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He Moved a Mountain: The Life of Frank Calder and the Nisga’a Land Claims Award

By Joan Harper

Review By Katherine Palmer Gordon

January 30, 2015

BC Studies no. 188 Winter 2015-2016  | p. 121-22

Like others over the course of history who have influenced fundamental human rights change, Frank Arthur Calder seems to have been born to that grand purpose.

Calder’s Nisga’a elders accurately foresaw that he was destined for greatness when he was still a small child. He was fiercely intelligent, fearless among his peers, and gifted with a warm sense of humour and quick wit. When he was just six years old, his adoptive father Arthur Calder, Chief Na-qua-oon, predicted his young son would one day achieve the seemingly impossible: moving the intractable mountain of government resistance to Aboriginal land title claims in British Columbia.

Despite their presence on the land millennia before Canada was conceived as a political state, when Calder was born in 1915 First Nations people in Canada enjoyed few of the human rights Canadians took for granted, including citizenship. They were also legally barred from claiming their rights to their lands and waters. Frank Calder would be instrumental in changing that.

In He Moved a Mountain, library science teacher Joan Harper recounts the life story of this remarkable man with great care and obvious affection, painting a picture of someone who had a passionate commitment to changing British Columbia and Canada for the better. Calder was a Nisga’a hereditary chief and served as president of the Nisga’a Tribal Council for twenty years. He was also a Member of the Legislative Assembly for thirty years, and became British Columbia’s first Aboriginal Cabinet Minister in 1972.

He is perhaps best remembered, however, for the 1973 Supreme Court decision in his name, which, for the first time, recognized that Aboriginal title continued to exist in British Columbia. The decision paved the way not only for a successful declaration of Tsilqhot’in Aboriginal title more than four decades later, in 2014, but the creation of the BC treaty negotiations process in the early 1990s. The Nisga’a themselves successfully concluded their treaty agreement in 2000, the first of its kind in Canada.

Calder was just thirty-four when he was first elected to the BC Legislature in 1949, the year Aboriginal people attained the franchise in provincial elections. One of his driving ambitions was to create a Bill of Rights establishing equal rights in law for all British Columbians. Harper quotes Calder’s maiden speech in the Legislature, delivered in February 1950: “The vote…has paved the way for new rights and new responsibilities. Indians now have a legal voice in the affairs of the province and a right to ask for equality of citizenship. Today the Indian stands as a second-class citizen, robbed even of his native rights… my picture of a full Magna Carta for natives is equality of opportunity in education, in health, in employment and in citizenship.” (29).

Calder didn’t succeed in establishing his Bill of Rights, but he did achieve numerous reforms in British Columbia, beginning with the removal of discriminatory laws prohibiting the consumption of alcohol by native people. By the time he retired from political office in 1979, Aboriginal people had become full citizens of Canada, having finally attained the right to vote in federal elections in 1960.

Frank Calder passed away in 2006, aged ninety-one. Taking full advantage of access to Calder’s papers provided by his widow, Tamaki, Joan Harper’s sympathetic and detailed narrative offers a worthy contribution to the understanding of the contemporary relationship between First Nations and other British Columbians through the story of this outstanding man.

He Moved a Mountain: The Life of Frank Calder and the Nisga’a Land Claims Award
Joan Harper
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2013. 220 pp. $21.95 paper