April, 2014) historians for the B.C. Metis Federation.
A retrospective look at the life of Harry Daniels writeen by George and Terry Goulet (April, 2014) historians for the B.C. Metis Federation.

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Published by: Lawrence J. Barkwell on May 15, 2014
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Métis Crusader
By George & Terry Goulet
There are only two men in the history of the Métis People who were the prime instrumental forces in having the
Métis enshrined in Canada’s Constitution - Louis Riel in section 31 of the 1870 Manitoba Act and Harry Daniels in
section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. If the Daniels Decision of April 17, 2014 by the Federal Court of Appeal is
upheld on further appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, section 91 (24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 can be added
as an additional achievement by Harry Daniels.
Harry Daniels epitomized the qualities of the great Métis leaders of the past. He possessed an indomitable spirit
in strenuously striving for the interests of his Métis people and of non-status Indians. He was the pre-eminent
modern crusader for Aboriginal rights.
Harry’s personality seemed larger-than-life. He was charismatic, flamboyant, passionate and a marvelous
raconteur. The clothing he wore was invariably tasteful, stylish and refined. On appropriate occasions he wore a
beaded buckskin jacket. His trademark black felt hat, with a partially upswept brim circled by a colorful band, gave
him his famed nickname of “Harry the Hat”.
His zest for life, including his love of jigging, did not detract from his role as a forthright social activist who
tenaciously pursued a wide field of causes and activities on behalf of indigenous peoples.
Harry Wilfred Daniels was born in Regina Beach, Saskatchewan on September 16, 1940. His parents, both Métis,
were Henry (Harry) Alfred Daniels and Emma McKay. His maternal grandparents were William Henry McKay and
Marie St. Anne Bellegarde who, after they were married in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, established their home in
Regina Beach.
In 2005, not long after Harry’s death, the authors of this profile travelled to Regina to interview Harry’s sister
Laurena Daniels and his widowed partner Cheryl Storkson about his life. Laurena, who lived in Regina Beach, told
us that her grandfather McKay had obtained land scrip. She didn’t know the names of their paternal grandparents or
prior relatives. This was due to their father being orphaned when he was three years old. Harry did trace the family
tree and found roots in Wales.

When Harry was nine years old, his father abandoned the family and Harry soon assumed the role of the man of
the house. Laurena remembers that it was Harry who took his younger siblings to their first day at school in Regina
Harry left school at age 17 and shortly thereafter joined the Navy. On his return to Saskatchewan in his early 20s
he worked at a number of jobs including waiter, actor, dance instructor, and later as a groom for race horses in the
United States and Canada. In 1967 at the age of 27 he returned to Canada from Hollywood, Florida. He then
furthered his education by attending the University of Saskatchewan, where he took a course in Native Law.
Not long afterwards Daniels made a decision to become involved in Aboriginal politics. He became Executive
Director of the Saskatchewan Métis Society in 1969. In 1971 he was elected a Vice-President of the Métis
Association of Alberta (which later became the Métis Nation of Alberta).
During these years Harry became active with the Native Council of Canada (NCC), which at the time was the only
national organization representing Métis and non-status Indians. The NCC had been founded in 1971 with a view to
serving and promoting the rights and interests of off-reserve and non-status Indians and Métis in Canada. Years later
the NCC changed its name to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP). Harry became President of the NCC in
1975. He served as President of the NCC from 1975 to 1981 and of CAP from 1997 to 2000.
At an early stage Daniels assumed a leading advocacy role to enshrine the rights of Aboriginals in the
Constitution of Canada. In the early 1980s, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government took the initiative in
pursuing patriation from Britain of the Canadian Constitution in order to remove from Canada a remnant of British
colonialism. To this end the government convened meetings with, among others, representatives of Aboriginal
groups with a view to obtaining their support for patriation.
Harry Daniels was front and center in a number of these meetings. He was a constitutional adviser during this
period not only for the NCC but also for the Métis Associations of Alberta and the North West Territories. At this
time the Métis National Council was not yet formed.
On January 30, 1981 Daniels as President of the NCC was invited to participate in the meetings of the
Parliamentary Committee dealing with the Aboriginal aspects of constitutional amendments leading to patriation. In
these negotiations Daniels represented not only the Métis but also non-status Indians.
At one meeting, the Federal Minister of Justice Jean Chretien (who became Prime Minister over a decade later)
asked Daniels if he would travel to Britain to back patriation. Daniels told him that if the Métis were specifically
included in the Constitution he would do so. When Chretien refused this proposition, Daniels reacted angrily with
clenched fist and said:
“Then I mobilize my people, that’s the only thing we’ll accept.”
After disappearing for awhile, Chretien returned and said that he had spoken to Prime Minister Trudeau and that
all of Daniels’ points would be agreed to.
During a Parliamentary Committee hearing on the Constitution, Senator Duff Roblin of Manitoba asked Daniels
“How do we know who is Métis?” Daniels categorically, confidently and emphatically replied:
“We know who we are; we know the generations of discrimination we have endured; we don’t need
anybody to tell us who we are. If you identify as Ukrainian or Italian, we don’t question who you are
or try to tell you who you are. We self-identify, just like everybody else in this country.”
As a result of Daniels’ perseverance, s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 specifically named the Métis as one of the
Aboriginal peoples of Canada and recognized and affirmed their existing Aboriginal rights. This feat was the acme
of the outstanding contributions of Harry Daniels to the Métis people of Canada.
Daniels had a broader view of the meaning of the term “Métis” in s. 35 of the Constitution than that of some Métis
organizations. A letter dated February 17, 1994 that Harry Daniels wrote to Kirby Lethbridge (President of the
Labrador Métis Association) was published in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report. In this letter
Daniels indicated that it was understood at the time of the Constitution negotiations in 1981 that “Métis” in s. 35:

“.... included the member organizations and their constituents who self-identified as a Métis person
.... It was also understood that the term Métis was not tied to any particular geographic area ...”
Daniels was not only a Métis politician - he was a researcher and author and wrote a number of articles relating to
the Métis and non-status Indians.
His love of dancing was with him all through his life. He was known to kick-up his heels and do a lively Red
River Jig whenever the mood struck him. Other facets of Harry’s career included his performances as an actor on
stage and in films. For example he portrayed the part of Gabriel Dumont in the television mini-series Big Bear.
Among other roles, Harry portrayed Louis Riel a number of times in the Regina play “The Trial of Louis Riel” that is
still being performed every summer.
An interesting anecdote involving Harry Daniels and Pope John Paul II (now a Saint) occurred during a papal trip
to Canada in 1984. En route to Fort Simpson the Pope’s journey was delayed at the airport in Yellowknife due to
thick fog. With him were several people including Harry Daniels and Phil Fontaine (later Chief of the Assembly of
First Nations). Harry noticed that the Pope was shivering in the cold open air. Daniels took off his own buckskin
jacket and magnanimously wrapped it around the Pope’s shoulders. We were told by Harry’s partner Cheryl that the
Pope took it back with him to the Vatican and that the buckskin jacket was still there.
Martin Dunn of CAP told us that Daniels was a consummate actor, a flamboyant and wonderful person but also a
demanding boss. Dunn expressed the view that Daniels was “the greatest 20
century Métis leader.”
Daniels was a frequent guest lecturer on Aboriginal matters at various institutions and organizations. In 2002-03
he lectured in Métis history in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
In December 2000 Daniels and CAP filed a Statement of Claim in the Federal Court of Canada against the
Minister of Indian Affairs and the Attorney General of Canada. The lawsuit sought a judicial declaration that Métis
and non-status Indians are “Indians” within s. 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Daniels died a decade before the
Federal Court of Appeal declared in 2014 that the Métis were “Indians” for the purposes of section 91 (24).
Three months before his death an Honorary Doctorate degree was conferred on Daniels by the University of
Ottawa. In introducing Harry for this latter honor, the presenter referred to Daniels as:
“.... a man who has championed the rights of his people and, in so doing, has strengthened Canada for the
benefit of us all.”
Harry Daniels was suffering from cancer when he received this honorary degree. On September 6, 2004 he died
at Regina. Many tributes poured in after his death. Andy Scott, the then Indian Affairs Minister and Federal
Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, issued a statement of condolence that said in part:
“.... his efforts in getting the term Métis into section 35 of the Act makes him one of our true historic
Aboriginal icons .... Mr. Daniels will be remembered for his strength of spirit and the passion with which he
lead the Métis and Non-Status Indian peoples of Canada.”
The many contributions which Daniels made to the advancement of Métis and non-status Indians is truly
memorable. His prodigious efforts in having the Aboriginal rights of the Métis recognized, affirmed and enshrined in
the Constitution of Canada, 1982 and his active role in fighting for inclusion of the Métis in section 91(24) of the
Constitution Act, 1867 will be his everlasting legacy. Harry Daniels, a man who exuded panache and vitality, will
indeed be remembered by posterity as a pre-eminent Métis crusader.

April 2014
© George and Terry Goulet

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