Soccer star inducted into Sports Hall of Fame

Thu. Jul. 2/15

When asked to define “multiculturalism,” the majority of those taking part in the CRRF’s Report on Canadian Values said that it referred to the “co-existence of different cultures in one society/community” and the “acceptance of other cultures.” Survey respondents also agreed that multiculturalism “brings people together more than it divides them.”

The life of Indigenous soccer star Harry Manson – who was known by his traditional name, Xulsimalt, in his Snuneymuxw First Nation community – certainly illustrates those concepts. Although Harry faced intense racism in life and on the soccer pitch, he brought Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal athletes together, challenging barriers and creating a career distinguished by his formidable athletic skills. As we celebrate National Aboriginal History Month in June and National Aboriginal Day on June 21, his story gives us a chance to reflect on how much has changed in this country.

Born on Vancouver Island in 1879, Harry was a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, a Coast Salish group whose traditional territory is on the eastern shores of Vancouver Island near the Nanaimo River. In the early 1890s, Harry played with the all-Indigenous Nanaimo Warriors, making his competitive debut at the age of 18 in a game against the Nanaimo Thistles, a non-Aboriginal team. After seeing his athletic abilities, the Thistles recruited Harry full time into their lineup. As a result, in 1898, Harry became one of the first Indigenous athletes – alongside colleague James Wilkes, another First Nations player – to play for a non-Indigenous team and compete in a British Columbia provincial championship.

Racism was a constant and prevalent force for Harry and his Aboriginal colleagues. During a 1907 match between the Nanaimo Thistles and a team from the town of Ladysmith, the Nanaimo Free Press reported that Ladysmith fans were yelling, “Kill the savages!” Despite the taunts, local press acknowledged Harry as “one of the best players Nanaimo has produced.” Harry eventually led the Nanaimo Thistles to the final of the British Columbia intermediate Challenge Cup against the Victoria YMCA.

When the city of Nanaimo formed an all-star team to compete for the senior Challenge Cup in 1903, Harry was one of three Indigenous players chosen from the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Nanaimo won the game with a final score of 4-1, with all the goals scored by Snuneymuxw players. However, due to the prevailing racism and segregation of the time, none of the Snuneymuxw players were invited to the celebratory banquet.

Harry’s pioneering vision also saw him organize the all-Indigenous Nanaimo Indian Wanderers Association Football Club. In 1899, the Wanderers played against Harry’s former team, the Thistles, in the provincial semi-finals. According to Robert Janning, author of West Coast Reign, a book about B.C.’s early soccer history, the game was fiercely contested. On February 3, 1900, the Thistles won 6-1, ending one of the longest and most disputed series ever played in the province. A local reporter praised the Aboriginal players, saying that “the savages are all masters in football art.”

Despite the semi-final loss, Harry led the Indian Wanderers to numerous victories between 1897 and 1904, becoming one of the greatest soccer players of his time. The Wanderers won a Nanaimo City Championship, and Harry was scouted by European teams.

Unfortunately, Harry’s story ended too soon. On February 10, 1912, at the age of 32, Harry was killed in an accident while returning to the Snuneymuxw First Nation reserve from a trip to Nanaimo, where he had gone to get medicine for his sick son, Adam. He attempted to hop aboard a coal train, and was killed when he fell onto the tracks. His death was given front-page coverage in both the Nanaimo Daily Herald and Nanaimo Free Press, which was unheard of for an Aboriginal person at the time.

Harry’s Snuneymuxw name, Xulsimalt, means “One Who Leaves His Mark.” In First Nations cultures, one’s spirit name is a guide to one’s path in life – it helps people know who they are and how they should be in the world. Harry Manson brought honour to his name, playing alongside and against non-Aboriginal players at a time when racism was deeply entrenched in Canadian society. As Robert Janning told First Nations Drum, “When I consider Xulsimalt, I see a First Nations man breaking barriers at a time when structures such as Indian reserves and residential schools were being constructed. Harry broke colour barriers in sport long before [track star] Jesse Owens and [baseball player] Jackie Robinson were born.”

In November 2014, Xulsimalt Harry Manson was inducted into Canada’s Soccer Hall of Fame in a ceremony attended by his descendants. He is the first Indigenous athlete to be honoured by the organization. On June 17, Xulsimalt Harry Manson is being inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in the “Legends” category. His induction into the Sports Hall of Fame recognizes his leadership and his ability to break through racial barriers.

“I believe the values of diversity and inclusivity that Xulsimalt Harry Manson embraced set a wonderful example for today’s youth of the success that can be achieved,” Janning says.