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Capilano University filmmaker Doreen Manuel’s Unceded Chiefs tells historic tale of Indigenous resistance



Watch a trailer for Unceded Chiefs.

Several family members, including Doreen, are champions of Indigenous sovereignty. By the late 1970s, after beating back the white paper, George Manuel was organizing Indigenous peoples on four continents, describing them as the “Fourth World”.

In 1977, he proposed an international declaration to uphold and protect their rights, which later evolved into the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In the early 1980s, he led the Constitution Express, which was a national movement chartering two trains from Vancouver to take about 1,000 people to Ottawa to protest the failure of Trudeau and the premiers to include Aboriginal rights in the Canadian Constitution.

Manuel remembers seeing a TV clip of an Indigenous woman saying she had used up all of her old-age-pension money to join the Constitution Express, telling a broadcast crew: “I cashed it. That’s what I got with me, and a bag of dry meat and bannock, and I’m using all my money up because George Manuel said if I don’t, there won’t be any rights for our children and grandchildren. I’m doing this for them.”

Eventually, the first ministers buckled under the pressure, ensuring that the Constitution Act of 1982 recognized and affirmed existing Aboriginal and treaty rights.

It was a landmark event in the advancement of First Nations rights. These rights were defined in subsequent Supreme Court of Canada decisions, including the 1997 Delgamuukw case, which confirmed that Aboriginal title was not extinguished when B.C. joined Confederation in 1871.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has become one of the leading voices of resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline project.

According to Manuel, some Canadians are not only poorly informed about history, they’re not even willing to see things from Indigenous people’s perspective. She’s especially troubled that there’s still so little awareness of the Doctrine of Discovery, which has been used to legitimize the colonization of Indigenous peoples and the theft of their lands.

“They have no clue of what the Doctrine of Discovery is and how all other laws are stacked on top of it—and how unfair the foundational laws in Canada are,” Manuel said.

In the 15th century, even before the genocidal Christopher Columbus arrived in the “New World”, papal bulls called for the vanquishing, subjugation, and enslavement of non-Christian peoples. For centuries, settlers operated on the premise that nobody owned the land before they arrived to claim it.

Her film counters this notion, revealing the spirited fight and sacrifices made by many visionary chiefs in the late 1960s to protect the rights of future generations of Indigenous children.

Two of the leading thinkers on Indigenous sovereignty—Arthur Manuel and Russell Diabo—appear in Unceded Chiefs.

There’s a telling clip in the film from her cerebral brother, Arthur, explaining the systemic impoverishment of Indigenous people.

“Colonization has three major elements: dispossession, dependency, and oppression,” he says. “The non-Native people in this country enjoy 99.8 percent of our land—and I tell Indigenous people, that’s why you’re poor.

“You’re poor simply because you get generally 0.2 percent of a loonie and the province and federal government basically share 99.8 percent,” he continues. “And that’s wrong.”

Arthur Manuel, a leading First Nations intellectual, didn’t live long enough to see the recent wave of solidarity actions on behalf of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. But his sister, Doreen, told the Straight that she’s feeling a great sense of pride seeing so many young people get involved.

“They’re no different than when I was a youth in the ’70s,” she said. “I saw how unfair things were. It compelled me to be there… I’m blown away at how it’s risen all the way across Canada.”

She added that these efforts are also being noticed by Indigenous peoples throughout the world.

“They can see and are experiencing the same effects of colonization—and dealing with the same effects of doctrines of discovery.”

Unceded Chiefs will be shown on Saturday (March 7) at the Vancity Theatre as part of the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival.

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