Bill Lightbown was a trailblazer for Indigenous rights in B.C. and across the country. He died March 1 and will be remembered March 18 at a memorial. The old “freedom fighter” is gone.
Bill Lightbown, who was a pioneer in the Indigenous rights movement in B.C. and across Canada, died March 1 after complications from a hip injury. He was 91.
Family, friends and many people influenced by Lightbown will gather March 18 at Glenhaven Memorial Chapel on East Hastings to remember the remarkable life of the self-described “freedom fighter,” who leaves behind six children, including his son Shane who is organizing his father’s memorial.
“He was a fighter right to the very end, I’ll tell ya,” said Shane, who is expecting a large crowd Monday. “He didn’t want to go, he wanted to stay. He wanted to finish what he started. He was just one of those people. He didn’t feel like he was finished.”
What he started was a life dedicated to making life better for Indigenous people. That decision was influenced by his treatment as an 18-year-old after an incident in the 1940s in Vancouver that put him in jail.
Lightbown recounted the story three years ago in his apartment, when the Courier interviewed him for a feature story . He was sent to jail for “being an Indian” after a police officer arrested him, his brother and a friend for picking cherries out of a tree at East 14 th and Nanaimo.
A judge convicted Lightbown of vagrancy and he served six months in prison.
Upon his release, he was given a letter authored by the solicitor-general of Canada, who wrote that it was “the greatest miscarriage of justice that had come to his attention,” Lightbown said from a chair in his apartment on Frances Street.
“I didn’t know anything about the law, except that I know we didn’t do anything wrong,” he said in October 2016. “Even if we were stealing cherries, I don’t know how that’s a crime.”
That incident propelled the Kootenai First Nation member’s life-long pursuit of justice for Indigenous people. He went on to co-found the United Native Nations Society (originally called the B.C. Association of Non Status Indians) and Vancouver Native Housing Society.
His fighting spirit led him to Gustafsen Lake in 1995, where Indigenous people clashed with the RCMP near 100 Mile House. A good friend of the late William Jones Ignace (also known as Wolverine), Lightbown was a spokesperson for the Ts’peten Defence Committee during the standoff that saw the RCMP fire thousands of rounds of ammunition.
He and his wife, Lavina White, were also at the armed standoff at Kahnawake in Mohawk territory in Quebec. The couple travelled across the country in their advocacy work, including stops in Ottawa where Lightbown participated in a first ministers’ conference related to implementing the 1983 constitutional accord on Aboriginal rights. Bill Lightbown, along with Marnie York, grandson Riley and son, Bill Lightbown Jr. at the raising of the "reconciliation pole" in April 2017 at UBC. – Mike Howell Lightbown’s work was largely focused on fighting for the rights of Indigenous people living off-reserve. In that work is where Scott Clark, the executive director of Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, met Lightbown, whom he described as a mentor.
Clark recalled his time 30 years ago knocking on doors in Surrey to sign up members for the now-defunct United Native Nations Society. Clark worked alongside another young Indigenous activist, Shawn Atleo, who went on to serve as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
“Bill took me under his wing and that’s when I first got engaged in Indigenous politics,” said Clark, […]
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