The British Columbia that might have been

BC began as a model to the world of multi-ethnic settlers living peacefully among self-governing indigenous peoples—and then it all went wrong

By Terry Glavin
August 3, 2020

The British Columbia that might have been

BC began as a model to the world of multi-ethnic settlers living peacefully among self-governing indigenous peoples—and then it all went wrong

By Terry Glavin
Aug 3, 2020
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt

The British Columbia that might have been

BC began as a model to the world of multi-ethnic settlers living peacefully among self-governing indigenous peoples—and then it all went wrong

By Terry Glavin
August 3, 2020
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The British Columbia that might have been
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt

On its face, BC Day may seem like just another colonial holdover; A welcome day off, to be sure, but one whose origins seem to smack of conquest, imperialism and all the other things that rightfully make us modern folk uncomfortable. In the feature below, Vancouver Island's own Terry Glavin, a columnist for Maclean's and Postmedia, outlines the forgotten story of how BC started off as one of the most unique and progressive corners of the 19th century world. In a world of Indian wars, exploitative colonialism and widespread chattel slavery, pre-Confederation BC briefly stood out as a model of how a diverse, multi-ethnic society could live in cooperation with a region's first peoples. As we seek reconciliation, BC, in contrast to the rest of Canada, can find more guidance in its past than most realize.

Despite Victoria’s acute diversity-embracing wokeness, or perhaps because of it, and because Victoria remains one of the whitest cities in Western Canada, BC Day is an opportune time to recall that there was a time here when toleration and diversity came to us naturally. It was bred in the bone. 

The largely occluded history here involves, for starters, B.C.’s founding governor, James Douglas, the “octoroon” son of a Scottish merchant and a free coloured woman from Guyana, and Douglas’s wife, Lady Amelia, an Irish Cree matriarch who presided over a colonial settler state that wholly defies contemporary understandings. 

Detail from an official portrait of Lady Amelia Douglas and Sir James Douglas. Even today, it would be a historical first to have a province headed by a leader of mixed race married to an Indigenous woman. As historian Lorne Hammond has written, James Douglas bucked the trend of the colonial governor as a" flag-and-empire, conquest-oriented leader, with a worldview based in an upper class education (Source).

Victoria was home to a thriving and vividly multicultural society that had its roots in both the westward migration of settlers from Britain and from Canada, and the northward exodus of a long-established community of Hawaiian laborers – Hawaiians made up roughly a third of the HBC workforce west of the Rockies – along with Iroquois farmers, Metis fur traders, Orkney Islanders and “King George Indians” who had fled north rather than remain below the 49th parallel when the Stars and Stripes was raised with the Oregon Treaty of 1846. 

That “monstrous treaty,” as Douglas called it, forced the surrender of British sovereignty in the old Columbia Territory, where Douglas had spent nearly two decades, mostly at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia, rising to the rank of chief factor. Under orders from the HBC and the Colonial Office to establish the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, Douglas headed north in 1849, leading the remnants of British loyalist communities from the Willamette Valley, Fort Nisqually, and several other settlements in present-day Washington and Oregon. 

In the wake of the exodus, there was one bloody American encounter after another: the Cayuse War, the Klamath War, the Salmon River Indian War, the Yakima War, the Nisqually War, and on and on. And the statutory racism that scarred the Eastern states was exported west. Non-whites were effectively barred from the territories that would go on to become Oregon and Washington state. Black people were denied the right to American citizenship.  

A warrior aims his rifle in this stereoscopic image from the 1873 Modoc War, which pitted Modoc people against the United States Army in what is now California and Oregon. The US colonization of the Pacific Northwest would become defined by a series of brutal wars with local Indigenous (University of Oregon).

While BC Day was formally recognized as a statutory provincial holiday in 1974 (the Crown colony of British Columbia was formally constituted on August 2, 1858, eventually absorbing the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1866) the holiday is not so recent an innovation. Douglas served as the governor of both colonies from 1858 to 1864, and in and around Victoria in the 1860s August 1 was already being observed as a kind of civic holiday: Emancipation Day, commemorating the nominal prohibition of slavery in the British Empire, in 1834. Douglas is known to have hosted an Emancipation Day celebration as early as 1855, in a fancy-dress ball he organized for the crews of British and American naval vessels in Esquimalt.

"As American miners began pouring into Victoria bound for the Cariboo goldfields, they were greeted by Black men, armed, in uniform."

Black lives mattered in British Columbia back then, in a world where they often didn’t matter as an explicit statement of law. In the early 1860s, while the United States was in the throes of a bloody civil war on the very question of slavery, Douglas quietly proposed to the colonial office in London that the conflagration presented an opportunity for the British Navy to recover what had been lost in 1846, first by taking the Puget Sound district, then pushing on to the mouth of the Columbia River. London insisted on strict neutrality, but as American miners began pouring into Victoria bound for the Cariboo goldfields, they were greeted by Black men, armed, in uniform.

Corinthia Elizabeth Sarah Anne Pierre. Born in Victoria in 1868, her family was among the first settles in the new colony (Source).

Organized into the “African Rifles,” as the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps was otherwise known, the volunteer militia was drawn from several hundred Black Americans Douglas had invited north in 1858 to escape the violent racism that afflicted California. Around the same time, Douglas welcomed hundreds of Chinese settlers who had fled California for Vancouver Island, for the same reasons. It’s why Victoria’s Chinatown is North America’s second-oldest, after San Francisco’s.

The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps. Armed black men serving under black officers; a phenomenon that wouldn't even occur among black units fighting for the Union in the American Civil War (Source).

Among the more prominent members of the Black community in British Columbia at the time was Mifflin Gibbs, who became the third Black man elected to public office in North America when he was elected to Victoria council in 1866. And Gibbs, who served for a period as the city’s interim mayor, was less of an anomaly than you might think.

A circa 1900 photograph of Temple Emmanu-El. Still standing at the corner of Pandora and Blanshard, it remains Canada's oldest synagogue building still in use as a synagogue. At a time in Canadian history when Jews were still routinely barred from civic life, Temple Emmanu-El was notable in that its construction was significantly funded by contributions from Victoria gentiles. AS the Jewish Historical Society of BC has written "Canada’s oldest surviving synagogue provides evidence that the sad and tragic history of Jews living in a gentile society is not inevitable" (Source).

During Gibbs’ day, Victoria’s mayor was Lumley Franklin, the first Jewish mayor in what was to become Canada. Similarly, Lumley’s brother Selim had already been elected to serve in British Columbia’s first legislative council, in 1859, the third Jew ever elected to a legislative council in British North America.The Lumleys were members of the Congregation Emmanu-El, the Victoria synagogue built of brick and stone in the Romanesque Revival style in 1863, at a time when all the churches in Victoria were wooden structures. Canada’s first Jewish MP was the Wharf Street merchant Henry Nathan, elected in 1871, the year B.C. joined Canada, and Victoria’s Samuel D. Schultz was appointed Canada’s first Jewish judge, in 1914.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

More than a decade before the establishment of the African Rifles, after James Polk was elected U.S. president in 1845 on a “54/40 or Fight” platform - pledging to push American sovereignty as far north as the Alaska panhandle - Douglas mobilized a force of Metis fighters, the Victoria Voltigeurs. The Metis saw service on the rare occasions when Douglas found himself at odds with Vancouver Island’s indigenous people. In return for their service, the Voltigeurs were granted 20-acre plots of land on Colquitz Creek, adjacent to Portage Inlet.

"In and around Victoria in the 1860s August 1 was already being observed as a kind of civic holiday: Emancipation Day, commemorating the nominal prohibition of slavery in the British Empire"

In coping with the contradictions of his instructions from the British colonial office – to establish foreign settlements loyal to the Crown on Vancouver Island and on the mainland, all the while maintaining friendly relations with indigenous people - Douglas was handed an almost impossible task. He was given a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi, which secured the agreement of the Maori people of New Zealand to British settlement in that colony. And he was denied funds to complete the job.

Detail from New Zealand's Treaty of Waitangi, considered the country's founding document. Unlike Canadian treaties, Waitangi was not merely an expedient agreement to extinguish Aboriginal land rights, and itinstead laid out a model of a country jointly founded by the Crown and the Maori. It was this document that was to serve as James Douglas' guide on how to build British Columbia (Archives New Zealand).

Douglas nonetheless managed to negotiate 14 treaties on Southern Vancouver Island, which set aside parcels of land as reserves, and guaranteed the rights of the indigenous peoples to hunt over the unoccupied lands and “to fish as formerly.” But it was the Fraser Canyon War that forced the issue. Dozens were killed on both sides of the conflict, which pitted the Nlaka’pamux people and their allies against militias of well-armed American miners. 

It is a great paradox of history that the Fraser Canyon War forced the establishment of the mainland Colony of British Columbia, ostensibly to extend the rights of British subjects to the indigenous peoples of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. A paradox, because B.C. would go on to become the Canadian province most singularly hostile to the very idea of aboriginal rights and title. The “Douglas Treaties” of Southern Vancouver Island were the last covenants secured between the Crown and First Nations west of the Rocky Mountains until the Nisga’a treaty that came into effect on May 11, 2000.

A Songhees potlatch photographed in the late 1860s (Source).

Within a month of Douglas’s replacement as British Columbia’s governor by Frederick Seymour in 1864, the Chilcotin War broke out. A substantial body of “white” opinion held that the Tsil’qotins who fired the first shots in the war, in the Homathko Canyon, were at least partly animated by a terror of what was to come, with Douglas gone. On June 8 of that year the New Westminster Columbian newspaper editorialized that quite a few prominent colonists had formed a view of the Chilcotin War that “it is all owing to the withdrawal of a Governor whose long and intimate acquaintance and intercourse with the natives had given him a powerful influence over them which no other Governor could ever hope to exert.”

On the induction of Douglas’s successor as Vancouver Island’s governor, Arthur Kennedy, the African Rifles were first denied the right to participate in Douglas’s retirement ceremonies, and then banned from service in Kennedy’s honour guard. The all-Black Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps was disbanded two years later.

Then came the “pass laws” requiring indigenous people to obtain permits allowing them within Victoria’s city limits, and demands from the editors of the British Colonist that European men who married indigenous women be prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act, and the burning of Kwantlen, Sto:lo and Musqueam houses on New Westminster’s waterfront. Japanese immigration was effectively disallowed in 1908. The first Chinese Exclusion laws came into effect in 1923.

Potlatch bans. Federal residential schools. Within a generation, Douglas’ vision of a multi-ethnic colony living peacefully among self-governing indigenous peoples had been shattered in almost every way. 

On BC Day, it’s worth remembering what Victoria once was, and what British Columbia might have been.

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