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10 Indigenous People Who Shaped Canadian History

Illustration of Indigenous Canadians who helped shape Canadian history
Azra Hirji

During National Indigenous History Month — and all year long — it is important to recognize and reflect on the often-overlooked Indigenous victories and influences in Canada. Despite the many challenges that Indigenous peoples have faced and continue to face in Canada — including discrimination and racial segregation — strong, powerful Indigenous people have helped shape Canada.

From war veterans to politicians to athletes and more, with details found in sources including The Canadian Encyclopedia and Indigenous Corporate Training Inc, we’re recognizing just 10 of the many influential Indigenous people who helped shape Canadian history.

Related: 10 young Indigenous women leading the way for the next generation.

Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture (1890 – 1996)

Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture
Azra Hirji

Born on the Six Nations Grand River Reserve, Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, who was more commonly known as Edith Monture, was an Indigenous woman, nurse and WWI veteran. Monture conquered two major firsts in Canadian history for an Indigenous woman: she was the first to become a registered nurse and to gain the right to vote in the Canadian Federal Elections. 

See also: Indigenous-owned businesses to support across Canada.

James Gladstone (1887 – 1971)

James Gladstone
Azra Hirji

Also known by the Kainai name Akay-na-muka, James Gladstone was of mixed Scottish-Cree-French Canadian ancestry. Gladstone made history becoming the first Indigenous senator in Canada. During his first speech to the senate in 1958, he spoke in the Blackfoot language — putting, as he said, “a few words in the language of my own people… as a recognition of the first Canadians” into the official record. Along with these two major accomplishments in Indigenous history, Gladstone was the president of the Indian Association of Alberta, where he set out to Ottawa three times to suggest changes be made in the Indian Act.

Related: Interview: Indigenous author Tanya Talaga talks righting legacy wrongs in Canada.


Thomas Charles Longboat (1886 – 1949)

Tom Longboat
Azra Hirji

From Six Nations of the Grand River, Onondaga runner and Olympian Thomas Longboat, known as the “bulldog of Britannia,” was recognized in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame for his success as one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century — including becoming the first member of a First Nations community to ever win the Boston Marathon in 1907. During his time as a dispatch carrier in WWI, Longboat delivered messages and orders between brigades — even after being wounded twice, and incorrectly thought to be dead.

Related: Facing Canada’s colonialism: calls to rename and remove landmarks.

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq (Born 1993)

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq
Azra Hirji

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq made recent history when she became Nunavut’s youngest Member of Parliament in 2019 at only 25 years old (she served until 2021). From her work as a public speaker and activist before her career in politics to her work in Parliament, Qaqqaq remains vocal about food insecurity, housing, climate change and numerous other rising issues for Inuit peoples of Canada. 

Related: What is climate feminism — and why Indigenous women should lead the solutions.

Nellie J. Cournoyea (Born 1940)

Nellie J Cournoyea
Azra Hirji

As premier of the Northwest Territories from 1991 to 1995, Nellie Cournoyea is the first appointed Indigenous woman to lead the Northwest Territories — the first to lead both a provincial or territorial government in Canadian history. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Cournoyea, who is of mixed Norwegian and Inupiaq heritage, has been a leader at multiple organizations, including the Committee of Original Peoples’ Entitlement, the Aboriginal Pipeline Group and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. Cournoyea also had a key role in the negotiations leading to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

You may also like: On a budget? Here are 11 ways you can still support social justice issues in Canada.


Ralph Garvin Steinhauer (1905 – 1987)

Ralph Garvin Steinhauer
Azra Hirji

Ralph Garvin Steinhauer was many things: a farmer, an Indigenous leader and an activist born in the Northwest Territories. In his later years, Steinhauer moved to Edmonton, AB where he served as the first Indigenous lieutenant-governor for a Canadian province when he was sworn in on July 2, 1974. Steinhauer was of Cree descent, and he served as councillor and chief of Saddle Lake Cree Nation. 

You may also like: Inuk leader Mary Simon will be Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General.

Dr. Thelma J. Villeneuve Chalifoux (1929 – 2017)

Dr. Thelma J. Villeneuve Chalifoux
Azra Hirji

As an Indigenous and women’s rights activist and protector of Metis culture, Thelma Chalifoux became the first Metis woman appointed to the Senate of Canada on November 26, 1997. Chalifoux served in the senate until February 8, 2004, but this wasn’t the end of her success. In the following years, Chalifoux founded the Michif Cultural and Resource Institute in St. Albert, AB (known today as the Michif Cultural Connections), designed to preserve, protect and promote Metis culture.

You may also like: Cheekbone Beauty releases water crisis-inspired lip gloss campaign for Indigenous History Month.

Mary Greyeyes Reid (1920 – 2011)

Mary Greyeyes Reid
Azra Hirji

As a Cree woman from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Mary Reid became the first Indigenous woman to join Canada’s armed forces at 20 years old. Reid was later recognized for a well-known staged publicity photo, which was taken to encourage more women to enlist. 

You may also like: Canadian model Ashley Callingbull is the first Indigenous woman in ‘Sports Illustrated’ Swimsuit Edition.

Roberta Jamieson (Born 1953) 

Roberta Jamieson
Azra Hirji


Roberta Jamieson has held many titles — including lawyer, Six Nations chief and businesswoman — but alongside those titles stand many firsts for Indigenous peoples of Canada. Jamieson successfully became the first Indigenous Canadian to complete many other ground-breaking accomplishments: for example, she was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a law degree in 1976, she was the first non-Parliamentarian appointed to a House of Commons committee in 1982, she was the first woman appointed as ombudsman in Ontario in 1989 and she became the first female Six Nations chief in 2001. 

You may also like: 10 Black Canadians who played a big role in Canadian history.

Elsie Marie Knott (1922 – 1995)

Elsie Knot
Azra Hirji

Ojibwe chief, community leader and entrepreneur Elsie Knott was elected the first Indigenous woman as chief of a First Nation in Canada in 1954. This occurred after an amendment was added to the Indian Act in 1951 that allowed Indigenous women to vote and participate in band governments. Knott served as chief of her First Nation for 14 years. In addition to community activism and her support for education, Knott also advocated for the preservation of the Ojibwe language.

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