Donna Parr and Len Marchand went to a square dance on their first date — but didn’t spend too much time do-si-do-ing at Knutsford Hall.
The caller didn’t show up and Marchand, who had been calling dances for years on the Vernon reserve where he grew up, stepped in to fill the gap.
Parr, who had learned to square dance back home in North Bay, Ont., handled the situation the best way she could.
“I just danced with other people,” she says with a laugh.
A public-health nurse, Parr had come west “looking for some adventure and I found Len.”
The adventure had just begun.
Marchand’s life can be summed up by the word “first”.
He was the first status Indian to graduate from a public high school in Vernon — although he also attended residential schools in 1949 and 1950.
It was while in school Marchand first discovered a love of agriculture.
When he enrolled at the University of British Columbia, he was one of the first aboriginal students there.
He was the first status Indian elected to Parliament and given cabinet posts.
He missed out on a Senate-appointment first in 1984 — James Gladstone claimed that honour when then-prime minister John Diefenbaker appointed him to the Red Chamber in 1958,
And, over his wife’s protests during a chat with KTW, Marchand shares another first — he voted in an election two years before First Nations were finally given that right in 1960.
“I was in my last year at UBC, living in a boarding house run by the ex-wife of [Haida artist] Bill Reid,” he says. “She was keen on doing the right thing, getting people involved, so she signed me up to vote and I voted.”
Marchand laughs as Parr chides him for revealing this fact — and joins him as he chuckles to her assertion “you could still be arrested for it.”
That was the same year the Liberal party elected Lester Pearson as leader, a man Marchand points to as inspirational for him with his “big message of peace in the world.”
Marchand’s love of learning saw him graduate in 1964 with a master’s degree in forestry and he started work at the Kamloops Research Centre. He was active on another front, he says, pushing to get his people the right to vote. That passion led to jobs working for cabinet ministers Jack Nicholson and Arthur Laing.
By 1968, however, Marchand was thinking about coming home and putting his energy into other areas.
A telegram from Sandy McCurrach changed those plans.
“He told me to come back and be our candidate,” Marchand says. “I talked to Donna and the kids — Lori was in kindergarten and Len hadn’t started school yet — and we decided there was no shame in losing to a guy like Davie Fulton.”
Fulton was the longtime Progressive Conservative MP for Kamloops.
“So I came back and we won,” Marchand says, something he credits to his strong connections with the agricultural community in the area — and visits Pierre Elliott Trudeau made on Len’s behalf during the campaign.
By 1976, Marchand was in cabinet as minister of state for small business — and handed the task of bringing the metric system to Canada.
“I was really getting a lot of heat about metric,” Marchand says. “So, I said to Pierre, ‘Give me the word and I can dismantle it.’ But, he said, ‘We are a trading nation and one of the last great nations in the world not going metric’.”
At one time, Marchand says, he had a letter from then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter confirming that country would also go metric.
In the 1979 election, Progressive Conservative candidate Don Cameron defeated Marchand, something he attributes to Canadians being tired of Trudeau — and his own positions on gun control and capital punishment.
Since then, Marchand has been content living in Kamloops and watching the political scene.
He calls the recent federal election “wonderful, a bit of a surprise.
“Nobody saw it coming,” Marchand says of the man he knew as a child being elected prime minister.
In these early days, Marchand doesn’t see much of Pierre in the actions being taken by Justin Trudeau.
“As my doctor told me once, we’re all different.”
He is hopeful Justin Trudeau will do a good job and is delighted to see two aboriginal people appointed to cabinet.
“I think we’re in for a really good time,” Marchand says.