Leonard Marchand: A legacy revisited

Leonard Marchand assumes a pensive pose as MP of Kamloops-Cariboo.
Source: Chuck Mitchell, The Canadian Press

Alex Kurial

Fifty years ago “Trudeaumania” swept across Canada, propelling Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals to power in the 1968 election. The election was historic for many reasons, but perhaps one of the greatest revolved around what happened in the riding of Kamloops-Cariboo. Participating in its first election as an official district, the central British Columbia electoral district voted Liberal candidate Leonard Marchand as their MP. This represented the first time a Status Indian had been elected to Parliament in the country.

‘Len’ as he was often called did not want his ethnicity to be the sole defining feature of his political career however. In an interview with The Globe and Mail just weeks after the election, Marchand said he was “an MP who happens to be an Indian,” and that “I will not become the official Indian spokesman in the House of Commons.” Marchand instead preferred that his hard work would define him, and by extension paint a positive image of his people and heritage.

Marchand’s win was seen as a surprise, but not because of his ethnicity. Kamloops had emerged as a city that prided itself on its progressive racial ideals, evidenced by the election of the first mayor of Chinese background in North American history, Peter Wing, in 1966. Rather Marchand had defeated a Conservative heavyweight in David Fulton, a decorated war hero and MP for Kamloops since 1945

Following the victory, Marchand set out to make his name in Ottawa. He soon became parliamentary secretary to Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and future Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. Described as an “intelligent man, whose quiet demeanor conceals sound political judgment,” Marchand did not become a major name nationally, but attracted the attention of the Prime Minister through his thorough behind the scenes work.

This culminated with a selection to Trudeau’s federal cabinet in 1976 as the new Minister of State for Small Business. Marchand became the first Indian cabinet member in Canadian history, yet again setting a new milestone for a people that had been systemically oppressed throughout the country’s history.

The news was welcome to those in Marchand’s riding back home, who felt that Trudeau had passed their MP over for a cabinet job a few years prior. The move helped to partially thaw upset Liberal members from British Columbia, who felt that the Trudeau government was ignoring western concerns.

Marchand remained as Minister of State for Small Business for a year, during which time he was able to pass regulation to alleviate small businesses of redundant operating costs, saving tens of millions of dollars. After a year in this role Marchand continued his impressive rise by being promoted to Minister of the Environment.

In the same interview with The Globe after being elected back in 1968, Marchand had pledged his dedication to the people of Kamloops. “My philosophy is Canada first, my constituency second,” Marchand had proclaimed. He routinely put this into action during his time in office, particularly in one instance as Minister of the Environment. When mining company Consolidated Rexpar Minerals and Chemicals Ltd. attempted to build a uranium mine near the small town of Clearwater, BC, Marchand personally attended a town meeting to voice his opposition to the project. It was this kind of personal attention that forever endeared Marchand to his constituents.

After the Liberal government was defeated in the 1979 election, albeit briefly, Marchand returned to politics when Pierre Trudeau retook power a year later. He appointed Marchand to the Senate, only the second Indigenous Canadian to hold a position in the upper chamber.

The 2015 Canadian election held certain parallels to the election of 1968. A new type of Trudeaumania had swept the nation, and with it another Trudeau to power. And a historic mark was reached with regards to Indigenous success, as ten candidates of Indigenous background entered the House of Commons. They, and in fact all Canadians, will forever look to Marchand for political inspiration.


Document 1: Len Marchand ‘MP who happens to be an Indian’, The Globe and Mail, July 15, 1968

I found this article through a ProQuest search “1968 Kamloops election”. I was interested to get a sense of how people in his home riding felt about Marchand, and what his thoughts were as the first Status Indian ever to be elected. This is where I found that Marchand never wanted his background to be all that people saw in him, and that he wanted his work to speak for itself. It’s also where I learned of Kamloops’ progressive history, and their forward thinking views on race for the time.


Document 2: “A matter of milestones”, The Globe and Mail, Sep. 16, 1976

Again this article was found via a ProQuest search. It helps shed light on Marchand’s character while in office, a quiet figure who doesn’t seek the spotlight, but one who is always working hard to fulfill the duties of the office. I also found it very interesting that the article discusses how far Canada still has to go with regards to erasing prejudices towards Indigenous peoples in the country, and when we flash forward over 40 years we are still facing many of the same issues today.


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