Harry Wilfred Daniels, politician, writer, actor (born 16 September 1940 in Regina Beach, SK; died 6 September 2004 in Regina Beach). Daniels was a celebrated Métis politician and activist who fought for the rights of Métis people. His greatest contribution to Indigenous rights in Canada was the Supreme Court case Daniels v. Canada, which guaranteed that Métis and Non-Status Indians are considered “Indian” under the Constitution Act, 1867.
Early Life and Education
Harry Daniels was born in Regina Beach, Saskatchewan. He was the son of Harry Alfred Daniels and Emma McKay, who were both Métis. Daniels’s families were part of the historic Nehiyaw Pwat — an Indigenous political and military alliance between the Assiniboine (Nakoda and Stoney), Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe (includes Saulteaux) and Métis (Michif). The alliance is also known as the Iron Confederacy, and members of Nehiyaw Pwat stood with Cuthbert Grant during the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816.
When Daniels was nine, his father left his family, and Daniels quickly became man of the house, looking after his brother, Hughley, and sisters Louise and Laurena. At age 17, Daniels left school to join the Navy, later returning to Saskatchewan in his early 20s.
In 1966, Daniels attended the University of Saskatchewan, where he majored in political science. While at university, he travelled to the United States, where he met with leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Black Panther Party. These experiences later helped inspire him to fight for the rights of Indigenous people in Canada (see Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada).
In 1985, Daniels received his master’s degree from Carleton University.
In 2002, Daniels returned to the University of Saskatchewan to teach Métis history for the Department of Native Studies.
After university, Daniels got involved in Indigenous politics and activism. In 1969, he became executive director of the Saskatchewan Métis Society. In 1971, he was elected a vice president of the Métis Association of Alberta (now known as the Métis Nation of Alberta, which is affiliated with the Métis National Council). The following year, Daniels was a representative for Indigenous people at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden (see United Nations).
In 1974–75, Daniels transitioned from provincial to national Indigenous politics, when he was elected secretary-treasurer for the Native Council of Canada (NCC; now called the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples). He went on to serve as president from 1976 to 1981.
In the late 1970s, Daniels attended the constitutional negotiations in Ottawa ahead of the patriation of the Constitution (Constitution Act, 1982). In 1981, he was commissioner of the Métis and Non-Status Indian Constitutional Review Commission of the NCC. The NCC was given two seats at the talk, and Daniels was the organization’s representative. However, Indigenous women were not given a seat at the negotiations, despite having requested one. Daniels decided to give one of the NCC’s seats to the representative of a group of Indigenous women.
At the negotiations, Daniels was instrumental in getting the Métis people of Canada recognized as an Indigenous people in the Constitution Act, 1982. Daniels demanded that Métis people be mentioned in the Constitution, along with Inuit and First Nations peoples; however, Minister of Justice Jean Chrétien initially refused. After Chrétien spoke to Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Chrétien agreed to include Métis people. Because of Daniels’s persistence, Métis people were included as “aboriginal peoples of Canada” under the Constitution Act, 1982.
Daniels served as president of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples from 1997 to 2000.
Daniels v. Canada
Daniels’s most significant contribution to the rights of Indigenous peoples is the Daniels v. Canada case, which reached the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015. The plaintiffs of the case argued that Métis people and Non-Status Indians must be recognized as “Indians” under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, a portion of the constitution that outlines jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments.
In 1999, Daniels was one of four plaintiffs — including Leah Gardner, a Non-Status Anishinaabe woman from Ontario; Terry Joudrey, a Non-Status Mi’kmaq man from Nova Scotia; and, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples — who brought a request for declarations to the Federal Court of Canada. (Daniels’s son Gabriel was added as a plaintiff after his father’s death in 2004.) There were three declarations requested: that Métis and Non-Status Indians are Indians under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, that the Crown owes a fiduciary duty to Métis and Non-Status Indians, and that Métis and Non-Status Indians have the right to be consulted by the federal government with regards to Indigenous rights, interests and needs.
Daniels died before the case was first decided in January 2013. Federal Court Judge Michael Phelan granted the declaration that Métis and Non-Status Indians are Indians under the constitution, but did not grant the other declarations; the judge decided that these had already been established favourably by previous Canadian law. That October, the federal government appealed the decision.
The case was heard at the Supreme Court, which reinstated the Federal Court’s original decision on 14 April 2016.
The decision of Daniels v. Canada does not mean that Métis and Non-Status Indians are ruled under the Indian Act, it does not grant Indian Status to Métis people, and it does not mean that Métis people can live on reserves. Instead, the decision makes clear that Métis and Non-Status Indians should turn to the federal government for improved programs and services, rather than to provincial governments (see Indigenous People: Government Programs).
Daniels has a few acting credits in Canadian productions. In 1986, he was in the cast of Mistress Madeleine, part of the TV miniseries, Daughters of the Country. The series won several Gemini Awards, including Best Writing in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series, and Best Pay TV Dramatic Program or Series.
Daniels also played the role of Métis leader Gabriel Dumont in Big Bear (1998), a two-part Canadian television series that follows the story of Chief Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear), and is set in the 1870s and 1880s.
Daniels is survived by his wife Cheryl Storkson. He has five children from two previous relationships: Conway, Gabriel, Chantelle, Chigal and Alexander.
In 1984, Daniels had an unusual encounter with Pope John Paul II. The Pope was visiting Northwest Territories, and was waiting to travel from Yellowknife to Fort Simpson, but his flight was delayed by fog. Daniels noticed that the Pope was cold and shivering, so he took off his own buckskin jacket and wrapped it around the Pope’s shoulders.
Daniels passed away on 6 September 2004 after a battle with cancer. He is buried in Regina Beach.
- Honorary Doctorate of the University, University of Ottawa, 2004
- Order of the Métis Nation, Métis National Council, 2004
- We are the New Nation: The Metis and National Native Policy (1979)
- The Forgotten People: Metis and Non-Status Indian Land Claims (1979)
- A Declaration of Metis and Indian Rights (1979)