John Olthuis, ‘61 BA, ‘64 LLB, appointed to Order of Canada

Alumnus recognized with one of Canada’s highest honours for contributions to Indigenous justice

Caitlin Crawshaw - 21 March 2024

After six decades fighting for Indigenous justice, alumnus John Olthuis, ‘61 BA, ‘64 LLB, is a new member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his profound impact in the legal field.

Announced at the end of December, the University of Alberta alumnus will be formally inducted  into the Order of Canada by Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General Mary Simon sometime in 2024.

“The Faculty of Arts is pleased to learn that one of our alumni has received this prestigious honour,” says Dean Robert Woods of the Faculty of Arts. “We extend our heartfelt congratulations to John  and commend his outstanding work and dedication to fostering a more equitable and just society.”

“The Faculty of Law is very proud to see John Olthuis appointed as a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his exceptional contributions to pursuing justice for Indigenous peoples,” says Dean Barbara Billingsley of the Faculty of Law. “This accolade is a well-deserved tribute to John's career of dedicated representation of First Nations throughout Canada in major negotiations, litigation, inquiries, and legislative policy matters. I am confident that many of our current law students will draw inspiration from his example.”

In the course of his career, Olthuis has represented several Indigenous nations in high-profile issues (like the MacKenzie Valley Pipeline project in NWT) and constitutional challenges (such as the 1982 inclusion of  the recognition and affirmation of Treaty and aboriginal rights in the Constitution Act). 

For the past 30 years, he has been working with the Innu of Labrador in their Modern Treaty negotiations with Canada and Newfoundland after the Innu successfully opposed a NATO war training base on their traditional land, which Canada claimed was “uninhabited”.

Surprisingly, Olthuis, who was born and raised in Edmonton, didn’t dream of becoming a lawyer. 

“I grew up in a conservative, Christian family, but my father always said that loving your neighbour is the central part of being a good person,” he says. 

This value was top-of-mind when he began considering possible educational and career paths. As a young adult, he began to wonder if he could help others by becoming a lawyer and fighting against inequality — after all, “political justice is a form of loving your neighbour.”

At the U of A, he earned a BA in history in 1961 and a law degree in 1964. As a law student, he became aware of Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and felt it grossly unfair that people who had lived in Canada for millennia were subjected to colonial laws and governance.

In 1967, Olthuis moved to Toronto and began — sometimes pro bono — working for First Nations, including Grassy Narrows in their struggle with the devastation of mercury pollution.


In 1969 when then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien, released a white paper proposing the dismantling of the Indian Act, Indigenous leaders opposed the idea as it left their nations without legal protections. Alberta’s Harold Cardinal, an Indigenous rights advocate and recipient of a U of A honourary degree in 1999, led a movement to enshrine Indigenous rights in law.

Olthuis was a member of the First Nations legal-technical team that supported First Nations leaders in their successful effort to have section 35 — which recognized and affirmed the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the Indigenous peoples of Canada — included in Canada’s repatriated Constitution in 1982.

This was a major breakthrough, but implementing section 35 in law and policy proved difficult.

Between 1983 and 1987, Olthuis was a member of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) legal-technical team that supported AFN leaders at a series of Federal-Provincial-Aboriginal Peoples constitutional conferences intended to implement section 35. 

“No progress was made as Canada and many of the provinces considered section 35 to be an ‘empty box’ — with no rights unless Canada and the provinces agreed on what those rights were — while Indigenouss leaders considered it to be a ‘full box’ of inherent leaders that only needed unpacking,” says Olthuis. 

In 1992 Olthuis was the lead lawyer for the AFN legal-technical team that negotiated proposed amendments to section 35 of the Constitution with the legal-technical teams of Canada and the provinces. Those amendments were endorsed by the Indigenous leaders, the prime minister and the premiers. The amendments included that section 35 explicitly recognized “the inherent right” of Indigenous peoples to self-government. These proposed s.35 amendments were included, with other proposed amendments in the Charlottetown Accord, which was presented to Canadians in a 1992 Referendum that was narrowly defeated, mainly because people who did not agree with a particular amendment voted against the entire package, says Olthuis.

This was a significant setback, but Indigenous rights advocates have continued to work towards Indigenous self-governance.


In 2020 he co-founded the Toronto- and Yellowknife-based law firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, which specializes in Indigenous law and works exclusively with Indigenous nations and organizations.

“We only work for Indigenous nations and organizations. We don’t work for governments or industry because that creates conflicts,” he says.

Today, the firm employs more than 50 lawyers, including 15 Indigenous lawyers. 

He explains that the firm's non-Indigenous lawyers are primarily focused on dismantling legal barriers to Indigenous self-determination while the work of its growing contingent of Indigenous lawyers includes helping First Nations nations rebuild  their traditional legal systems devastated by colonization. 

Although Canadians are becoming more aware of how Canadian governments have harmed Indigenous people, we are a long way from true reconciliation, says Olthuis. Adding a third layer of government — that of Indigenous self-government — is crucial towards achieving this, he says.

“It will strengthen Canada to have a three strand governance cord wound together in which three levels of government (federal, provincial and Indigenous) harmonize their governance rather than the two strand cord through which the federal and provincial governments currently  continue to implement colonial laws and policies” he says. 

Olthuis is a retired member of the Law Society of Alberta to which he was admitted in 1965 and is currently a member of the Law Society of Ontario (1987) and Newfoundland and Labrador (2015).