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J.M. Dent and Company, a publisher of antiquity if nothing else in Canada, has a lot to answer for. When I was a child they were the source of Canadian history and they did a lousy job. So did the Department of Education of the day – shall we say the late 30s?

I learned nothing of British Columbia’s history until I took a 2nd year course on that at UBC. Even then, I went into the world beyond knowing nothing of little BC history except as it related to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

If I were to go around BC offering $100 to any who could tell me the name of BC’s first premier in exchange for those who didn’t paying me $10 I’d be rich! Maybe not rich, but certainly better off than many of the business deals I’ve done.*

From J.M. Dent and Company I learned about the Iroquois, Huron and Algonquin Indians including the heroics of Tecumseh.

I learned about Archibald Belaney, an English con man who came to Canada and pretended to be an Indian. We constantly were shown films he made, (In fairness, Belaney became a noted writer on the outdoors and was a true environmentalist. He married an Ojibwa woman and was a positive influence on young people.)

What I did not learn until law suits began flying, was a damned thing about BC Indian nations. I saw them from the egregiously bigoted conversations of my elders including my parents. Indians were shiftless drunkards who wouldn’t join the mainstream. It never occurred to them that our aboriginals didn’t want to be part of a national emulsion but wanted to retain their culture. My only contact with Indians was when I would fish on the Musqueum Reserve near where I lived.

It amazes me how we ignored native desires to retain their culture yet ignored the same thing happening with English people who clung to their nationalistic habits, dragging Canada into World War I, a war that had bugger-all to do with Canada.

Let me get to the meat of the matter. Is it any wonder that British Columbia was so long in coming to grips with First Nations issue when we didn’t even know who the hell they were? They spoke to us through a federally appointed Indian Agent whose control of Indian affairs was complete and seldom benign.

I first had contact with Indians when I moved to Kamloops in 1969 and soon got into public affairs which put me in contact with the redoubtable Chief Mary Leonard of the Kamloops Indian Band. I had a lot to do with her and the Band Council during the time I was in the legislature and cabinet of BC (1975-81) and learned how appalling my understanding of BC Indian nations was. My colleagues were no better reflecting the appalling interest of most British Columbians.

It was not until years later that I learned from Grand Chief Ed John about the multiplicity of languages involved and how he couldn’t understand members of an adjacent tribe but could understand Navajo natives in Arizona!

It’s said that “ignorance is bliss”. It may be for those who don’t care to understand the society in which they live but when a jurisdiction like BC is ignorant, all citizens of all backgrounds suffer greatly as they try to solve issues that ignorance has played such a large part in creating.

* John Foster McCreight

6 Responses to “From Rafe’s desk: BC history and First Nations”

  1. would have said James Douglas.

  2. S. Tait says:

    I am Tsimshian, but I am still called an indian by Indian affairs. I find it insulting that after all the time that has transpired since Columbus, that we still have to use the degrading term “Indian”. Canada is ONLY 143 years old. Our right to vote only 46. The name changes are par for the course and at the right times and places for them to occur in this young nations history.

  3. Bob says:

    A similar thought occurred to me recently. My (grade) schooling in social studies neglected B.C., and also the native people. It’s now clearer to me that they not only had to suffer massive loss of life from the white man’s diseases ( for which they had little natural immunity), but were also expected to understand and live by an extremely different culture that was totally foreign to their own. Governments and the populace of the time made little attempt to understand or sympathize. Rather, I recall, we kids were fed an unending diet of cowboys and indian movies, wherein the indians were the bad guys, and in a typical movie lots were shot. B.C. had quite a history that was not taught, even at any grade level. For example I read that the government awarded Robert Dunsmire, the Nanaimo coal baron, 20 % of all the area of Vancouver Island in return for building just 77 miles of railway (the E&N railway) from Esquimalt near Victoria to Nanaimo. This has been described as the most expensive railway in the world. The 20% of Vancouver Island has been sold and resold after each of maybe half a dozen giant companies took their turns clearcuting the trees, (and still are). The first nations on Haida Gwaii however have recently taken steps to protect their forests from government policies. The question arises, who cares for the land best? Young people in school still study some history of the Hudson Bay Co., but few would know it’s now not a Canadian company.

  4. Skookum1 says:

    I think I had those same Dent textbooks, Rafe, and that was in the 1960s. Even today, you won’t find curriculum materials that inclue much on BC, but will have all kinds of stuff on Central Canada, even on the Riel Rebellions (in passing), but BC history when it’s mentioned is boiled down to the railway labour and the headtax, the creation of Indian Reserves and residential schools, the Komagata Maru incident and the internment of Japanese Canadians. Not much else other than “BC is wacky and has extreme politics and lots of weird people”, said in other ways. Lots of important early history – the boundary disputes, the gold rushes, the Confederation/anti-Confederation quarrels, and the history of settlement in different parts of the province, is entirely passed over or generalized in such a way that, well, you can find more out about the Eastern Townships or Cape Breton than you’ll ever find out about BC, if you were to rely on Toronto-published materials.

    The universities are no help; BC history courses are few and far between, though you can get in-depth history of the Middle East, Quebec, Latin America, Africa…..but even when you find a prof who’s FROM British Columbia (a rarity in history) they’re mostly likely to be thumping an ideological tub on a specific topic, and do not have a handle on the full scope of British Columbia history. Typically, there’ll be a focus on “gender, ethnic/racial or class issues” and also too typically very one-sided. Or just picayune and irrelevant to reality-as-it-was, i.e. paradigms from modern ideology imposed on times and people they were irrelevant to. And a lot of lollipop-gee-whiz-we’re-sorry kind of breast-beating, and lots of “white people bad, visible minority/indigenous people good” paradigms.

    The useful histories of BC are the smalltown ones like those from Garnet Basque and TW Paterson, and lately the first-person accounts of native elders and materials like Major Mathews’ “Early Vancouver”. Only a few small towns in BC have strong awarenesses of their early history and, I think, some presence for that in the curriculum, at least informally. It’s pretty sad – “it’s important that kids in BC learn about other parts of Canada” is one nostrum that’s offered up as to why the 1837 Rebellions and the Durham Report and the Quiet Revolution and so on should be studied in BC schools, but without knowing anything about where you’re from yourself the history of Ontario and Quebec is largely as irrelevant to BC schoolkids as that of Florida or Texas (and frankly, Texas is more interesting LOL). Bc’s old-time connection to California is glossed over in books like Barman’s and Bowering’s, and much is made out of pan-Canadian-ness to the detriment of understand BC-as-BC….

    But while it’s easy to find coverage in curriculum of Quebec and Acadian and even Maritime history and culture, even Prairie history, just TRY and find ANY mention of BC in curriculum in those provinces – other than “the railway, the headtax, the Komagata Maru etc”.

    One typical Central Canadian attitude, I’ve heard expressed even by professors at BC universities, but also from Central Canadian academics (and journalists) is that BC “has no history and no culture worth speaking of”.

    So it’s not just native people whose history has been obscured and passed over, it’s all of us. And keeping people ignorant about BC continues into “contemporary history”, with the way the BC Rail Corruption Trial and other associated finagling and cheating being entirely kept out of the national consciousness by a virtual media blackout.

    then there’s a new attitude, I remember as being advanced by a high school teacher from Delta of Chinese origin, that Chinese kids should have more history of Chinese Canadians instead of history of “white people” or “the dominant culture”….which really cracked me up, since the curriculum currently dwells heavily on the injustices against Chinese Canadians and barely talks about white people at all (except as bad guys). The idea that “ethnic” kids should only be reading only “ethnic history” is repugnant to me…..history made into info-apartheid…..that very little in the way of BC historical materials, e.g. Begg, Howay-Scholefield, Bancroft, Ormsby, the Akriggs – has been translated into Chinese and other “New Canadian” languages only perpetuates the division of perception and history that’s underway.

    Stories have power, stories have truth, and history is composed of stories. BC kids should not only have exposure to native life and pre-Contact history (of which there’s a surprising amount) and of Chinese miners and railway labourers and merchants, but also to the stories of ALL setters, miners, ranchers etc. And of the many unique men and women individuals (not groups) who built the place, often by sheer force of will…..and the sources shouldn’t be modern politically-correct/vetted publications but books like Mark Wade’s “The Cariboo Road” or Blanchet’s “The Circle of Time” and Ralph Edwards’ books etc…..and Fr Morice’s history of the Norrthern Interior, and so much more. Not books from Toronto that say simple things like “BC joined Confederation because it needed a railway”, which is about all you’ll find in some.

    Doesn’t have to do with English vs. French, or any of the other usual paradigms of Canadian national history. Maple sugar, seigneuries, UELers……why do BC kids have to learn about this when they’re not learning about where they’re from themselves?

    I’m all for more native history and culture in our schools; but not just NATIVE history and culture……..and not history parcelled out by ethnic group, or controlled by any one ethnic group either…..

    This is the kind of discussion I’d love to have over dinner and drinks with you sometime, maybe, but I’m nowhere near BC these days….

  5. Jeff Taylor says:

    Don’t be so hard on yourself Rafe. Heavens knows we can’t be all things to all people – not even you ! I for one, am wondering what decade Canada’s Natives are going to take full responsibility for their own futures and run with it. They deserve the best future they can make for themselves. As for the re-naming of Stanley Park – NO.

  6. Kim says:

    When my son was in elementary school in Courtenay, they did a block of study on the rainforest. Of course they studied the TROPICAL rainforest. I approached the teacher with the question “We live in a rainforest, why not include our rainforest in your studies?” She agreed, and we arranged to take the class for a walk down to Puntledge Park, where I gave them a talk about the flora and fauna down there, including the native uses of the different species. Why is that so unusual?

    I was very lucky to have Sooke as my cultural heritage. There is a lady there at the Sooke Regional Museum who is a treasure. Elida Peers took on the keeping of the history there and as a result there is much information there, as well as a book called “4,000 Years, a History of the Rainforest”. Highly recommended. Also, if you are ever through Sooke, do drop in at the museum, it’s well worth it.

    Also, I’d like to share my thoughts with you that most of what’s written concentrates almost entirely on the British settlers, who all seemed to marry eachother. My great-great-grandfather was French or Metis, not sure which, but he landed as an “adventurer” with the HBC, took a T’Souke wife and proceeded to populate the area with working class people (lots of loggers and fisherman). Sadly, my generation was the first to not have any jobs in the forest sector.

    I feel pretty strongly that my ancestor would have assassinated GC and his band of outlaws, or at least voted them out!

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