Leroy Little Bear JD, DAS (hon), LLD (hon)
Leroy Little Bear’s lifetime of accomplishment includes some of the most important political achievements for Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. His dedication to education, leadership, community-building and advocacy has led to a United Nations declaration, changed the Constitution of Canada and influenced the lives of thousands of students.
“A good leader looks at things from a different angle, always changes the conversation and attempts to build a good foundation and work themselves out of existence.”
Leroy’s story begins on the Blood Indian Reserve in Southern Alberta. Growing up as one of seven siblings, his childhood was spent working on farms and participating in local cultural activities, such as Sun Dances and Pow Wows.
At age 10, Leroy attended school for the first time, at the on-reserve residential school. Despite an early love of learning, Leroy soon became aware of the colonialization aspects of his schooling. This experience influenced the educational path he would follow later in his life.
During Leroy’s undergraduate education at the University of Lethbridge, he formed a relationship with the university’s President, Sam Smith. Smith wanted to reach out to the large Indigenous population in the Lethbridge area and asked Leroy how the university could engage the community. Leroy responded: “Why don’t you go and ask them?” From this conversation came a project that would employ Leroy as he completed his undergraduate degree in Lethbridge and at the University of New Mexico. His outreach with local Indigenous communities would lay the foundation for the creation of the university’s Native American Studies program, one of the first of its kind in Canada. Meanwhile, Leroy continued his education, attending law school at the University of Utah. In his last year of law school, the Dean of the University of Lethbridge reached out and asked him if he would like to run the newly created Native American Studies program.
Leroy’s decision to return to Lethbridge would help define the rest of his career. As a professor, he developed courses in Native law, philosophy, history, political and social issues, health, arts and language. Through these programs, Leroy would inspire thousands of students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Today, generations of graduates of the Native American Studies program can be found influencing future generations, as on-reserve teachers and principals, or leading similar Native American Studies programs at the University of Calgary, Bow Valley College and SAIT. Leroy was also the founding director of the inter-faculty Native American Program at Harvard University, where he taught briefly before returning to Lethbridge.
Leroy’s legal background and prominence in Indigenous advocacy has led to a series of important contributions to Canadian and international law.
Leroy was an integral member of the legal team advising the National Indian Brotherhood on the transfer of Canada’s founding legislation, the British North America Act, from British to Canadian authority. He went on to act as legal advisor at subsequent constitutional conferences on Indigenous matters. His team’s negotiations resulted in the Constitution of Canada’s Section 35, which recognizes and enshrines Indigenous rights. This case resulted in Leroy Little Bear becoming the first Indigenous person cited in Canada’s Supreme Court.
As a member of the Task Force on the Criminal Justice System and as part of the legal team advising the National Indian Brotherhood on Indigenous legal matters, he has spent years working to improve the administration of justice for, and its impact on, the Indian and Métis Peoples of Alberta. Leroy has also been directly involved in strategic planning and consulting on Treaties 6, 7 and 8, and he drafted the declaration re-establishing the Blackfoot Confederacy and the constitutional framework for Blood Tribe governance, the Kainaisini.
Beyond Canada’s borders, Leroy played a central role in the first international Indigenous treaty in more than 150 years. The Buffalo: A Treaty Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration of 2014 formalized a commitment to restore the buffalo and to maintain associated indigenous cultural traditions. The buffalo is an important part of Leroy’s Blood Tribe heritage, and his advocacy has led to international cooperation regarding its future in Canada and the United States.
One of Leroy’s most significant and enduring legacies is his work with the United Nations, where he helped to establish a working group on Indigenous populations. It was this working group that originated the concept and initial draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration has since been ratified by 144 member states of the UN, and is being implemented by the Government of Alberta.
Leroy Little Bear’s influence on Alberta, Canada and the world continues. He is still teaching courses in law, Native philosophy and economic development at the University of Lethbridge and remains the Senior Advisor to the Office of the President on Aboriginal Initiatives. He is actively involved in the university’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and continues to advocate for the return of the buffalo to southern Alberta.
Leroy has also remained dedicated to helping improve communities in and around Lethbridge. The legacy of this outreach includes the establishment of the Blood Tribe’s police department and the founding of the Lethbridge Indian Friendship Centre (now the Sik-Ooh-Kotoki Friendship Society). Recently, he helped to facilitate a Memorandum of Understanding between the Blood Tribe and the University of Lethbridge on economic development. Leroy also sits on the board of governors of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
Leroy’s many outstanding contributions have been celebrated over the years. He received an Honourary Doctor of Arts and Science degree from the University of Lethbridge, an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Northern British Columbia, was recognized as an Eminent Scholar (Honourary) by the Blood Reserve and received an Urban Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award from the Aboriginal Council of Lethbridge. The University of Lethbridge First Nations, Métis and Inuit Gathering Place was named Iikaisskini, meaning “low horn” in honour of Leroy Little Bear.
Through decades of teaching and community outreach, Leroy has influenced thousands of students and countless members of the local and international Indigenous community. His contributions to advancing human rights have improved the status of Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. In his life’s work, stretching from a residential school on the Blood Indian Reserve to his position of great influence in international human rights, Leroy Little Bear has given Albertans and people around the world a shining example of scholarship, leadership, collaboration and advocacy.
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