bill at ucc2

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to the LGBTQ+ communities has invoked memories of past injustices, particularly the case of Everett George Klippert, who was the only person in Canada ever declared a dangerous sexual offender for homosexuality and sent to prison indefinitely–that is, for life.  

Klippert’s lawyer appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost again. But the court of public opinion led the government of the day to change the law.

Klippert’s 1965-1967 case is often cited as the impetus for PM Pierre Trudeau to declare “The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” in 1967, and to change the Criminal Code sections on contraception and homosexuality.

Often overlooked, on the other hand, is the role that Western Canada’s first Indigenous lawyer played throughout the Klippert case. A recent Globe and Mail article stated that Klippert had “little or no legal representation.” On the contrary, Klippert’s lawyer stayed with his client all the way through and then reached out for legislative help. 

In the 1960s, William (Bill) Wuttunee had a law practice in Calgary. As his obituary in The Globe and Mail , written by Patricia Dawn Robinson, reported: “He expanded his practice to Yellowknife in 1966 when he took on a major case that became known across the country.” That case was Klippert’s. 

“So why was he convicted?” I asked Bill once, as we sat side by side in our pew, waiting for Sunday service to start. Bill was a valued member and former president of our congregation. “Klippert confessed,” he said. Picked up for questioning on an arson case he had nothing to do with, Klippert started talking about his gay liaisons.

Maclean’s reported a current legal view of the case. “‘He couldn’t stop confessing,'” says Douglas Elliott, a prominent gay rights lawyer and activist, with a laugh. “‘I think you’d have to hold your hand over Everett’s mouth to stop him from blabbing.'”

The mutual masturbation Klippert described to police in 1966 seems tame compared to, say, modern TV shows like CSI or Criminal Minds. Back then, his narrative was heard as depravity–or at best, a mental illness for which there was no cure.

Horrified by the prospect of an indefinite sentence, and rejecting any notion that his client could be a “dangerous sexual offender,” Bill pursued the case. “Mr. Wuttunee appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, another first for an Aboriginal lawyer–but the decision was upheld in 1967,” Robertson reported.

Wikipedia says that Tommy Douglas raised the Klippert case in the House of Commons the very next day, and that new legislation followed six weeks later. Maclean’s reports that Northwest Territories MP Bud Orange also raised the issue in Parliament.

Bill often said that when he heard the Supreme Court decision, he also reached out to Parliament–to Tommy Douglas, with whom he had worked in the 1950s. Bill was called to the Bar in 1954, at the age of 26, “the first Native lawyer in Western Canada,” he used to say. As CCF Premier of Saskatchewan from 1944-61, Douglas wanted to offer First Nations a new deal, says Robertson–integration into modern society, while maintaining their special status.

So in 1958, Tommy Douglas sent Bill Wuttunee to 58 Saskatchewan reserves to ask what people there wanted. Among other recommendations, Bill found that soldiers wanted to be able to raise a beer in the Legion alongside other men they’d served with. He also lobbied hard for status Indians to win the vote without losing their status. Tommy Douglas agreed on both accounts. I have no doubt he would have listened to Bill about Everett Klippert too, in 1967.

Bill was a Cree from the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan, raised on a mixed farm by educated parents, before he was forced to attend residential school for several hellish years. Many others in his generation at Red Pheasant also went on to university and professional careers.  

Bill married twice. He had five children with his first wife, Bernice Dufour: daughters Wanda, Lauren, Nola, and sons Nisha and Peyasu, says Robertson. The couple divorced in 1970. Several years later, Bill and his new partner had another son, Jason.

Determined to become a lawyer from the age of 10, Bill dedicated his life to winning self-determination for First Nations people. According to the University of Saskatchewan law school:

In 1959, he appeared before the Joint Committee of the House and Senate on Indian Affairs as counsel for the Federation to put forward the idea of First Nations as a third order of government. In 1961, he co-founded the National Indian Council (NIC) and was appointed its first National Chief. The NIC was credited for being the first organization to unite ‘the political voice of Aboriginal peoples at a national level.’ Today, it is known as the Assembly of First Nations….Wuttunee was also the first native lawyer to appear before the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Other significant achievements throughout his distinguished career include: authoring the controversial book, Ruffled Feathers: Indians in Canadian Society in 1971; sitting on the Oversight Committees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the organization overseeing the thousands of residential school claims from 2007 to 2010; and, receiving an apology from Pope Benedict at the Vatican for the harms ‘perpetrated against native children in residential schools.

William Wuttunee died on October 31, 2015 at the age of 87, surrounded by his family. His defence of George Everett Klippert turned out to be a national turning point. And to me at least, Klippert’s  case has even more resonance because it was an early indication of how significant Bill Wuttunee’s life would turn out to be.

For more information about Bill Wuttunee, see my rabble tribute to him In Memoriam: William Wuttnee 1928-2015.

Image: Penney Kome

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...