George Manuel, OC, LLD, lawyer, Secwépemc leader, (born 17 or 21 February 1921 in the traditional Secwépemc territory in British Columbia; died on 15 November 1989 in Kamloops, British Columbia). George Manuel was a Secwépemc leader who led multiple Indigenous organizations on local, national and international scales (see Indigenous Peoples in Canada). He was the president of the National Indian Brotherhood of Canada (now Assembly of First Nations) from 1970 to 1976 and founded the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1975.
Born in 1921 on the traditional Secwépemc territory, George Manuel spent his youth with his grandparents and learned the importance of Secwépemc traditions from his grandfather, Dick Andrews, a traditional healer who played an influential role in his community. At the time of Manuel’s birth, the traditional economy founded on harvesting and sharing food was still well ingrained and was incorporating new farming techniques. He recalled how, during his youth, this traditional economy was ultimately dismantled by federal regulations, provincial policies and restrictions imposed by the federal agents in charge of reserves.
From age nine, George Manuel attended the Kamloops residential school where he learned English. He witnessed first-hand the Canadian colonialism represented by the institution’s religious leaders (see Residential Schools in Canada). Their objective was to assimilate young Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian society. George Manuel did not stay in school for long because he contracted tuberculosis and had to remain in the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital from age 12 to 15.
First steps in local politics (1950-59)
After being cured of tuberculosis and discharged from the hospital, George Manuel took on various jobs. He worked in a sawmill outside the Secwépemc reserve (see Reserves in British Columbia) and gained enough financial security to start a family. At the time, he was scarcely involved in politics and focused on his young family. A series of small frustrations with representatives of the Canadian government led him to step onto the local political stage.
The issue of reserve soil irrigation first motivated him to attend his community band council meetings. During these gatherings, he came to understand the power relationships between the government agent and the band council: the former, in fact, held the power in the reserve.
After this first meeting with the local power, George Manuel came into conflict with the federal agent stationed in his community. Through this representative, the federal government had attempted to terminate the medical funding granted to the community members following an amendment made to the Indian Act in 1951. Having needed medical aid during his youth, Manuel took this action to heart.
After discussing the consequences of this new measure with the community doctor, George Manuel decided to write to Andrew Paull, a well-known Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) activist in the province. Carried by Paull’s moral support, Manuel refused to pay for his medical bills and encouraged the community members to do the same when they showed him their own. This first political battle on local issues marked the beginning of George Manuel’s activism.
Leap to provincial and national politics (1959-70)
In the years following this first political experience, George Manuel became involved in regional political organizations, social associations and sport groups. Several factors pushed him to the forefront.
Among other entities, he joined the Aboriginal Native Rights Committee of the Interior Tribes of British Columbia. This organization united the interior Indigenous communities of the province and was founded in 1959, the year of Andrew Paull’s death. Paull had been leading the North American Indian Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was losing influence, but Indigenous activists called a conference to renew it by adopting a new constitution and a multinational vision. George Manuel joined this revived organization which took a stance on the issues of land rights and the right to vote on a federal level.
John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative government reviewed Canada’s policy on Indigenous Peoples and, in 1961, granted them the right to vote in federal elections. This encouraged regional Indigenous organizations across the country to speak up publicly.
From 1965 to 1968, George Manuel was one of the first Indigenous people hired to implement a new community development policy established by the Department of Indian Affairs. After three months of training at the Université Laval in Quebec, he was sent to the Cowichan valley in British Columbia as a community development agent. From 1959 to 1966, he also sat on a consulting committee for the construction of the Indian pavilion at the Universal and International Exhibition held in Montreal in 1967 (see Expo 67).
President of the National Indian Brotherhood of Canada (1970-76)
In 1968, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) was founded to represent all citizens registered as Indians in Canada. After a campaign led by Indigenous Peoples against the 1969 White Paper (see Citizens Plus (The Red Paper)), the federal government came to recognize the NIB, presided by Walter Dieter, as a potential representative of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. George Manuel replaced Walter Dieter and became the organization’s second president at the end of 1970.
Under Manuel’s presidency, the NIB became a predominant player in Canadian politics. The organization communicated directly with the federal government representatives and together they addressed, among other issues, land and treaty rights.
In addition to his role within the country, George Manuel innovated by creating the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the first international Indigenous organization. The Council was founded in 1975 in Port Alberni, British Columbia, during a conference attended by 52 delegates from American, European and Oceanian Indigenous nations. Manuel sat as its president from its establishment until 1981.
The idea of such an organization was inspired by a conversation with Tanzanian president Julius Kambarage Nyerere in 1971. Nyerere advised Manuel to organize Indigenous Peoples in Canada following his own methods: convincing his country’s communities to adopt the project of a sovereign state. In 1971 and 1972, George Manuel met Indigenous Peoples in New Zealand, Australia and Scandinavia. The discussions that ensued led him to feel that Indigenous Peoples around the world shared a common history with colonialism and that they should unite to counter its effects.
In his essay The Fourth World: An Indian Reality, published in 1974 and coauthored by Michael Posluns, George Manuel elucidated, for the first time, the concept of a “fourth world” which would unite the peoples colonized within states. This notion was born from his conversations with Mbutu Milando, high commissioner of Tanzania in Canada.
Return to British Columbia and Constitution Express (1977-89)
At the end of his mandate as president of the National Indian Brotherhood of Canada in 1976, George Manuel returned to British Columbia and became involved in the provincial scene. From 1979 to 1981, he was president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).
As president of the UBCIC, he participated in the constitutional talks of 1980 and 1981. He led the Constitution Express, a movement created to voice concerns of Indigenous Peoples and to advocate for the recognition of the Indigenous land rights in the discussions about the new Canadian constitution. As a result of his efforts and those of hundreds of Indigenous activists across the country, Section 35 was added to the Constitution. This Section recognizes the ancestral rights or the treaty rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, namely about land claims.
After this long-winded battle, George Manuel suffered several heart attacks and gradually withdrew from the political scene. He still collaborated with Rudolph C. Rÿser to create the Center for World Indigenous Studies, which was founded in 1979 and incorporated in 1984.
In his later years, George Manuel was scarcely active in the realm of public affairs. He died at the age of 68 in November 1989.
Honorary Doctorate, University of British Columbia (1983)
Officer of the Order of Canada (1986)
Commemorative Stamp, Canada Post (2023)