If the worth of a father is reflected in the success of his family, then northern Alberta’s Cree Elder Don Cardinal has every reason to walk the holy road to the spirit world with a tranquil soul.
He had two famous sons: Lorne Cardinal, well-loved actor of television comedy Corner Gas, and Lewis Cardinal, an Aboriginal Relations consultant who recently ran for Edmonton city council.
His late brother Harold was a passionate advocate for Indigenous rights. He published numerous writings on the subject and gained political ground for his people.
Though Lewis will “miss being able to pick up the phone and talk to his dad for guidance” he and Lorne agree they are blessed by being closer than ever after seeing through their father’s wishes for a traditional burial.
They also worked together to arrange complex memorial arrangements in Winnipeg and Edmonton so hundreds could pay their last respects.
“At the Winnipeg ceremony, a young man told me he’d be dead if it wasn’t for my father,” said Lorne.
“He was a gangster who’d seen a lot of Elders, but it wasn’t until my father sat down with him that he changed his life.
“A homeless woman told my dad’s wife, Allison, that she came to pay her respects because he bought her a meal and talked with her many years ago.”
While in the Winnipeg hospital where Cardinal died of terminal lung disease on May 20, 2008, he disconnected his life support system to hold his final pipe ceremony.
“He did it for us, gathered around his bed, so that the grief and pain of losing him would be eased,” Lorne said.
Traditional values guided Cardinal’s personal and political life and, according to Lewis, “we travelled many a bumpy road that seemed to go nowhere to find Elders and go into ceremony and council. That was when my father was vice president of what was then known as the Northern Alberta Indian Association, and he wanted the best of guidance from the old ones.”
Cardinal, of Sucker Creek First Nation, once told Lewis he relied on his traditional knowledge as a hunter and trapper to read people and strategize for the fledgling political organizations he helped develop in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
“He said ‘inside each person lives an animal – sometimes even two – and the nature of that animal governs how the person operates. I just used my knowledge of animals and kind of set the trap, so to speak’.”
In 1967 he joined his brother Harold to kick-start opposition to Pierre Trudeau’s infamous 1969 White Paper that aimed to extinguish treaty rights. The brothers responded with The Red Paper, which was a factor in the formation of the National Assembly of First Nations that has led to treaty rights victories ever since.
“Harold was the great communicator, the articulator, but my dad moved things along and brought people on-stream,” said Lewis. “A lot of people speak generic Cree, but he spoke high Cree, or the traditional, ancient woodlands Cree. He could work closely with the Elders and they counselled him along the way. At times he worked as a field organizer getting people in remote communities like Fort Vermillion in northern Alberta informed and organized.”
Cardinal gathered information for his personal life, too, by plunging into a variety of ventures, once even setting himself up as a chicken farmer.
“But that only lasted a week after he realized the first batch of chickens he bought were all roosters,” Lewis laughed.
“It wasn’t for him to stay on the reserve. I guess the fact Lorne and I went to 10 different schools in 12 years is a testament to that. The first part of his life was very physical as he worked in industry – mining and timber – and the last part definitely focused on the spiritual.”
A personal vision 10 years ago led Cardinal to position himself in central Canada to make himself available to calls from all directions. He travelled the province looking for the right place to settle, choosing traditional lands near Seven Sisters Falls that featured rocks inscribed with ancient pictographs. He believed these markings were left by ancestors across Turtle Island to guide people to the fires and the old ways that are not lost.
He travelled the four directions, re-opening ceremonial grounds throughout North America and unlocking spiritual fortitude in those who would listen.
Crossing the country to build a sweatlodge was nothing to him if it meant helping people. He shared his traditional knowledge through programs in Geneva, the United Nations, Brandon University in Manitoba, Hofstra University and Manhattanville College in New York state, where he also conducted ceremonies for the general public.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, Cardinal offered healing prayers for the 500 people gathered at New York’s Ground Zero memorial ceremony.
Based on the traditional values of kindness, sharing, caring and truth, Cardinal dedicated his life to healing his people, but welcomed all sincere seekers to his pipe ceremonies, sweatlodges, vision quests and counselling sessions. He played a role in the establishment of Winnipeg’s Thunderbird House, designed by world-famous architect and cousin Douglas Cardinal. He assumed the role of Aboriginal doctor at the health and wellness centre there.
As a father “he wasn’t a hard-line traditionalist; he let us kids explore different things and then he’d dialogue with us afterwards,” said Lewis. “He firmly believed each of us was put here by the Creator to do something and we each have a personal vision. To find it, the first place you go to is your heart. Listen to it, even if what you’re about to do seems irrational, he always said.”
Close friend Marilyn Buffalo, who attended Cardinal’s Edmonton ceremony and burial soothed mourners in her response to Lewis’s public e-mail detailing his father’s life and passing. She wrote: “Don Cardinal is no longer in physical pain. He is likely holding court under shady trees right now with his brother Harold, his father Frank and my grandfather John Tootoosis, Albert Lightning, John Samson, Robert Smallboy, Peter O’Chiese, Lazarus Roan, Eddie Bellerose and all of those great Treaty Rights Leaders that went before him.”