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Sign of history to honour First Nations soccer star Harry Manson

Harry Manson, an early First Nations soccer star, will be recognized with a sign at the Nanaimo field where a memorable game was played 125 years ago.

Harry Manson, an early First Nations soccer star, will be recognized with a sign at the Nanaimo field where a memorable game was played 125 years ago.

The provincial government is erecting the “stop of interest” sign on Monday at Nanaimo’s Deverill Square Park, the site of a Nov. 12, 1892, soccer game that was B.C.’s first between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teams.

A member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, Manson had the traditional name Xulsimalt, meaning “one who left his mark.”

He overcame the racism of his time with his skill and tenacity.

In 1898 he became one of the first Aboriginal players to play for a non-Aboriginal team and vie for a provincial title. He and the Nanaimo Thistles lost the game — and the B.C. Intermediate Challenge Cup — to the Victoria YMCA. In 1907, as a member of Nanaimo United, he won the B.C. championship.

Manson also organized the all-Aboriginal Nanaimo Indian Wanderers Association Football Club. Reports say that he and other First Nations players had to routinely endure such taunts as “Kill the savages!” from onlookers.

The B.C. Sports Hall of Fame notes that Manson broke down racial barriers long before Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. It lauds him as “one of B.C.’s great pioneering athletes prior to World War I,” known for his incredible speed and ability to put the ball in the net.

The hall credits author Robert Janning with unearthing Manson’s story while working on the 2012 book Westcoast Reign, a history of soccer in the province. Janning made the point in the publication First Nations Drum that Manson’s exploits came at a time “when structures such as Indian reserves and residential schools were still being constructed.”

Grandson Gary Manson said the acclaim being given to his grandfather is “just awesome.”

“He’s already been inducted into four hall of fames, so this is another step in honouring him.”

Along with the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, Harry Manson was named to the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014, becoming the first Indigenous athlete to receive that recognition. He is also in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Nanaimo Museum Sports Hall of Fame.

Gary Manson said that finding out more about his grandfather has been a gift.

“We’d lost some of the history, so it’s definitely been a great ride for us the last few years.”

Gary Manson said his family did not know the full scope of his grandfather’s athletic accomplishments before the honours began coming in.

“We knew he played soccer, but not to the extent that’s been brought forward so far.”

Soccer serves as a connection with his grandfather, said Gary Manson, who has been involved in the sport for years as a player and coach.

“My whole family’s into it, all my kids, grandkids.”

He said his grandfather stands out as a role model.

“He can give our young people someone to look up to.”

As an elder-in-residence at Vancouver Island University, Gary Manson often hears his grandfather mentioned in conversation.

“We do talk about reconciliation and history, and they do bring up my grandfather.”

Harry Manson died in 1912 when he was 32. He had gone into Nanaimo to get medicine for his son and tried to jump aboard a coal train to get back to the reserve, but fell onto the tracks and died.

His death was front-page news. “Manson was well-known to football enthusiasts in this district, having been a member of the Indian team which made quite a reputation a few years back,” the Daily Colonist reported.

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