Grand Chief George Manuel was born on February 17, 1921 in the Secwepemc territory to Maria Manuel his father's name is at this time unknown. He attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School. After a few years at the Kamloops Indian Residential School he contracted tuberculosis and was transferred to the Coqueleetza Indian TB Hospital located on the Stalo Indian Reservation near Chilliwack BC. He met his first wife Marceline Paul a Kootenai woman of St. Mary’s Indian band located near Cranbrook BC. They later married and had six children Robert, Vera, Arthur, Arlene, Richard, and Doreen.
By 1963 George was well on his way within the political world. He had developed a strong mentoring relationship with earlier politicians such as Andy Paul. He had already made one trip to Ottawa to address Parliament and he benefited from his wife’s organizational and fundraising efforts in his community to raise money for his travels and the work he was doing. But all of this left a great strain on their marriage and soon after 1963 they separated. He attempted to raise his children on his own when Marceline wound up in the hospital but he finally gave the younger ones up to the residential school. Arthur being the oldest confined to the residential school in Mission BC in true George Manuel style organized a hunger strike in the cafeteria and was promptly cast out of the school which began his career in Indian politics.
George Manuel with Pierre Elliot Trudeau taken circa 1975
George took a job in the Cowichan territory near Duncan BC with the Department of Indian Affairs as Community Development Officer. This was a newly created position the mandate was to work toward the improvement of life quality for Indians. George took his job more seriously than the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. He quickly organized tours of the reservation that exposed living conditions of the Cowichan people. He brought news media to see an elderly woman living in a dirt floor shack, she told stories about surviving there in winter conditions. This type of attention quickly put pressure on the department and soon ended the Community Development Officer positions.
George moved on to work for the Alberta Brotherhood, where he began a long working relationship with Harold Cardinal a well known political leader in the Cree nation. During his time with the Alberta Brotherhood he traveled extensively and built strong relationships with Chiefs from across Canada. Harold eventually approached George to run for the position of national chief of the National Indian Brotherhood. The NIB was a newly formed national Indian organization meant to be a political vehicle for having Indian concerns heard in the national political framework. At the time, the NIB was being run out of a spare bedroom, by Walter Dieter the founder of the organization. George agreed, he went off on his vacation and by the time he got back Harold had organized his campaign and with a couple months George was the new national chief of the National Indian Brotherhood.
On August 21, 1970 George was ushered into his position as national leader of 244,000 Indians under the National Indian Brotherhood. His position at that time was to have constitutional recognition of treaty rights, land claims for those without land claims, economically independent communities, educational deficiencies addressed and all other quality of life issues of Indian people addressed by the federal government.
By June of 1974 George Manuel led a demonstration in front of the BC legislature bringing attention to how inflation had created a crisis in Indian communities because the department of Indian Affairs had not raised rates paid out to Indians in keeping with the rate of inflation.
By 1975 George Manuel organized an international conference in Port Alberni BC of sixty delegates from nineteen Indigenous nations from across the world. At this conference he founded the World Council of Indigenous People and became it’s first leader.
Over the following years he addressed issues of oil pipelines on Indian land and within Indian territory that would cause detriment to the environment of lands within Indian territory. He also addressed issues of fisheries and hunting laws that detrimentally effected Indian people and their sustainability.
In October of 1978 he addressed the federal government’s strong arming the Indian people into a forced situation where the government would coerce Indian people into settlements where the Indian people had no entity for accepting the authority of transfer of power. He expressed that Indian people, in order to protect their long term interests, needed to establish entities in order to accept the authority and power the federal government was attempting to transfer.
By January of 1979 George Manuel was launching a fight against the federal government for cutbacks to health services for Indian people. He charged them with sacrificing health to save a dollar. He stated that until Indian health, such as infant mortality, mortality, suicide rate, Etc. was up to the same standards as mainstream society it was not acceptable to cutback monies available for Indian health.
In February of 1979 he fought the government on the sale of Indian lands. He stated that to sell our lands out from under us (by the sale of our territorial lands) was expropriation of our rights to hunt and fish. He invited the Province of BC to explain why they were proceeding to sell our lands in BC
By 1981 George Manuel had begun work on the Constitution Express as a vehicle for having Indian concerns addressed over the Canadian Constitution ratification. His interest was to attain a similar governmental relation as Greenland has where Indigenous people have home rule. But for the time being he needed to fight to assure that Indian people in Canada had their rights entrenched in the constitution. The government put up a long and hard battle against the First Nations of Canada. Under the direction of George Manuel the First Nations of Canada took their battle all the way to England. The First Nations of Canada had their rights entrenched in the constitution in section 35.
He fully supported Aboriginal women in their struggle for changes to the Indian Act that deprived them of their rights to status as Indian people. He also supported the Concerned Aboriginal Women’s Movement in 1981 in their insistence for better quality of life for their families. He also fully supported the battle to change the Child Welfare Act to force the government agencies to recognize Indian authority over their own people. At the time Indian children at mass numbers were being wrongfully torn from their homes and placed in non Indian homes. A change ensued where Indian bands were given authority to place apprehended children in Indian homes.
It was over the next years that George Manuel would suffer several heart attacks that would severely hinder his involvement in the Indian political world. He would continue to serve as an advisor to many political leaders over the next many year.
George Manuel received the Order of Canada, in the late 1970’s he was nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize for his International work with the World Council of Indigenous People, and he received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of British Columbia in May of 1983 as well as numerous other awards and recognitions from Indigenous organization world wide.
George Manuel quotes:
“As long as I am leader, Our position is not going to change from that of our forefathers. I do not want the responsibility for selling the rights of our children yet unborn.”
“There exists no cultural, social, economic or political victory in the history of mankind that did not cost the price of hunger, sweat, blood, agony, and money.”