Indigenous history delivered with flair in Brotherhood to Nationhood

A new edition of George Manuel's definitive biography reveals how he left a lasting imprint on B.C., Canada, and the world

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      The recent discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has shaken the country. It has also generated far more public interest in Indigenous history.

      This year, in a nod to reconciliation, Vancouver Public Library staff have been placing books on this subject in prominent locations within the branches.

      This week, I’m shining a light on one of my favourites: Brotherhood to Nationhood: George Manuel and the Making of the Modern Indian Movement, by Peter McFarlane with Doreen Manuel.

      This year, Between the Lines rereleased an updated edition of McFarlane’s unvarnished 1993 biography of the famed B.C. Indigenous leader George Manuel with new sections written by his daughter Doreen and his granddaughter Kanahus.

      Manuel, a giant in Indigenous politics was instrumental in the creation of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. He also played a pivotal role in the evolution of the National Indian Brotherhood, which shone a light on the abusive residential-school system.

      In one of the new sections, Doreen Manuel emphasizes that her mother, Marceline, never really received sufficient credit in the first edition. According to Doreen, Marceline "steadfastly supported his values and beliefs".

      “I always knew that mom was an enormous part of dad’s work in the early days, especially her fundraising skills,” Doreen writes. “She was the one who brought back the craft and traditions of tanning hides, buckskin work, feather work, and beadwork to the Secwepemc. None of that existed after the harsh effects of colonization from the nearby Kamloops residential school.”

      To help the family get by while Dad was pursuing politics, Doreen and the others, including Bobby and Arthur, collected bottles and scavenged for useful goods in the local garbage dump.

      Several Manuel family members, including George, attended the infamous residential school in Kamloops. In fact, George Manuel described it as “the laboratory and the production line of the colonial system”. Hunger was a constant companion, along with diseases such as tuberculosis.

      Students who turned their backs on their families and their traditions were treated as “success stories”, according to Brotherhood to Nationhood, “and once the children’s pride in their Indianness was stamped out, it was an easy task to undermine their traditional culture and values”.

      As a young adult, Manuel was barred from most restaurants and hotels due to discrimination, as well as all beer parlours.

      Yet through the sheer force of his intellect, ability to inspire others, and remarkable energy, Manuel played a leading role in blocking the imposition of a federal government white paper in 1969. It proposed eliminating Indigenous peoples’ unique legal status and converting reserve lands to private property. This story was also told in Doreen Manuel's documentary Unceded Chiefs.

      Brotherhood to Nationhood also highlights how Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere influenced Manuel to organize Indigenous peoples around the world. That set the stage for the eventual adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, which has since been enshrined in B.C. law.

      It’s hard to overestimate the impact of Manuel, not only on B.C. but also on the world. And this lively and truthful biography offers a colourful account of his heroic struggle for justice.