George Manuel: The Shuswap Kid
August 07th, 2012
“The torch George Manuel inherited was barely aflame. The torch he passed on was burning bright.” – Harold Cardinal.
Before Elijah Harper. Before Ovide Mercredi. Before Billy Diamond. Before Bill Wilson. Before George Erasmus. Before Saul Terry. There was George Manuel.
Born near Chase, B.C. in 1921, he did not hear a word of English until he was eight years old. He never knew his father. Raised by his grandparents, one of whom was a practitioner of Indian medicine, he attended the Kamloops Residential School until he began a decade-long battle with tuberculosis at age 12.
The pain of his illness and inactivity forced him to develop an inner life. Bacteria’s assault on his body left him with a badly twisted hip and a life-long limp. He was rejected for military service in 1939. His doctor arranged for him to be hired as a busboy at the white sanatorium at Tranquille where he met Marceline Paul, a crippled Kootenay Indian who worked in the hospital kitchen.
George and Marceline married. A child was born. George was laid off. He had a grade two education. For a time he worked in Washington state orchards. Their first child died of crib death. Near Kamloops, to prepare for a second child, George built a one-room house without indoor plumbing, running water or electricity.
George limped into a lumber mill and insisted he could work as a boom man, one of the best and toughest jobs on the river. He was hired.
A second child lived; a third child died. Four more kids followed.
At age 34, acting on the advice of Andy Paull, George Manuel refused to pay a tonsillectomy bill even though he had the money to pay. His doctor had warned him the Department of Indian Affairs was trying to set a precedent for his people. The South Thompson River boom man took his first political stand. He never sat down for the rest of his life.
Inspired by Paull, Manuel started fundraising for the local baseball and hockey team, the Shuswap Maple Leafs. He taught himself to type with the help of the local pool hall owner. He enrolled in the local Toastmasters’ Club. He also brought Indian musicians into his community, including a bass fiddler name Chief Dan George. The first time George Manual came to the big city of Vancouver was to meet Jay Silverheels, the Native actor who played Tonto on the Lone Ranger TV show. He showed up at the airport with his friend, Chief Dan George.
“The two of them were so naïve,” writes Peter McFarlane in Brotherhood to Nationhood (Between the Lines), “that they expected to see not Silverheels, but Tonto himself, wearing moccasins and buckskins and a feather in his hat. When the Indian actor passed by in a suit, George Manuel and Chief Dan George didn’t recognize him.
“After the place had emptied, they were told by a customs officer that Tonto had already passed through. They caught up to him as he was climbing into a limousine and had to drag him back into the airport so they could properly welcome him with the drumming ceremony they had planned.”
Manuel became a tireless organizer – an Indian version of Joe Hill in an old Chevy – a womanizer and an errant father. In 1959 he was elected to succeed Paull as president of the North American Indian Brotherhood. “Politics is like buckin’ horses,” he told NAIB lawyer Henry Castilliou. Once it gets into your blood, you’re hooked for life.”
How the man described in a CP wire story as “a hard-luck Shuswap kid” cohered Canada’s Native movement is the chief focus of McFarlane’s biography. Manuel went into the backrooms of Ottawa the way Mao went on a trek He and early activists like Phillip Paul and Harold Cardinal slowly beat the white man at his own game – politicking, strategic thinking – to confront centuries of ingrained paternalism. “Just give us the gas,” he used to say, “we’ll do the driving.”
Manuel, as president of the National Indian Brotherhood, discovered his chief adversary was a slippery new Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development named Jean Chretien whose White Paper galvanized Native opposition. Ironically, Chretien would later claim one of his greatest accomplishments in the portfolio was the promotion of Indian unity. Chretien’s claim to being the father of Indian unity, Manuel said, was akin to “Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles claiming credit for the success of the People’s Republic of China.”
As the main strategist for Native affairs, Manuel provided a national philosophy for wining sovereignty for First Nations peoples. His vision included seeking unity with indigenous peoples in North, Central, and South America – the Fourth World. In 1975 he launched the UN affiliated World Council of Indigenous Peoples. “In British Columbia,” writes McFarlane, “he legitimized (and even institutionalized) native radicalism.”
Thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, a recipient of the Order of Canada, a friend and admirer of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Manuel was a consistently outspoken ambassador for Canada’s First Nations people throughout the world. “Aboriginal people of the world must unite to prevent the white race from destroying mankind,” he said, “White people have a need to destroy, conquer, to suppress. This is not found in the aboriginal value system.”
In fact, some of Manuel’s toughest battles were fought with his own Native colleagues over political territory, particularly within the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. Sniped at for being a “Brown bureaucrat” by the likes of Bill Wilson, Manuel had to return from the idealistic globetrotting to reiterate the need for government recognition of aboriginal rights before the Berger Inquiry and generally put his own house in order in the mid-‘70s.
Manuel rejected offers to run for Parliament from all three parties, saying “It’s meaningless to be an Indian MP in terms of helping Indian people.” Back in BC he joined the fight to assert Native fishing rights with fiery rhetoric, declaring the Department of Fisheries as “enemy number one” and warning that BC’s natives were prepared to meet violence with violence. He cited government figures which showed that of 23.5 million salmon caught, the commercial fishery had taken 22 million, sport fishermen one million, and Indians only 500,000.
In 1982, at age 61, suffering from progressive heart disease, George Manuel found himself sitting on the dirt floor of a shack in Central America, learning about the Guatemalan government’s murderous oppression of Mayan Indians. While raising funds to help the Guatemalans, and recovering from a stroke, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from UBC. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs conferred upon him the title of Grand Chief.
“Dressed in buckskins,” McFarlane concludes, “George Manuel was laid to rest on a windy hillside above Neskainlith on 20 November 1989, a few hundred metres from the spot where he was born.”
— Alan Twigg
Essay Date: 1994