Early Life and Education
Bill Wilson was born into a Kwagiulth family. His mother, Puugladee (also known as Ethel or Effery), was the eldest child of a hereditary chief who was also a hamatsa, a position of very high stature in Kwagiulth culture. Wilson’s father, Charlie Wilson, was the eldest of six and worked diligently his entire life to support his large family.
Educated at the University of Victoria (BA, 1970) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) (LLB, 1973), Wilson became the second Indigenous person to graduate from UBC’s law school. Alfred Scow, Wilson’s first cousin, was the first Indigenous person to graduate from the law school at UBC, in 1961. Wilson acknowledges the importance of Scow’s accomplishments, which also included becoming the first Indigenous lawyer in BC and first Indigenous judge appointed to the BC Provincial Court (1971–92).
Bill Wilson was already actively involved in Indigenous rights organizations by the time he was in law school. From 1970 to 1973, Wilson served as director of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). His third year into law school, Wilson was director of Aboriginal title and land claims for the BC Association of Non-Status Indians (BCANSI). While he participated in both of these organizations, Wilson advocated for reducing their roles in favour of a return to unity of all Indigenous peoples at the level of traditional tribes. He became founding president of the United Native Nations (1976–81), the renamed BCANSI, which sought support of all BC Indigenous peoples and encouraged tribal political development.
In 1982–83, Wilson was vice-president of the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), attaining national prominence as its spokesman at the 1983 First Ministers Conference. In March of that year, Wilson and other Indigenous leaders met with Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau to successfully negotiate an amendment to Canada’s Constitution. Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982subsequently enshrined Indigenous title to traditional lands and treaty rights as well as equality of Indigenous women.
In 1988, Wilson helped to found the BC First Nations Congress, and was also elected its chairman. The congress’s aim was to help coordinate land claims negotiations and settlements. In 1990, the organization changed its name to the First Nations Summit, and met with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to discuss land claims issues. In December of that year, the BC Land Claims Task Force was created. In 1992, Wilson, Mulroney and BC Premier Mike Harcourt signed an agreement that created the BC Treaty Commission, an organization that still exists.
Wilson eventually returned to his own Kwagiulth nation to become coordinator of the Musgamagw Tribal Council. He also became a hamatsa, earning the same name given to his maternal grandfather: Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla.