There are few Shuswap residents that have achieved provincial recognition, and fewer still that have attained either national or international prominence. It has been said that some men seek greatness, others are called upon and some are destined for greatness. It has been said that Chief George Manuel was destined to greatness. Although he passed away in 1989, his legacy of fighting for aboriginal Rights lives on through the Centre for World Indigenous Studies that he helped establish in 1984, where the library is named after him.
Born in 1921 on the Neskonlith Reserve, where he did not hear an English word until he was eight years old, George was shuffled off to the residential school in Kamloops, where, at the age of 12, he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a hospital near Chilliwack. It is likely that the pain of the illness that left him with a lifetime limp and his recovery time allowed him to develop his mental capabilities.
His first job was working as a busboy at the Tranquille Sanatorium, where he met Marceline Paul, a crippled Kootenay Indian who worked in the hospital kitchen. They eventually had six children and he supported them by working at a sawmill. He took his first political stand at age 34. At the advice of his mentor, Andy Paull, he refused to pay for a medical bill as the federal government had brought in an amendment to the Indian Act denying health coverage.
He began his political career by raising money for the local sports teams and hosting First Nation musicians, including a bass fiddler named Chief Dan George.
He became a tireless community organizer, and by 1959 he was elected to succeed Paull as the president of the North American Indian Brotherhood of B.C. Later that year he also became chief of the Neskonlith Band.
Manuel showed impressive leadership in his work to deal with the crisis presented by Trudeau’s “white paper” that proposed to dissolve Indian nations and promote the assimilation of Indian people into Canadian society. In 1970, Manuel became the president of the National Indian Brotherhood and used the power and resources of this countrywide organization to successfully oppose the white paper.
As part of the effort, Manuel travelled to Tanzania, which had achieved independence in 1964 without warfare, to speak with then president Nyerere about how he could provide assistance to Canadian Indians.
He was rebuffed and told that he first had to do a better job of organizing Indian communities to determine what they wanted, and once Indigenous peoples achieve their goals, they would become the Fourth World.
Inspired by his visit to Africa, in 1974, Manuel co-wrote with Michael Posluns the book, Fourth World: An Indian Reality, a moving narrative of the Canadian Indians and aboriginal peoples everywhere and their struggle for survival.
In 1975, George, along with indigenous leaders from across the globe, launched the UN affiliated World Council of Indigenous Peoples. Manuel became the organization’s first president, a position he held until 1981, and he worked vigorously to ensure that the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People became a reality.
Another crisis developed in 1980, when Trudeau’s government was working to patriate the Canadian constitution in such a way that it would remove all aboriginal rights.
To counter this initiative, George organized the “Constitutional Express,” trainloads of First Nation leaders that headed to Ottawa where constitutional negotiations were underway. Eventually, they were successful and the First Nations of Canada had their rights entrenched in section 35 of the constitution.
Despite enduring progressive heart disease, George continued his efforts to protect aboriginal rights throughout the world. But by 1989, his heart finally failed and he was laid to rest on a hillside above the spot where he was born.
George received many honours during his life, including being thrice nominated for a Nobel Prize, becoming an Officer of the Order of Canada and receiving an honorary degree from UBC.
Manuel’s sons Arthur and Robert have both served as band council chiefs and his daughter, Vera, became an internationally known playwright and poet.