(This article is longer than what normally appears on media websites.)
Secwepemc/Ktunaxa filmmaker and educator Doreen Manuel wants people to know that her mother was fearless. And Manuel, one of six children of legendary former National Indian Brotherhood president George Manuel, includes an anecdote to demonstrate this in the preface of a new edition of Brotherhood to Nationhood: George Manuel and the Making of the Modern Indian Movement.
As her mother, Marceline, went into labour on February 13, 1960—just prior to giving birth to Doreen Manuel—she climbed into the back of an open pickup truck. There, Marceline rode for 30 miles in the middle of winter, from Neskonlith to a hospital in Kamloops, where Doreen was born shortly afterward.
That wasn’t Marceline’s only demonstration of courage.
“Our mom remained a tough activist throughout her life,” Manuel writes. “I remember her and I tanning ten hides all at once, three of her fingernails fell off during that tanning session, and she kept on working without a complaint.”
Manuel also points out in the book’s preface that her mom campaigned to prevent the extradition of Indigenous leader Leonard Peltier to the United States.
In addition, Marceline was part of an Aboriginal women’s movement that occupied the federal Indian affairs office [now called Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada] in Vancouver in the late 1970s.
Doreen Manuel's mother joined the Indian Child Caravan in 1980 that fought the apprehension of Indigenous children. Plus, she supported the Constitutional Express, launched by husband George in 1980 to pressure former prime minister Pierre Trudeau to incorporate Aboriginal rights in the Constitution.
So why was it necessary to issue a new edition of Brotherhood to Nationhood, a full-length biography of George Manuel that was written by Peter McFarlane in 1993, just four years after the long-time chief’s death?
“There are a couple of things,” Manuel told the Straight by phone. “One is that it’s being used a lot in universities and there’s been a lot of people asking about it. And it was out of print—it was difficult to get.”
The other reason is that Manuel wasn’t happy with how McFarlane didn’t consult sufficiently with women in the family about the biography.
As a result, Manuel felt that McFarlane largely overlooked the contributions of Marceline in helping her husband become one of the most influential Indigenous people in the world. He cofounded the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1974 and served as its founding president from 1975 to 1981. That set a process in motion that led to the eventual approval of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Refusing federal funds transformed community
Prior to publication of the first edition of Brotherhood to Nationhood in 1993, McFarlane reached out to Manuel’s sister Vera, and Vera showed Manuel the galley proofs. Manuel said she made many notes but only one of the points that she shared, which involved how Marceline met George, went into the book.
“That always bothered me,” Manuel said.
She emphasized that she appreciated McFarlane’s friendship with the family, noting that he wasn’t one of those parachute journalists who shows up, writes a story, and then vanishes. And as they became friends, she brought up other concerns about the book.
One of Manuel’s most noteworthy objections revolved around how McFarlane characterized a decision by the Neskonlith band to reject federal funding in the 1970s when her brother Bobby was chief. McFarlane described this decision in the first edition as a “serious tactical error”.
Manuel, on the other hand, told the Straight that she felt this was a turning point for the Neskonlith people because they really came together at that time.
“Before that, there was so much alcoholism in that community,” Manuel said. “It was like we dried up overnight.”
After federal funds were refused, people planted potatoes, squash, and other vegetables; earnings from hay fields were pooled to cover the cost of essentials, including electricity; and hunting and butchering parties brought the community together.
This, she maintained, had a positive effect on young people like herself. She was a teenager at the time. She noted that another person who felt the after-effects of the refusal to accept funding is the current chief, Kupi7 Judy Wilson, who's also the secretary-treasurer of the Union B.C. Indian Chiefs.
“It did something for us that people didn’t recognize because they can’t see through the decolonized lens,” Manuel said.
Filmmaker wants young people to know their history
In a wide-ranging interview with the Straight, Manuel revealed that before becoming a filmmaker and later director of the Nat and Flora Bosa Centre for Film and Animation at Capilano University, she taught life skills.
“I used to be a counsellor and I used to develop social-wellness programming for recovering heroin addicts, women escaping violent relationships, youth at risk, youth escaping gang violence, sexual abuse and prevention for children and parents,” she said. “And through all of that training and helping people, the thing that I would always start with is teaching them their history.”
This, Manuel added, was intended to affect their identity so they would be inspired to save themselves.
“I wasn’t going in trying to be a saviour of people,” she emphasized. “My dad didn’t go into communities all over the world to be their saviour. He went in to teach them a few basic skills and inspire them to save themselves and to stand up for themselves. That was my approach always with my people.”
The Straight asked Manuel how her father, George, was able to transcend extremely challenging health problems—as well as the legacy of attending the notorious Kamloops Indian Residential School—on his way to igniting far greater interest in Indigenous sovereignty.
“It all stems down to a singular belief that we are all working for the future generations. And he relayed that to me over and over again,” she recalled. “He used to say, ‘Whenever you accept funds, you’re working for your people.”
To her father, that meant a leader must never take breaks at work that were longer than what was necessary.
“You just give everything you have to it because that money isn’t a right,” she related. “Education funding is not a right that just goes to anybody and everybody. Having a job and being able to help your people is not a right. It’s a duty. And that money belongs to every man, woman, and unborn child of our tribe, of our nations, and you don’t misspend the money of the unborn children.”
These values became ingrained in Manuel and her siblings through their constant retelling by their father.
She then shared a story of being on the third day without food or water in the Rocky Mountains when she was making her movie The Fast.
“Something prompted me to stare at this single little raindrop hanging from a tree,” Manuel said. “Just looking at that raindrop, I was just filled with thought about all the water that was suffering for us.
“And the more I thought about it—the more I started to pray for the water—my own thirst fell away,” she continued. “And all of my own suffering fell away because I was so absorbed with care and love for the water. Then the sky broke open with sunshine and it got warm.”
To her, this was a reminder that in hard times, if you forget about yourself and just pray and work for the people, anything negative is just going to fall away.
Chief thought about impact of school system
Manuel shares her father’s passion for education. He coined the phrase “Indian control of Indian education” because he believed that the school system enforced and taught a colonialist mindset.
She added that her father maintained that public schools trained people to become labourers, whereas private schools prepared people to become leaders in the system. According to him, the only way to break this pattern was is if people spent sufficient time obtaining a foundational education taught from home. And in her family, it meant knowing their history.
“Dad used to say ,‘People shouldn’t go to university for all four years at one time, because it’s a system of colonization and assimilation. And they assimilate you into the ideology, capitalism, and you wind up coming out the other end only thinking of yourself. You lose your connection to your community,’ ” she recalled.
Instead, her father preferred that students work every summer within their community with its poorest people—an idea that he picked up when visiting Africa. And he believed in Indigenous people developing their own curriculum.
Manuel said that she has seen friends who have maintained the mentality of a labourer and who can’t break out of this mould, even after changing jobs.
“That’s why it was so important to me to build the Indigenous film program at Capilano University the way I did,” Manuel said. “I redeveloped the entire curriculum through a decolonized lens.”
That meant teaching them history and educating them about how they were relating to the world. “It made all the difference,” she noted. “A lot of my graduates are leaders out there. They are forward thinkers.”
One of her biggest beefs is that First Nations have never received their fair share of the money derived from resource extraction since their lands were stolen after Europeans arrived. This point was reinforced by her brother Arthur, a now-deceased Indigenous intellectual and former chief, in her documentary Unceded Chiefs.
“What I would like to see is less extraction, but of the extraction that’s happening that we would get a percentage of it so we could build our own infrastructure,” Manuel said. “And it doesn’t make sense to me that the treaty process has been going forward all these years and no one has asked for that.”
In addition, Manuel maintained that as a result of colonialism, non-Indigenous people have been led to believe that all of the infrastructure of modern society—including roads, lampposts, and even fire trucks—somehow magically appeared.
“That’s paid not only from taxes but from resource extraction that comes out of our resources,” Manuel insisted. “So I tell people, ‘When you walk down the road, half of what you touch we pay for with our blood, sweat, tears—tears over the loss of our children.’ They don’t learn that in school.
“So they learn to disrespect us and not value us and not value the very land they walk on—and not understand who have been the caretakers of that land.”