On the night of February 10, 1912, a 32-year-old aboriginal fisherman met his death beneath the wheels of a coal train in Nanaimo, B.C. Harry Manson had gone to town to get medicine for his sick baby, Adam, and he was probably trying to get home quickly by riding the rails.
His demise made the front pages of two Nanaimo newspapers, the Free Press and the Daily Herald, no small feat for an indigenous man in those days. Manson was well known locally because for about an eight-year stretch—between 1897 and 1905, from his late teens to his mid-twenties, and despite considerable social intolerance—he was one of the best soccer players to grace the muddy pitches of eastern Vancouver Island in the early days of the sport in B.C.
The young member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, then one of five Native villages grouped in the nearby Nanaimo Indian Reserve, was the captain of the Nanaimo Indian Wanderers team that whole time (a team that he led to a city championship in 1904).
He was also one of the first aboriginals to play in, and win, a B.C. soccer championship (1903) and the only person, period, to play for all three Nanaimo senior teams during those eight years.
Manson helped break down race barriers in his corner of the British Empire long before Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson did the same on much larger stages.
With his death, though, the pioneering accomplishments of the man described by the Daily Herald as “one of the best players Nanaimo has produced” largely faded and disappeared, barely preserved in the fragmented memories of a few descendants and on some brittle, yellowed papers in government or library archives.
One of those papers, the coroner’s report on Manson’s death that found the railway company blameless, made reference to him as a “drunken Indian”.
Almost a century later, a 45-year-old, cab-driving alcoholic addict crouched out of sight near some railroad tracks in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside at night and contemplated his own mortality.
Robert Janning had started smoking crack after booze and pot didn’t satisfy him any more, and he was up to as many as 40 or 50 rocks a day, if he could get them. He would drive slumming addicts and thrill-seekers through the area’s early morning mean streets to score, and sometimes he would smoke with them. Other times, he would make his way to the train tracks for privacy while he sucked his pipe among the discarded needles, bottles, and rubbish.
But around the time the new millennium had come around, he had bottomed out and was ready to ask for help.
No one, much less Janning himself, could have predicted that his avenue of salvation would not only save his life but would resurrect and enshrine forever the story and achievements of a long-dead and forgotten Native fisherman who had made provincial sporting history on the other side of the nearby Strait of Georgia.
Perhaps more importantly, Janning’s almost decade-long quest would also fill in some of the gaps in Harry Manson’s history for dozens of his First Nation descendants who still live in the Nanaimo area today: grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren who never knew of his soccer prowess and who now have even more reason to be proud of their shared heritage and restored connection to their ancestors.
That's because today (November 9), in a ceremony in Vaughan, Ontario, attended by Janning and about a dozen of Manson’s descendants, Harry Manson will be inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame as a pioneer.
The man whose 1879 birth name in the Hul’qumi’num language was Xul-si-malt, meaning One-Who-Leaves-His-Mark, is finally getting his due.
In the fall of 2013, Robert Janning sent an email to the Georgia Straight asking if anyone would be interested in talking to him about a story that would have “the potential to bring about some long-overdue social betterment for Canada’s First Nations communities”.
Soon after, in a coffee shop across the street, the husky, shaven-headed, and soft-spoken part-time cab and hospital-shuttle driver explained how he had come to research, write, and self-publish a book about the early days of soccer in B.C. The book—a rigorously researched 170-page hardcover project titled Westcoast Reign: The British Columbia Soccer Championships 1892-1905--was probably of most interest to historians and students of the sport.
“I’m an alcoholic addict,” the 57-year-old told the Straight. “I cleaned up 12 years ago, and this was a project of recovery. I wound up getting an opportunity to take a college course in writing.”
That course led him to indulge his lifelong passion for soccer by tracking the history of the sport in B.C., but he couldn’t find much of anything in local library branches. “I have that obsessive-compulsive nature,” he said. “Instead of looking for drugs, I [started] researching for information. This book has finally allowed me to get out of myself and do something right. It’s given me a purpose.”
The search steered him to a VPL special collection, UBC’s library, the legislative library and archives in Victoria, and even Washington and Oregon newspaper accounts. All told, it took about six years to get the book done, he said. “I’ve looked for these missing [stories] that nobody ever cared about, and it was a challenge for me.”
All the while, Janning lived in what he called his “bedbug-infested co-op in the Downtown Eastside next door to a crack shack” on Alexander Street.
Janning was born in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and moved with his parents to California as a young child, then back to Europe, then to Calgary in 1969. He moved to Vancouver in 1993, but he said his path to addiction was already well established while working in the Alberta city.
“One day I was driving cab in Calgary and I looked in the rear-view mirror and I saw a guy there and I thought, ‘Holy shit, how did he get there? Better yet, where is he going?’ So I said, ‘What was your address again?’ and he said, ‘The airport!’
“Then he said, ‘Do you want me to drive?’ ”
In Vancouver, he said, “crack cocaine was the one that brought me to my knees. By then I was finished with drink and smoking pot; they just didn’t do it for me any more.”
After “four or five months” on the pipe, he tried to quit but soon relapsed for a few more months. That was when he made up his mind to stop for good. “It was just that hopelessness of trying to quit and not being able to.”
He came across mentions of Manson while later researching his book. The versatile and fleet young midfielder’s exploits caught his eye because of his First Nations background and newspaper accounts that showed, starkly, what such players were up against in provincial society at the time. Racial taunts were commonly hurled at First Nations players. One account in the Nanaimo Free Press said that a fan watching a 1907 match (between a Ladysmith team and one from Nanaimo with some Snuneymuxw players) yelled out, “Kill the savages!”
But it took a random coincidence—just happening to later see a name that he remembered from his research—that brought him to his mission to push for official recognition of Harry Manson’s achievements.
One day about five years ago, Janning’s parents, who had moved to eastern Vancouver Island by that time, sent him an ad clipping for a job there. It mentioned a Snuneymuxw band councillor by the name of Emmy Manson. Intrigued, Janning called and asked her if she knew of Harry. “She said, ‘He was my late great-grandfather.’ Then she said, ‘My Uncle Gary would know more about that than I do.”
So Janning called Gary Manson, one of eight children of Adam, Harry’s infant son for whom he was procuring medicine when he was killed. His knowledge of his grandfather was scant. “He had a photo of him and the coroner’s inquest [report].”
Although, as Janning put it, “there was a bit of a trust issue at first”, Gary invited him to the reserve, where he met with about 20 of Harry’s descendants. “At one point of my visit, the tone changed and became quite sombre,” he said, referring to discussion of the nature of the official report on Harry’s death. “It came across that Harry was a drunken lout.”
He added that one witness cited kept referring to Harry as “it”.
“I don’t know if Harry had [alcohol] issues or not, but that was all this family had of Harry. I think those words would be magnified or be more hurtful if that’s all you had to remember your grandfather by.
“I felt honoured to be able to paint another picture of Harry.”
Janning decided to mount a campaign to get Harry inducted as a pioneer in the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. He enlisted letters of support from the Vancouver Whitecaps’ legendary local soccer icon, Bobby Lenarduzzi, the Snuneymuxw chief, the mayors of Vancouver and Nanaimo, the B.C. Soccer Association, and the Assembly of First Nations.
"What inspired me to nominate him was that he would play for white teams and indigenous teams. He just wanted to play soccer. And what really stood out for me about Harry was that he was a versatile player and played all positions."
But when the time came in December 2013 to announce the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame inductees for that year, Harry had lost out in a tie-breaker to a tennis player. Although disappointed, Janning and the Mansons took the tie as an omen that Harry would make it in the next year. An email to Janning at that time from a supporter, William Yoachim, summed up their feelings: "Robert I lift my hands up to you and we will do it next year, really appreciate your great work. We won't give up! Huych'qa"
Then the national Soccer Hall of Fame, which Janning had contacted earlier this year, beat B.C. to the punch.
“I was sleeping at home and the phone rang…and he [the hall official] tells me that Harry is getting inducted, and I’m just overcome with emotion and the tears are welling up…”
He called Gary first. “I said: ‘He’s a hall-of-famer!’ and we’re both crying and we were like a couple of kids at Christmas.”
Later, he said, outside, "I looked up at the sky and said: 'Yes, we did it, boys! You'll be remembered now."
Calling from a Vaughan, Ontario, hotel two days before the November 9 induction ceremony, Janning said Harry has about 50 direct descendants living today who issued from Adam and his eight children (one of whom died in residential school).
Three of those eight flew into Ontario for the ceremony. “There are three generations of Harry Manson’s here,” Janning said. “This is a first experience for all of them.”
There is a ceremony dress rehearsal the next day, but in the meantime, Janning was luxuriating in the unfamiliar comfort. “It’s like heaven!” he exclaimed. “A double bed and big-screen TV!” He said that he hadn’t watched television for 10 years.
“I’m very tired because I haven’t slept much in two days and I’ve been getting phone calls from people from all over. I’m busy and I’m not used to being busy, but it’s a good busy.
“I’m just enjoying it and I’m just elated for the Manson family.”
Janning’s parents had flown in and he was just in from a tour of the CN Tower with them. He said his parents were bragging about him to strangers, telling people to watch for him on TV: “Those things, they’re priceless,” he said of their boasts. Of his mother and father: “They’re the greatest reward for my work.”
He said the ceremony, which will honour eight inductees in total, will feature Gary Manson singing welcome and celebration songs and playing a drum before Janning is to make a speech. A great-grandchild of Harry's, Adam, will dance in First Nations regalia.
Musing about any parallels between himself and Xul-si-malt, Janning had this to say: “Our perceptions of ourselves brought us to a set of railroad tracks, me to smoke some crack and him to get medicine for his child.
“He lost his life and I got a second chance at life.”
It could also be said that they have both left their mark.