The Shuswap lost a true community leader and a powerful, effective advocate for Indigenous rights and title last month, when Arthur Manuel passed away at the age of 66. Thankfully, he wrote two books that provide a better understanding of the over two centuries of Canadian injustice that First Nations have had to endure and what actions are needed to rightfully address the problems.
The first book, Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call, written with co-author Grand Chief Ron Derrickson was released in 2015. The pair’s second book, Settling Canada, is due to be released in April. Unsettling Canada is a stirring account that chronicles the history of the First Nations struggle for self-determination along with the history of his family and of his many years of activism. The stories that Arthur weaves into the compelling narrative make the book difficult to put down.
In many ways, Arthur followed in his famous father’s footsteps, as he continued with the international work begun by George Manuel. But it was not an easy childhood, as with his father away working, he and his siblings were forced to attend residential schools. It was there, that Arthur experienced first hand the discrimination and unfair treatment that most Indigenous people have endured. When Arthur was caught riding a railcar during a summer escapade, he could not pay the $25 fine and wound up in an adult prison for 30 days, where the food served was better than in his residential school.
Although he left with just one course left to take, Arthur’s years of law school in Toronto provided him with both the legal knowledge and skills that served him well. When his father visited him at the law school in 1979, Arthur tried to convince him to get involved in the Trudeau government’s effort to repatriate the constitution. That effort began in earnest the following year with the Constitutional Express, a trainload of First Nation leaders that arrived in Ottawa to press their concerns. Further protests in England and support from the provinces helped result in this clause added, “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”
Despite this success, in the following decade First Nation leaders were unable to negotiate a path forward and by 1987 the federal government simply dropped the file. During these years, Arthur took a break from activism and developed a gas station business on Neskonlith band property adjacent to the TransCanada Highway. But even this was a struggle, as he had to deal with massive amounts of red tape and convince Revenue Canada to reduce its withholding period.
A new threat emerged in the early 1990s, when the provincial and federal governments teamed up to offer a new treaty process that was blatantly unfair because it required the extinguishment of First Nation title. With some band members promoting participation in this new process, Arthur found it difficult to concentrate on the business. When highly respected elder Dr. Mary Thomas urged him to run for band chief, he could not refuse.
Arthur served four terms as Neskonlith Band Chief and also chief of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council. During these years, Arthur assisted with the frustrating protests at Sun Peaks that resulted in jail time for his daughters and other band members. Angered over the loss of forests to large corporations; the resulting widespread ecological damage; and the inability for First Nations to log or collect fees; the band proceeded to log themselves, which created a lengthy legal battle.
After serving as Chief, Arthur spent years working at national and international levels, where he was successful at working key pressure points. He allied with the Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stigliz to show the US Commerce Department how Canada subsidizes its timber by logging the forests that rightfully belong to Indigenous people without giving them a cent.
Arthur’s work with the United Nations helped result in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was eventually ratified by Canada. The intellectual blueprint he left for the work needed to decolonize countries and finally achieve justice and self-determination for Indigenous peoples is part of Arthur Manuel’s significant legacy.