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Wally Firth, N.W.T.’s first Indigenous MP, remembered as a humble trailblazer

The first Indigenous member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories is being remembered as a humble trailblazer who paved the way for Indigenous rights and self-determination in the territory.

Wally Firth died in the early hours of Saturday morning at the age of 89, according to his family.

James Ross grew up in Firth’s home community of Fort McPherson, and first got to know Firth when he was serving as MP. Later, he became part of the Firth family when he married Wally’s niece Mary.

“Wally was truly a trailblazer,” he said. “A really humble man that had knowledge beyond anyone that I know.” 

Firth’s accomplishments include time spent as one of the first Indigenous managers at the Hudson’s Bay in the Northwest Territories, a career as one of the first Northern Indigenous commercial pilots, and jobs as a radio host and journalist at CBC North.

He served as the NDP MP for the N.W.T, which then encompassed all of Nunavut as well, from 1972 to 1979.

man in button down shirt looks at Camera
Wally Firth photographed in 1974, during his time as an MP. (NWT Archives/Native Communications Society fonds – Native Press photograph collection/N-2018-010: 04489)

Music and politics

Back in those days, if you were lucky, you might get a call from Firth to talk about his favourite passion: fiddle music.

“There’s stories of him calling people from his office in the House of Commons and playing a fiddle tune over the phone so people could hear what song he was trying to learn,” recalled Michael McLeod, the N.W.T.’s current MP.

“He would share any which way he could.”

Wally Firth playing the fiddle

Watch and listen to Wally Firth play the fiddle.

McLeod, whose father was Firth’s cousin, said he recalls Firth dropping by his little house in Fort Providence when he was growing up.

“I remember him talking long hours with my father,” he said. The two shared much — they talked about furs, trapping, family, and — of course — current events.

“It was always an interesting time,” he said. “My dad was not a fan of politicians, but he made an effort to really welcome Wally. Because Wally was a relative, plus he was a Northerner, and they had lots in common.”

McLeod said he also heard from Firth once he himself became an MP, to talk over issues Firth had heard about or to catch up on the latest news about friends and family.

“Wally could speak on almost any issue. He was a very humble person, and he was a very easy guy to talk to,” McLeod said. “He was a good listener, maybe because of his years in politics — but he was a person that knew so much about the North and so much about the history.”

Passion for Indigenous rights

McLeod also recalls how much Firth cared about the people of the North. Coming from a smaller community, Firth spent his time trying to address the level of poverty in N.W.T. communities, the economic situation of the territory and the injustices Indigenous people had suffered over the decades.

During his first speech in the House of Commons after being elected, Firth pushed the federal government to negotiate modern land claim agreements with Dene and Inuit, and urged the government not to continue with the development of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline without meaningfully consulting Indigenous groups.

James Ross said because Firth had such a humble nature, he didn’t often speak about his experiences or accomplishments. He said many people in Firth’s life, especially younger people, knew him mostly as an elder and fiddler.

“Any discussion he had with anyone was, how was others doing? How was his friends doing? How was the community doing? How was the young people doing?” Ross said.

“Wally was a caring person that way. He was always interested in how others were doing, never how Wally was doing.”

One happy memory for Ross was a visit Firth had with two grand-nephews of his of a few years ago. Both boys were musicians, and Wally told them old stories about the history of fiddling in Fort McPherson and passed some songs on to them.

But Ross said that ultimately, he believes Firth’s most important legacy will be his advocacy.

“Today, as Indigenous people we have rights, we have land claim settlements,” Ross said. “When Wally got started in 1962, and became an MP in 1972, none of these rights existed.”

“Our children and grandchildren are living a life that at least has some Indigenous recognition because of our original workers like Wally.”

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