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4 Leaders Who've Made #IndigenousImpact

Leadership takes all forms and happens at all levels. For many of the folks we're celebrating today, their impact can be felt from their hometowns to across the world. In order to celebrate the world around us today, we must look to the past to honour those who participated in making it happen.

Indigenous People’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the strength, brilliance, and excellence in Indigenous identity. In fact, our world wouldn’t look like it does today without the work and impact of Indigenous people from across Turtle Island. This week, we’re highlighting #IndigenousImpact across “Scientists & Inventors”, “Authors”, “Athletes”, and “Leaders”. We're sharing stories that aim to acknowledge their legacies and inspire future generations to continue in their path.

George Manuel (1921–1989) was a prominent Indigenous activist and leader, best known for his relentless advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada. A member of the Secwépemc  First Nation, Manuel's efforts were instrumental in transforming the political and legislative landscape for Indigenous peoples across the globe.

Manuel's activism began in the 1940s, but it was in the 1960s and 70s that he emerged as a formidable force in Indigenous politics. As the founding president of the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) from 1970 to 1976, he was pivotal in uniting Indigenous leaders across Canada, advocating for self-determination and sovereignty. His leadership helped to articulate a powerful vision for Indigenous rights and paved the way for future legislative advancements.

A landmark moment in Manuel's career was his organization of The Constitution Express in 1980. This movement saw hundreds of Indigenous people travel by train from Vancouver to Ottawa, and eventually to the United Nations in New York and Europe, to protest the exclusion of Indigenous rights from the Canadian Constitution. The Constitution Express was a powerful demonstration that succeeded in bringing international attention to Indigenous issues and resulted in the inclusion of Indigenous rights in Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

George Manuel's legacy is marked by his unwavering commitment to justice, equality, and the recognition of Indigenous rights. His work continues to inspire generations of Indigenous activists and leaders in Canada and around the world.

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell is a distinguished Anishinaabe activist and community leader, recognized for her contributions to advancing Indigenous women's rights in Canada. Born in 1942 on Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Lavell's activism has been pivotal in challenging and changing discriminatory laws against Indigenous women.

Lavell's journey as an activist began in earnest in 1970 when she married a non-Indigenous man and consequently lost her Indian status under the provisions of the Indian Act. Outraged by this discriminatory practice, she launched a legal challenge that reached the Supreme Court of Canada in 1973. Although the court ruled against her, Lavell's fight was far from over. Her case drew national attention and galvanized a movement that ultimately led to legislative change.

In 1985, her efforts culminated in the passing of Bill C-31, which amended the Indian Act to eliminate gender-based discrimination, allowing Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men to retain their status.

Beyond this landmark victory, Lavell has served in various leadership roles, including as president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, where she continued to advocate for the rights and welfare of Indigenous women and communities.

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell's enduring legacy is one of resilience and justice, embodying the struggle and triumphs of Indigenous women in the pursuit of equality and recognition.

Jose Kusugak (1950-2011) was a highly influential Inuit leader whose work was critical in the creation of Nunavut. Born in Repulse Bay (now Naujaat), Kusugak's dedication to Inuit rights and self-governance shaped much of his life's work.

Kusugak's leadership emerged prominently during his tenure with Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) starting in the 1970s. His advocacy focused on Inuit language and culture, and he played a crucial role in the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of Nunavut.

In 1990, Kusugak became the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), an organization responsible for ensuring the implementation of the land claims agreement. Under his leadership, NTI worked tirelessly to negotiate and secure the agreement's provisions, culminating in the creation of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This historic event marked the first major change to Canada's political map since the incorporation of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949.

Kusugak's contributions extended beyond political achievements. He was a passionate advocate for Inuit education and culture, promoting Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Traditional Knowledge) and the Inuktitut language. His legacy lives on in the thriving territory of Nunavut and in the continued efforts for Inuit self-determination and cultural preservation.

Elijah Smith (1912-1991) was a prominent Champagne and Aishihik First Nations leader whose tireless advocacy advanced the self-government rights of Yukon First Nations. 

Smith's leadership came into national prominence in 1973 when he and other Yukon First Nations leaders presented the landmark document "Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow" to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This historic manifesto outlined the grievances of Yukon First Nations and set forth their vision for self-determination, land rights, and cultural preservation. It marked the beginning of formal land claim negotiations between Yukon First Nations and the federal government.

As the founding president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood (Now Council for Yukon First Nations), Smith was instrumental in uniting Yukon First Nations and fostering a collective voice to advocate for their rights. His efforts culminated in the signing of the Umbrella Final Agreement in 1993, which laid the foundation for individual land claims agreements and self-government for eleven of the fourteen Yukon First Nations.

Smith's legacy is a testament to his unwavering commitment to justice and self-governance for Indigenous peoples. His work not only transformed the political landscape of the Yukon but also inspired future generations of Indigenous leaders to continue the pursuit of autonomy and cultural preservation.


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