Vital Manuel was familiar to MLAs in the 1990s, but former premier Stephen Kafkwi hopes more people today know his name and understand what Vital’s life meant as the NWT prepares to enter winter in a second wave of Covid.
Vital was from Fort Good Hope, where he was born with developmental disabilities due to spina bifida. He used a wheelchair, but was taught from a young age to be independent.
“Since he was a little kid I spent a lot of time talking with him,” said his father Thomas. “I told him about his siblings and that they’re able to walk. But I said, ‘You’re not going to walk. You’re going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. I said, ‘Mom and Dad aren’t going to live with you forever. You’ve got to try and do something for yourself.’ I told him never to depend on anybody.”
He arrived when he was in Grade 10 and attended Sir John Franklin. After finishing, he went job hunting.
One day in the early 1990s he wheeled into Kakfwi’s office, who was the Sahtu MLA at the time.
“I’m looking for a job. I’d like to work for you,” Kakfwi recalled Vital saying. “So we hired him, and he worked with me for well over 10 years.”
“He was always properly dressed. Clean and tidy and on time,” Kakfwi said. “He was a good worker, very faithful. Totally positive. He was one of the few people that called me, not to ask me for something, not to criticize me, but just to say, ‘Stephen, I just wonder how you’re doing.'”
His father said Vital was an avid churchgoer and never missed a service.
“When we went to church he was always the first one there. I was so proud,” he said.
Vital worked for Kakfwi as an assistant and assembly page for the rest of the 1990s when Kakfwi was an MLA and through his almost four-year premiership, which ended in December of 2000.
He died in 2006 at the age of 32. He passed away in his apartment in Yellowknife, his father said.
“The RCMP called me and told me, ‘Your son died in his sleep.’ I don’t think he was ever sick. He would’ve told me. His heart must have gone bad.”
Kakfwi is speaking now about his late assistant after he recently found some old photos of Vital and had them framed. He plans to travel to Fort Good Hope this month to give them to Vital’s mother Denise, and his father.
“I want to share this because, here’s a guy who could have just said, ‘Look, I’ve got too many mental challenges. I’m stuck in this wheelchair, I’m just going to stay with my mom and dad and they’ll take care of me.’ And he didn’t do that. There’s a lot of people who would never leave their hometown. They don’t like the challenges of trying to live alone and work alone in Yellowknife.
“Here’s a guy that toughed it out. He never let his situation limit him. It’s a startling contrast to a lot of people who are more blessed than he is, with strong physical and mental attributes. But, spiritually, he was incredibly strong.”
The former premier also thinks the photos of Vital could be a source of inspiration for people as the territory enters its first winter in a pandemic.
“Before we start moping around and feeling sorry for ourselves and being upset because we’re having issues with Covid and with the flu and social distancing and all that, let’s remember this guy.”
Up in Fort Good Hope, Vital’s father said he can’t wait to receive the photos and show them to his family.
“I’ll be so happy to see them and I’ll show his brothers and sisters and his nephews. We’ll be so happy to see what our son has done for himself even though he couldn’t walk. And I can talk to people on my radio, on CBQE, about what my son has done.”