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From Sagebrush to Politics: Leonard Marchand

Leonard Marchand
Leonard Marchand

Reading scientific literature can be like a treasure hunt. You read one research paper, and then you read that paper’s references. That leads you to another related paper, and on to its references, and so on down an unexpected daisy chain of research.  Mostly you simply finish up with a better understanding of some narrow topic, but once in a rare blue moon, you hit buried treasure.

This happened to me a few years ago, as I researched the ecology of sagebrush in British Columbia. As I plowed through paper after paper, working backward in time, I ran across reference to The Ecology of Sagebrush in Interior British Columbia, by one L. Marchand. Now that surname rang a bell, but more for Canadian federal politics than for rangeland research. I was unable to find the paper anywhere online, so I investigated further and found that it was actually a 1964 Master’s thesis, from the University of Idaho. I contacted U of I Research Librarian and found that they did have the original copy, and if I was prepared to put my grandchildren up as collateral, I could actually borrow it. Of course I agreed.

As I waited impatiently for the thesis to arrive, I refreshed my memory in regards to Leonard Marchand. Born on the Okanagan Reserve near Vernon in 1933, Mr. Marchand collected a number of Aboriginal “firsts” in his long and varied career: first Aboriginal to graduate from the UBC School of Agriculture; first to receive a Master’s degree at the U of I; first to become a federal Member of Parliament, and first to become a cabinet member. He was the third Aboriginal to be named to the Canadian Senate, after James Gladstone and Guy Williams. Along the way, Mr. Marchand also became a member of the Order of Canada. Intrigued, I tracked down a phone number, contacted Len at his home, and told him that I had borrowed his thesis. After a delightful chat, he said, “you know, I loaned my only copy of that thesis to a colleague years ago, and he lost it.”

I decided to take action. When the thesis arrived I had it scanned, then printed a copy and had it bound.  Later I had the pleasure of hand-delivering the resurrected thesis to Len and his lovely wife Donna at their Kamloops home.  As we thumbed through the thesis together, I was stunned by the amount of work that had gone into it. Len’s sagebrush research involved vegetation monitoring, taxonomy, soil studies, root growth studies, common garden studies and genetic analysis. And the list of field plot locations was daunting: Kamloops, Summerland, Alkali Lake, Shingle Creek, Garnett Valley, Greenstone Mountain, Rock Creek and Anarchist Mountain, with additional sites in Squaw Butte, Oregon and Dubois, Idaho. Anyone doing that same amount of research work today would demand at least two Ph.Ds for it!

After completing his thesis, Len was planning to do a Ph.D in range management at Oregon State University, but Canadian politics intervened. As a youngster, Len had met George Manuel, head of the North American Indian Brotherhood, and the two stayed in touch. Manuel had long advocated for an Aboriginal presence in Canadian federal politics, and saw Marchand as the ideal candidate for such a role. In 1965, Manuel convinced J.R. Nicholson, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (Indian Affairs was under that Ministry at the time), to name Len as Special Assistant, and the rest is history. In 2000, Len published his autobiography, Breaking Trail. It is a fascinating read.

Len passed away in the summer of 2016. There is a sagebrush flat near where I live, just off of Highway 97 at Trout Creek. It was one of Len’s research sites, from 1963; I actually found some of his old plot stakes there. Every time I pass that flat, I am reminded of how privileged I was to have met this eminent Canadian. He is no longer with us, but he definitely left his mark.

An earlier version of this article was published in the BC Grasslands Magazine.