11/07/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST

Aboriginal star hailed as 'pioneer' by Soccer Hall of Fame

Harry Manson broke racial barriers as a First Nations athlete in British Columbia at the turn of the 19th century. 

Grandson Gary Manson's dining room is crowded with soccer trophies: stacked on shelves, on top of the fridge, wedged in between hand drums and beaded prayer banners. They are all products of his decades coaching men's soccer teams from the Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island.

"Soccer is in our blood," said Manson. "It's what we do." But, he's thrilled to be accepting an extraordinary award in Ontario this weekend, honouring his late grandfather’s athletic achievements over a hundred years ago.

The national Soccer Hall of Fame is saluting Harry Manson as a "pioneer" of the game in Canada, a speedy goal scorer who transcended racial prejudice to lead his people to a string of victories on the soccer pitch at the turn of the 19th century.

​Amongst the Snuneymuxw, he was known by his traditional name: Xul-si-malt. In the 1890s, the lifestyle of the Snuneymuxw was undergoing profound transformation. Scores of labourers drawn by coal mines turned Nanaimo into a sprawling settlement and bustling port city, but the Snuneymuxw were mostly segregated to their small village on the beach, marked with longhouses and totem poles.

Racism was socially acceptable at the time, as many settlers considered aboriginal people less than human. But, known by his Christian name, Harry Manson, and spurred by his love of the game, Xul-si-malt became a trailblazer in a sport still in its infancy in the new colony. 

They were the first aboriginal players to compete in a provincial championship, playing side-by-side their white peers. Manson scored, in a losing effort. In 1903, Manson was named to the provincial all-star team. The next year, he captained an all-Snuneymuxw squad called the Indian Wanderers to a Nanaimo city championship, despite jeers from white fans, some shouting "Kill the savages!"

"I try to imagine what it’s like being on a field in Ladysmith with a couple thousand people on the sidelines. They're all white, it’s a very intimidating atmosphere, and they're all hurling abuse at these indigenous players," said Robert Janning, an amateur soccer historian.

Manson helped to create an all-aboriginal team to compete in the city soccer league, where his talent stood out.

In 1898, in a bid to win a provincial championship, the all-white Nanaimo team turned to two players from the Snuneymuxw First Nation: Manson and James Wilkes.

"Despite all these obstacles of segregation that were being constructed around him, he was breaking a colour barrier in sports long before Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson did so in the U.S.," said Janning.

By 1907, Manson and three other Snuneymuxw were starters for the Nanaimo team, again playing for the West Coast's biggest soccer prize: the Challenge Cup. Final score: Nanaimo 4-1. All the goals were from Snuneymuxw players. But when it came to the celebratory banquet, Manson and the other Snuneymuxw players weren't invited.

Harry Manson died tragically in 1912. He was just 30 years old. After heading into town to seek medicine for his sick infant, he was run over by a train. A coroner later found the railroad company not at fault, because one witness testified Manson seemed intoxicated as he attempted to leap onto a rail car.

Manson's story was long lost, until Robert Janning began researching a history of soccer's roots in British Columbia. Janning was struck by the recurring mention of Manson in archival records and newspaper reports. When he tracked down the Manson family, they knew little about their ancestor's soccer success; the only historical record they had was the coroner's report detailing Manson's demise.

"For the longest time, I wondered who our heroes were, and why we didn't have them," said Dean Manson, one of Xul-si-malt's many grandchildren. "Now, I have a grandfather who's a hero. He's always been there, but it was never spoken of how great he was in soccer."

Janning and the Manson family are now fundraising to commemorate Harry Manson’s legacy with an annual soccer competition for at-risk youth. They plan to hold the inaugural tournament in June 2015 in Nanaimo.

Watch Duncan McCue’s feature, Finding Xul-si-malt, tonight on CBC-TV's The National at 10 p.m.