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The Tsleil-Waututh people became one of the most progressive and successful of B.C.'s 200 First Nations under the influence of Leonard George, 71, who died recently.

Leonard George, former chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, stands inside his home in North Vancouver in July, 2012.

Leonard George, a past chief of the Tsleil-Waututh people of North Vancouver, was a dignified man of few words, but when he spoke, he commanded attention.

In the 1990s, his eldest son, Justin, played college hockey in England, and has never forgotten the time his father visited the players' locker room before a game in Birmingham in the Midlands. The chief spoke a few solemn words, then sang an Indigenous chant. "You could have heard a pin drop. And these were rough young men," Justin George recalled.

His team won the game.

Leonard George was the son of Chief Dan George, the British Columbia actor nominated for an Oscar for his part in Arthur Penn's film Little Big Man, and in his youth often accompanied his father on movie shoots around North America.

"He and my grandfather were really close," recalled Gabriel George, his second son. "He travelled with him and that was his true education, because we learn through our body; he met so many people of all kinds, including many Indigenous people."

On one such trip, he spent a summer in New York, far from his North Vancouver reserve. The exposure to the wider world, notes his son, "brought huge returns to our people " because his father learned to talk to anyone as an equal. "He taught us not to look up to anyone, and not to look down on anyone. Look at them level with you."

Leonard George died of a heart attack in Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver on Dec. 6 at the age of 71. He had been admitted earlier with double pneumonia. His funeral included traditional drumming, dancing and singing, and drew 1,000 people.

Leonard George was elected chief of what was then called the Burrard Indian Band after the death of his father in 1981. He held the post for two years before taking on other leadership roles in the community, including chief negotiator and director of economic development. One of his first initiatives was to reclaim the original name of his community: Tsleil-Waututh (pronounced Slale Wa-tooth), meaning "People of the Inlet" in the community's own language.

Next, he set out through partnerships with developers to achieve financial self-sufficiency and nearly full employment for his small band (some 500 people), making the Tsleil-Waututh one of the most progressive and successful of B.C.'s 200 First Nations. Researchers for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, an ongoing study begun in 1987 at the Kennedy School of Government, have visited the reserve.

Meanwhile, Leonard George never ceased to foster the spiritual values and practices that were damaged during the decades when the government forbade the potlatch, the ceremonial feasts that bound the coastal native peoples together. (He was cured of debilitating arthritis in his mid-30s, his son Gabriel said, by going to a sweat lodge in Alberta.)

Chief Leonard George sings a welcoming song in Stanley Park in Vancouver in June, 2003, prior to announcing he would be the British Columbia chair of John Manley’s federal Liberal leadership bid.

"He had a way of helping people get in touch with their spirituality," recalled Gabriel, now manager of culture and language for the Tsleil-Waututh. He is one of about 125 people employed by the band. "He was active in keeping alive our Coast Salish practices and in bringing back our longhouse culture, which was taken away by the church and the residential schools."

About five years ago, Leonard George reintroduced the ancient sacred fire ceremony held on the beach on the night of the summer solstice, when a large fire burns from dusk to dawn while people gather around it to offer their gratitude for the land and the water. "It strengthens community relationships, but it's open to all," according to Gabriel George.

The spiritual revival had a practical purpose. "My father created a path of wellness for our nation because he saw how addictions affect our community. He recognized the harm of those numbing behaviours and showed a way of dealing with it. I have been drug and alcohol free since 1982."

Leonard Henry George was born in Vancouver on Aug. 18, 1946, the youngest of six children of Chief Dan George and his wife, the former Amy Jack, who was of the Musqueam nation. His arrival long after his older siblings was something of a surprise, and he was loved and indulged by his four older sisters and one brother. At age 6, he was sent to residential school, but came home on holidays. For his last years of high school, he transferred to Notre Dame, a local Catholic school.

After high school, he studied acting at Vancouver Community College. In 1970, he accompanied his father to the set of Little Big Man, a Hollywood film shot mostly in Alberta and Saskatchewan. His father was cast as Old Lodge Skins, the kindly, philosophy-spouting Cheyenne elder, while Leonard was assigned the role of a Crow scout. It was not a speaking part, but it proved a gateway to a movie career.

He was subsequently cast in a string of films including Man of the House, with Chevy Chase and Farrah Fawcett (1995); Skins (2002), about two Sioux Indian brothers, in which he played Captain Eagleman; and the comedy Smoke Signals (1998), in which he played the character Lester Fallsapart, who sits in the middle of the reserve in his old car, giving the traffic and weather report, although there is no traffic and the weather rarely changes.

On television, he appeared as a shaman in The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (1998); as Dave Whales in the action-adventure series MacGyver that ran from 1985 to 1992; as Far Cloud in Call of the Wild (2000); Chief Red Owl in Peacemakers (2003) – wherever there was a part for a tall, good-looking Indigenous man with lustrous black braids.

He was a 24-year-old hippie when he met Susan Edge at a "be-in" held at Cates Park by the Dollarton Highway in North Vancouver. Born in England and raised in Lynn Valley, she became his wife and the mother of his five sons. (Another son, Trevor Rivers, was born of a previous relationship.)

"To say that my mother was the love of his life is an understatement," Justin said. "She was his strength, the matriarch of our immediate family. Any time he spoke, he first acknowledged her. Mum encouraged him to use his voice and share his culture." At the time of Leonard George's death, they had been married 47 years.

The couple survived tragedy when their second boy died of what was then called crib death (now sudden infant death syndrome), and much later, in 2006, when another son, Isaac, died of AIDS-related illness.

Leonard George, former chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, enjoys a quiet moment in North Vancouver in 2012.

As chief in the late 1980s, Leonard George emerged as a canny negotiator with big ideas. Matthew Thomas, who for 30 years worked closely with him on economic development recalls:

"In the 1990s, Leonard had interviewed about 13 companies to work with us and it failed – no one wanted to do business on the reserve, no one wanted to take that risk."

In the end, he linked up with the billionaire Malaysian-Chinese land developer Robert Kuok to lease some of the band's lands for a town house and condo development named Raven Woods in North Vancouver. A driving range, the Takaya Golf Centre, was also completed. Mr. Kuok's company was persuaded to build roads and other amenities on the reserve as a condition of the contract and to use band members to do some of the work.

The Tsleil-Waututh went on to form a partnership starting in about 2010 with the developer/investor Luigi Aquilini. Several projects are in the pipeline with the Aquilini family, which also owns the Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Arena.

"From the get-go, Leonard was the best lobbyist," Mr. Thomas said. "He knew a lot of people and had connections in the world of developers and in the provincial, federal and municipal governments."

The Tsleil-Waututh had overlapping territories – historic village sites – with the Musqueam and Squamish First Nations, and the three groups had long bickered over who owned what and how to use these territories.

Mr. George eventually cleared the disagreements, brokering a deal that led to the formation of MST Development Corporation, which owns or co-owns about 200 acres of urban land in Vancouver. (The initials stand for the names of the three nations.) These include desirable areas of the city, such as the Jericho Lands and Heather Street Lands and are estimated to be worth $1-billion.

David Negrin, formerly president of Aquilini Development and Construction, is now CEO of MST Development CorporationMST. He said that Mr. George never wanted handouts: "He wanted his nation to be self-sufficient and the young people to learn how to do building and design. Then they could do development themselves. His idea was to create success by offering 99-year leases to developers after which the land would revert to his people. He never gave up anything."

He lived to see the Supreme Court's 2014 Tsilhqot'in decision, in which the court for the first time allowed Indigenous people to obtain legal title to unceded land outside their reserve in some circumstances. This greatly increased the scope of such real estate transactions, Mr. Negrin points out: "If anybody wants to do business in B.C., you have to form relationships with First Nations."

About a decade ago, Leonard George's acting career came to an end due to throat cancer, which he beat back four times. His voice became raspy, and after a small portion of his tongue was removed, he had trouble pronouncing some words. But his dedication and care for his people never wavered.

He leaves his wife Susan, sons Justin, Gabriel, Zachary and Trevor, two of his sisters, Amy Marie and Irene, as well as 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.