Chief George Manuel

25th Anniversary of George Manuel's Election as President of NIB

President of the National Indian Brotherhood - July 18, 1995

A speech by Chief Arthur M. Manuel, son of George Manuel, to the Assembly of First Nations, Ottawa, Canada.


This summer marks the 25th anniversary of George Manuel's election as president of the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) which took place at the first annual meeting of the NIB in Vancouver on August 21st, 1970.

At the time, the NIB was operating out of office space in Winnipeg donated by the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood and the phones had been cut off because the young organisation couldn't afford to pay its bills. Still, the NIB's executive council, which was made up by representatives of the provincial Indian organisations, gave him the broad mandate of building the NIB into an organisation that could take on the federal government -- and its controversial Indian Affairs Minister, Jean Chretien -- over the White Paper. For the first few months, George Manuel's salary would be paid for by the Indian Association of Alberta, where he had been working with Harold Cardinal. But his mandate called on him to move the organisation to Ottawa and then to find a way to finance its operations.

These early years were difficult ones on a personal level. He had a wife and young children to support and in his first few months in Ottawa, they lived in an apartment in Aylmer without furniture. Until June, 1971, the NIB was forced to operate out of another donated office, this time in space provided by Chief Andrew Delisle's National Indian Rights and Treaties Committee.

Yet in a political sense, this was an exciting and rewarding time. It was during this period that the national Indian movement began to take shape and to draw on its greatest resource, the First Nations people from across Canada who saw the National Indian Brotherhood as a vehicle they could use to push the federal government for a just settlement on a range self-government, land title and teaty issues.

In these struggles, all of the leaders of the provincial organisations played a major role, as did the chiefs and councillors from across Canada. But, George Manuel also attracted people like Marie Marule and Roberta Jaimeson to the NIB team, people who brought to the NIB special skills and insights that allowed the organisation to continue to battle Ottawa on the strategic level.

During those early years, the NIB also branched out into the international arena. Through connections developed by George Manuel and his Ottawa staff with the Third World embassies and NGOs in Ottawa, the National Indian Brotherhood under George Manuel was able to take a leadership role in launching the United Nations - affilliated World Council of Indigenous People in 1975.

For most of his six years as national chief, George Manuel found himself pitted against our current Prime Minister Jean Chretien, then the Minister of Indian Affairs, in a series of battles that began over the White Paper and continued on almost every issue where the First Nations tried to rebuild or resurrect Indian conceived self-government institutions. There were many significant victories in the area of education, economic development and land claims, but George Manuel and the NIB staff were also confronted, on a daily basis, with the frustrations of battling the artful dodgers at Indian Affairs and of trying to penetrate the bureaucratic fortress that protects Ottawa from forces of change.

The task was an enormous one. As Bill Badcock Q.C. put it, previous attempts to build a national organisation had failed because "you can't run the trains until the track has been laid." George Manuel and his generation had given itself the task of building the track for the next generation to travel on. And it is a measure of their success, that the paper organisation that they took on in 1970, had become a significant force in Ottawa in 1976 as the First Nations movement gained access to the halls of power through the Joint NIB-Cabinet Committee.


Of his travels abroad, one of George Manuel's most important trips was to Tanzania in 1971, to meet with the legendary Julius Nyerere. In Julius Nyerere he found the man who had become a symbol of leadership by example; who believed that people had to, to a great extent, rely on their own means, that development had to be from the bottom up and that traditional solidarity between people could be used as the brick and mortar to build new societies.

These were values George Manuel would bring to his organising work in Canada. But in Africa, George Manuel also often heard the shout, "UHURU!" (Freedom!), from the people still suffering under colonialism. When he returned to Canada, he joined that call for "UHURU" (Freedom!) with a call for "UNITY"! As he often repeated in his speeches, the First Nations "should cry out for both UHURU (Freedom!) and UNITY, for it is only through unity that we will achieve real freedom..." He would then add something to the effect that "To fight and win on the battlefield, we needed unity. To fight and win in courts and government offices we also need unity."

Building unity among the First Nations, became an over-riding concern during his six years as national chief. And it was obvious from the outset that unity could not be manufactured or imposed. The more than fifty First Nations represented by NIB all had their own culture and history and territories which spanned centuries, as well as, half a continent. Their needs and national aspirations could not be forced into a single mould.

In a very traditional sense, building unity would require listening more than speaking, mediating as much as leading. And that is the course George Manuel took. In his first year as the president of the National Indian Brotherhood, he travelled more than 100,000 miles to meet not only with the members of his executive council, but with the local leaders and the people in the communities. Along the way, he sought out common concerns and real issues where he found a strong unity of purpose among the First Nations across the land. It was on those issues that he saw a leadership role for the national organisation and on which he made a priority in his own work. But the NIB was never designed to be simply a debating society, so these efforts to build consensus were always geared to developing a plan for action.

That style of leadership carried on after he left the NIB to head the Union of BC Indian Chiefs in British Columbia, in 1977. There, he led the Union in developing what came to be known as the "peoples movement." In a short period of time, the Union took on the Fisheries officers through "fish-ins" and the non-native social welfare system through its Child Caravan. Then, during the constitutional debate of 1980, George Manuel led the Constitutional Express of 1,000 BC Indians to Ottawa to protest the threat posed to First Nation and aboriginal rights by Trudeau's constitutional plans. Since then, many have given George Manuel credit for the amendments to the Trudeau constitutional package that provided the opening for the constitutional discussions with the First Nations during the 1980s, which the leadership of the AFN was able to use to eventually extract from the federal and provincial governments a recognition of First Nations Aboriginal and Treaty rights.


George Manuel was once described by a Canadian Press reporter as "a hard-luck Shuswap kid" who had "...a bagful of excuses to sit out his life in self-pity..." The "hard-luck" was a reference to the fact that his father died when he was only a few months old and that as a child, he faced what turned out to be a decade-long battle in a sanatorium with osteomyelitis -- or tuberculosis of the hip -- that left him with a pronounced life-long limp.

But, George Manuel was a man of incomparable drive. First, in simply surviving the bacteria that ravaged his body. Then, when he left the sanatorium, he went on to get a job as a boom man on the South Thompson River, a job that required a remarkable degree of agility. Despite his crippled hip, he managed to meet and master the challenge of leaping from log to log and busting the jams at the mouth of the mill pond.

Those skills were, on a more abstract level, the same kind that he would have to draw upon again and again as leader -- as all leaders must. In both the NIB and Union of BC Indian Chiefs, George Manuel was ultimately responsible for breaking the jams that the government threw up (and continues to throw up) to block the path of the First Nations. George Manuel's role was probably best summed up by Roberta Jaimeson when she observed that when George Manuel "took a position, people lined up behind him. That's a leader. He had vision, he exuded it, and you were ready and willing and able to dedicate yourself to it. That's leadership."

Yet it is always important to remember that leaders do not act alone. The progress that was attained under George Manuel's stewardship required skill and dedication of hundreds, if not thousands of people working across the country to push the agenda forward. In honouring George Manuel, you honour, in a very real sense, a generation who sacrificed much to lay the track for those who have followed.