Pioneering First Nations soccer hero Harry Manson inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

But after several prominent honours, the man who helped tear down turn-of-century race barriers in B.C. sports has yet to be recognized by our provincial hall of fame

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      B.C. aboriginal soccer pioneer Harry Manson might not have been recognized in his own province yet, but he continues to gather honours elsewhere in Canada.

      On Wednesday (June 17), the Snuneymuxw First Nation man known as Xul-si-malt (“one who leaves his mark”) who broke racial barriers at the turn of the past century on Vancouver Island received national recognition with his induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame as an athlete in the Sport Legends class.

      Broke race barriers in sports before Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owen

      Long before Jesse Owen and Jackie Robinson broke colour barriers in their sports, Manson accomplished the same for soccer in British Columbia.

      Manson had previously won induction into the national Soccer Hall of Fame in Ontario last November and the Nanaimo Sports Hall of Fame earlier this month. However, two previous considerations by the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, in 2013 and 2014, resulted in Manson being passed over. (There is one more year of eligibility remaing for the B.C. honour.)

      Robert Janning, who has spent years bringing attention to Manson’s accomplishments, told the Georgia Straight that the Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame ceremony in Calgary was “just fantastic”.

      Speaking by phone during his car trip back to Vancouver with some of Manson’s descendants on June 18, Janning said, “It’s nice to be in there [the hall of fame] with all of Canada’s greatest athletes: Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe…”

      Dean Manson, 62, Harry Manson’s grandson, told the Straight about the induction ceremony: “It brought me to tears at times. We didn’t get to know him [Xul-si-malt], but Robert brought him back to life for us.”

      At Canada's Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Calgary on June 17, Harry Manson nominator Robert Janning (right) stands with (from left) Nanaimo mayor Bill McKay, Harry Manson's grandson Gary Manson, and Snuneymuxw chief John Wesley.
      Mia Manson

      Janning added that BBC Radio had travelled to Vancouver Island recently to do a documentary on Manson: “He’s going global; it’s just amazing.” He also said Vancouver Whitecaps FC was planning to honour Harry Manson's memory with a ceremony at a September home game.

      Manson, born in 1879 on the Nanaimo Indian Reserve, a collection of five Snuneymuxw villages on the Nanaimo River estuary, was a skilled soccer player who became captain of the all-Native Nanaimo Indian Wanderers team (which won the city championship in 1904 and, earlier, made it to the provincial semifinals) during a blossoming of the sport in this corner of the British Empire.

      He was one of the first aboriginal players to play in, and win, a provincial soccer championship, in 1903, and he also played for all three senior Nanaimo teams, the only indigenous player to have done so.

      Descendants Mia (great-great-granddaughter) and Adam (great-grandson) Manson attended the national Soccer Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Vaughan, Ontario, with other Harry Manson relatives in November 2014.

      Name smeared after tragic death

      He played despite intense racial taunting from opposing fans (a local newspaper of the day reported a cry of “Kill the savages!” when his team took the field), and after his tragic accidental death in 1912 at the age of 32 under the wheels of a Nanaimo coal train after he had come into town to get medicine for his child, the coroner’s report called him a “drunken Indian”.

      Nonetheless, Xul-si-malt’s passing made the front pages of two Nanaimo newspapers, unheard of for an indigenous person in those days.

      In this 1903 photo of the Nanaimo Association Football Club, Harry Manson is seated in the bottom row, second from right.

      Janning, the original architect of the honours and attention bestowed upon Manson, is a part-time Vancouver cab driver who has spent years writing letters, gaining influential endorsements from politicians and sports legends, and tracking down Manson’s descendents after coming across his story while researching a book about the early days of soccer in B.C., Westcoast Reign: The British Columbia Soccer Championships 1892-1905.

      DTES resident Janning’s remarkable story—involving substance abuse and a life-reclamation project that ended up restoring a forgotten pioneer’s life and achievements to their rightful place and reconnecting him with his First Nation and multitude of proud descendants—can be read here. His account of his weekend in Vaughan, Ontario, last year for Manson’s Soccer Hall of Fame induction is here.