Tributes poured in over the weekend as renowned First Nations leader and activist Arthur Manuel was laid to rest on Sunday, January 15.
A champion of indigenous and land rights, a model for youth and a beacon for the future, Manuel was lauded as a warrior for his unceasing activism and leadership that ranged from serving as Chief of the Neskonlith Band of Secwepemc First Nation, to protecting the waters at Standing Rock.
He passed peacefully into the spirit world “surrounded by many generations of his loving family” on Monday January 11 at age 65, according to a family statement. The cause of death has not been disclosed.
“Arthur was born into the struggle and groomed to be a leader and defender of indigenous rights and title,” his family said. “He worked selflessly in defense of indigenous territorial authority, and he fiercely opposed any termination of indigenous land rights. He rejected provincial and federal authority over unceded indigenous land, and challenged the extinguishment of indigenous title through the B.C. treaty process. He fought climate change, battling the imminent threat of pipelines across Secwepemc territory.”
Tributes expressed grief, appreciation and admiration. The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) said its members were “deeply and profoundly saddened” to learn of Manuel’s passing.
“Arthur Manuel was, without question, one of Canada’s strongest and most outspoken indigenous leaders in the defense of our indigenous land and human rights,” the UBCIC said in a statement. “He traveled extensively throughout Canada, North America and around the world in his unwavering and relentless efforts to champion the cause of our indigenous rights. He relentlessly worked on land claim issues, calling for change to Canada’s fundamental flawed policy on indigenous land claims. We are so profoundly grateful for Arthur’s many sacrifices and contributions to our ongoing struggles to seek a full measure of justice for our indigenous peoples.”
British Columbia Premier Christy Clarke called him a “steadfast, courageous champion for indigenous people across Canada.”
Born to Marceline Paul of the Ktuanaxa Nation and the Late Grand Chief George Manuel of the Secwepemc (Shuswap in English) Nation, Manuel was inspired by his father, who was co-founder and former president of the National Indian Brotherhood (precursor to the Assembly of First Nations) and the World Council of Indigenous People, and deemed one of the most influential indigenous leaders in British Columbia’s history.
As a residential school survivor who attended the Kamloops, St Eugene’s (Cranbrook) and St. Mary’s (Mission) residential schools, Manuel the son was struck from an early age by the injustices inflicted on Native people. He went on to attend Concordia University in Montreal and Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, although he never completed his law degree. Manuel entered the world of indigenous politics starting in his youth in the 1970s as the president of the Native Youth Association. He never ceased to be an outstanding spokesman for his people.
Four times (1995–2003) Manuel was elected chief of the Neskonlith Band of the Secwepemc First Nation located in central-southern British Columbia. He was chair of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council (1997–2003) three times. During this period he became one of the leading critics of Canada’s policies toward First Nations.
On the international stage, Manuel founded the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, which strives for recognition for aboriginal title and treaty rights at the global level. As spokesman for the group, he convinced the World Trade Organization to recognize that Indigenous Peoples were subsidizing the British Columbia lumber industry through the non-recognition of aboriginal title.
Manuel participated in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from its inception in 2002. He served as chair of the Global Indigenous Caucus and he was, until his passing, co-chair of the Forum’s North American caucus. He testified before the United Nations about human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples by Canada. He was a key expert and an active participant in the Convention on Biodiversity conferences.
Manuel also established his own legacy of five children. His daughter, Kanahus Manuel, is herself a leading figure in Secwepemc activism, at the forefront of the fight to hold the Polley Mine Co. accountable for a massive mining spill in 2014. In spite of his political work, Manuel found time to be a father, grandfather, husband, uncle and friend to many.
More recently, he was active in the Defenders of the Land and Idle No More movements. He co-authored the 2015 book Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call (Between the Lines) with Ronald Derrickson. Manuel joined the Standing Rock Sioux encampment in the U.S. with his daughter Kanahus, where he faced police rubber bullets and water cannons while helping halt the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde expressed “deep sadness” and conveyed “prayers and condolences” on behalf of its members, calling him “one of our true indigenous leaders.”
“On behalf of the Anishinabek Nation, I want to express the sadness of the loss of such a significant Indigenous advocate and leader,” Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee. “The world lost a true champion—a strong voice for the indigenous people—who fought selflessly in defense of indigenous rights, but his message will be heard for many generations to come. I send out condolences and prayers during this difficult time to his family, friends, and all those who grieve this loss.”
“Manuel was a source of guidance to younger generations of indigenous people looking to protect their traditional territories,” said Wet’suwet’en land defender and hereditary chief Toghestiy, also known as Warner Naziel. “He picked up his late father George Manuel’s indigenous rights torch and carried it proudly throughout the world. He leaves behind a family of warriors who will continue to do the same. I will miss our conversations and his guidance.”
“Manuel epitomized what it meant to be a warrior, a man for his people and his family,” said Alberta oil sands critic Crystal Lameman, of Beaver Lake Cree Nation. “The indigenous rights movement lost a pillar, a man who upheld what it means to be resistance, to live the struggle, and to never give up. He is a brave reminder of forgiveness, determination, love and perseverance.”
His work and life mirrored each other, said Neskonlith Band Chief Jody Wilson.
“Much more can be said on the life of Arthur Manuel, but the work he accomplished does truly reflect the man he truly was,” the band said in a statement. “May we all have strength and courage as Arthur walks with the Creator on his new journey.”