ATHABASCA — Mike Cardinal, a “trailblazer throughout his life” who left an “influential legacy” and served as the MLA for the Athabasca area for 19 years, including 15 years as a cabinet minister, passed away Jan. 12 at the age of 81.
Cardinal, whose full name was Melvin Percy Joseph Cardinal, was one of 13 children and the son of a trapper father and homemaker mother. He dropped out of school in Grade 8 but returned to graduate high school then worked for a decade in the forestry industry before throwing his name in for office.
“I personally have known Mike for probably at least 65 years,” said former Athabasca County reeve Arno Birkigt. “In those days Calling Lake was still quite a bit of an outpost. It was a day’s trip to go up there and come back and we were fur buyers, and his father was a trapper.”
Birkigt went to school with Cardinal’s youngest brother Larry as well.
“As families, we knew each other quite well and I’d say we were friends long before he got into politics,” said Birkigt. “As a matter of fact, in 1980 when he was building his cabin at Calling Lake and we were building our log house here in Athabasca, we’d visit back and forth and see how each of us was doing and sharing some of our trials and tribulations.”
Cardinal dipped his toe into politics when he served as a town councillor in Slave Lake for six years which included three years as a trustee for the Northland School Division when divisions were run by municipalities.
By this point Cardinal had moved into civil service working for the Alberta Housing Corporation then the Alberta Human Resources Development Authority where he worked on a native housing and relocation program. From there he transferred to Advanced Education and Manpower and served as the regional supervisor of Employment and Counselling Services for 10 years. He was then promoted as the regional manager and then spent three years as the senior consultant to the Assistant Deputy Minister of Advanced Education and Manpower.
Even before he was reeve Birkigt said he was running Blue Heron, a service to help disabled people, and he worked with Cardinal who was at that point Minister of Social Services.
“We developed, with the board of Blue Heron, the Mike Cardinal Classic golf tournament which was a great fundraiser,” he said. “That went on for at least 10 years until Mike retired from politics.”
And he made a lasting impression said Birkigt.
“Mike, as a minister, really advocated for his area, for the community, for Athabasca and for the citizens generally,” he said. “He was there for everybody. He always had time to sit down and listen to what you had to say. Whether or not he agreed with you or not, it didn't really matter. He would have the time to sit down and listen to you and I always appreciated that about Mike.”
Cardinal was the first status Aboriginal person to hold a position in Executive Council in Alberta when he was appointed by then Premier Ralph Klein as the Minister of Family and Social Services from 1992 to 1996, Minister of Sustainable Resource Development from 2000 to 2004, and Minister of Human Resources and Employment from 2004 2006.
"I'm not a Native politician. I am, a politician who is Native, a treaty Indian," Cardinal said when he was appointed Minister of Family and Social Services in 1993. "On the other hand, I have the additional experience of being Native."
As a backbencher he sponsored the Métis Settlements Land Protection Act of 1990 which was created to give Métis settlements ownership over their land.
Jeff Johnson knew Cardinal and took over his seat in the then Athabasca-Redwater constituency.
“He certainly left large shoes to fill for those who came after him in politics, but he was always there to help in his humble and understated way,” Johnson said in a Jan. 27 e-mail. “He was a great example and mentor. I have very fond memories and great respect for him and his family.”
He added Cardinal left a lasting legacy for the entire province.
“I was saddened to hear of Mike's passing and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family. He was a great success story and public servant,” he said. “Most of his constituents will never know how much he did for them, but his fingerprints and legacy are all over our province and our community.”
A traditional wake and pipe ceremony was held Jan. 19 at the Calling Lake Community Centre and the funeral was held Jan. 20 at the Calling Lake Recreation Centre.