NEWS
06/03/2016 15:37 EDT | Updated 06/04/2017 01:12 EDT

B.C.'s Len Marchand, first Aboriginal federal cabinet minister, dies

Canada's first Aboriginal federal cabinet minister, Len Marchand, has died. He was 82.

Born in Vernon, B.C. in November 1933, Marchand was a member of the Okanagan Indian Band.

Described by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a 'trailblazer", Marchand pursued academic excellence despite the restrictions of the Indian Act, and made it his life's work to improve the lives of First Nations people.

"Canada has lost a trailblazer," Trudeau posted to Twitter Friday. "My condolences to the family of Len Marchand, the first federal cabinet minister of First Nations descent."

Matt Hughes, who co-authored Marchand's 2000 autobiography, Breaking Trail, told CBC News that Marchand overcame enormous obstacles.

"He was the son of illiterate parents," Hughes said. " He gew up on a reservation. He managed to graduate from a public high school when it was still technically illegal for Indians to even go there."

Marchand grew up in Six Mile Creek and, in the first of many such successes, was the first person of Aboriginal descent to graduate from public high school in Vernon. Even then, he didn't realize he was enrolled in a program designed to turn out farmers and so returned to do an extra year in order to graduate in 1955 with university entrance qualifications.

He studied agriculture at UBC at a time when the only First Nations students were a handful of those accepted into the nursing program, received his Masters from the University of Idaho in 1964 and, Hughes says, was on his way to a PhD, before politics took him down another path.

A life in politics

In the 1950s and 60s, Marchand was an active member of the North American Indian Brotherhood, working on a number of issues, including federal voting rights for First Nations. He became a federal political staffer in 1965, when he became a special assistant to ministers within the Ministry of Indian Affairs.

Still intending to return to his academic studies, Marchand was persuaded to run against longstanding Kamloops-Cariboo MP, Progressive Conservative Davie Fulton as a symbolic gesture — he wasn't expected to win.

But Trudeaumania swept the country in the 1968 general election and win he did, making Marchand, the first status Indian to enter parliament.

He became parliamentary secretary to Jean Chretien in 1972, when the latter was Minister of Indian Affairs.

And, in 1976, Marchand achieved another first, becoming a member of Pierre Trudeau's cabinet, first as Minister for Small Business then, from 1977-79 as Minister of the Environment.

He lost his seat when the Liberals were ousted in the 1979 general election and subsequently worked for the Nicola Valley Indian Bands and the Western Indian Agricultural Corporation.

He was appointed to the senate in 1984, and retired in 1998.

In 1999, he received the Order of Canada, and in 2014 he received the Order of B.C.

With files from Josh Pagé.