The community came together to remember late Tsleil-Waututh Nation leader, environmental activist and actor Leonard George, who passed away at the age of 71 on Dec. 6 after a long battle with throat cancer.
A celebration of life held at the Tseil-Waututh Nation’s community centre on Dec. 9 drew more than 800 people who crossed paths with George over the years, including District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton, MLA Rich Coleman, developer Francesco Aquilini and former Vancouver Canucks defenceman Dave Babych, who was a pallbearer.
Friends eulogized George at the service, calling attention to his humour and infectious smile.
Tributes for George, who leaves behind a large legacy, poured in from coast to coast after news of his death broke. Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tweeted she was “very saddened” to hear of George’s passing.
George had a worldwide reach with his advocacy work. He was an adviser to the United Nations and helped develop policies to benefit First Nations people.
A champion of the environment, Leonard was also a spokesperson for the Jane Goodall Society.
“Chief Leonard George from Vancouver speaks to my very soul with his singing and the voice of his drum – the urgent, insistent, yet infinitely patient heartbeat of Mother Earth,” wrote Goodall in her memoir, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey.
Closer to home, members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation continue to mourn the loss of the leader, who leaves behind his wife of more than 40 years, Susan, and their three sons, Justin, Gabriel and Zac. Two other sons tragically predeceased him, including one who died from sudden infant death syndrome.
His nephew Rueben George recalled what made his uncle so likeable.
“He had a presence. He had a beautiful presence and he had a sparkle in his eye and he was passionate,” said Rueben. “I think his legacy will for sure continue. He took time to mentor and to teach and to encourage everybody.”
The son of Oscar-nominated actor and Order of Canada recipient Chief Dan George, Leonard George followed in his father’s footsteps on-screen and in life, according to Rueben. George was offered lucrative acting roles, including the lead in Broadway shows, but he turned down the spotlight.
“He rejected those things because he wanted to move forward and help the Tsleil-Waututh people and the First Nations of Canada,” said Rueben. “He sacrificed his passion and his love for the arts.”
While he was chief of the Tsleil-Waututh from 1989 to 2001, George used his business savvy to pave the way for the creation of Takaya Developments and the Raven Woods community.
George was also a mentor to many and, through educational advocacy, empowered Indigenous youth.
The Tsleil-Waututh at one point achieved a two per cent unemployment rate and that’s because of George, says his nephew.
When George became chief, adds Rueben, there was only a secretary and himself. Now the nation employs more than 150 people.
George received much public recognition during his life, including a citizen award from the District of North Vancouver. Walton, mourning George’s passing, said he was a friend and great spokesperson for the Tsleil-Waututh and the First Nations in B.C.
George had a lot of respect for the people living in squatters shacks on the Dollarton waterfront in the 1970s, said Walton, even when the district tried to evict them.
Walton and George sat down many times over the past 15 years during service agreement negotiations and other talks between the district and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
“Even when we were having issues we didn’t agree on, the relationship always overrode the passion,” said Walton. “You knew that you could have the tough conversations but that he would always end up with a handshake and a firm look in the eye and a smile and you’d meet again.”
Rueben says his uncle’s determination and will to protect the Tsleil-Waututh lands will continue. George helped organize a sacred fire ceremony at Whey-ah-Wichen in opposition to tanker traffic in the area.
After the service in December, family members and friends of George carried his wooden casket in a traditional procession along Dollarton Highway to the Burrard Cemetery, where his beloved father is interred.