Prince George Citizen
Today is National Aboriginal Day and the history of First Nations, locally and across Canada, continues to be rewritten, expanded and challenged.
Two weeks ago, with news that the Law Society of B.C. was removing its statue of Judge Matthew Begbie from its Vancouver headquarters, the Eurocentric historians were outraged. There is no doubt that Begbie sentenced six aboriginal leaders to death by hanging for their role in orchestrating the deaths of 19 settlers in a raid. The controversy is over whether those chiefs were leading their people in a war over territory or merely murdering and thieving bandits.
The Eurocentric version is the latter, of course, because the former would be forced to acknowledge that white settlers were spreading far and wide through the region as if it was empty of people who had lived there for thousands of years and had long since claimed the land as their own.
That’s a more complicated tale and one that paints B.C.’s European settlers as plundering invaders. That’s also how the Tsilhqot’in and other area indigenous peoples remember those events of 150 years ago.
The controversy is also over Begbie’s legacy as a fair and compassionate justice, sympathetic in his writings to aboriginal title and the rights of native widows to access the estates left behind by their white husbands. That’s how legal scholars and colonial historians remember him, which is why there are geographical landmarks and schools named after him. Those attributes, however, clearly didn’t slow Begbie’s hand from sending the offending chiefs to the gallows. And that is what Begbie is remembered for among B.C.’s indigenous community.
Last week, with the discovery of a skeleton in Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park near where a new pavilion will be built, competing histories collided again. In 1913, the village on that site was burned down and the people forcibly relocated to Shelley.
The cemetery was bulldozed. That’s the story told by Chief Dominic Frederick and his people, as well as the history told to visitors at the outdoor archway leading into the cemetery in the park.
The commonly-told local history, however, as recounted in a letter to the editor Tuesday, citing one of a long line of academic articles about the European settlement of the province, insists that the Lheidli T’enneh sold their land and willingly moved to Shelley. Everyone agrees the village was burned and the cemetery was plowed over but the colonial historians say those things happened after the land was bought to make way for the development of the area with the arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific railway.
Aboriginal history has been discounted since before Confederation and continues to be considered second-rate for one reason: writing. We’ve got it in writing is the argument used to justify the white history of the settlement of the B.C. Interior. Yet the written record has proven itself to be unreliable, inconsistent and prone to manipulation.
For example, in the written account left behind by Christopher Columbus and his officers, they looted valuables from the aboriginal populations they encountered at gunpoint and then came back the following years with more men and guns to enslave the people and torture and murder any dissidents. Within 50 years, the indigenous population of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) had been wiped off the Earth.
That is not the history taught to school children or to Americans who continue to mark Columbus Day as a national holiday.
The written account is ignored when it is convenient to do so.
Closer to home, we have the Franklin Expedition, a fine national example of how the oral historical tradition of the Inuit was far more valuable in the end than the written accounts of the British. The Erebus and the Terror, the two vessels that went missing in the search for the elusive Northwest Passage through the Arctic, were finally found more than 150 years after they disappeared, once the area Inuit and their knowledge were finally incorporated.
That process started in 1991 when David Woodman, not a professional historian but a B.C. Ferries captain, published a book of the Inuit testimony of what happened to the Franklin Expedition. That testimony was hardly a secret.
The first British search party, led by John Rae, returned to England with bones, relics from the ships and eyewitness accounts from the Inuit.
That testimony was discounted because it included tales of cannibalism.
When those stories were made public, the British establishment of the day simply couldn’t accept it. Novelist Charles Dickens led the charge in The Lost Arctic Voyagers, essays where he romanticized Franklin and his men as brave martyrs to the Empire and reduced the “Esquimaux” to thieving savages who made up stories to cover up their murders of the vulnerable British explorers (that depiction sounds eerily similar to the tale told in the B.C. Interior a short time later, doesn’t it?).
The result was that the entire Inuit account was disregarded, including the parts of where the ships were last seen before sinking. Modern science confirmed the cannibalism and then “discovered” the two ships but the Inuit are still diminished, even in the revised history. During his lecture in Prince George earlier this year at the Bob Ewert Dinner, Martin Magne of Parks Canada talked almost exclusively of the high-tech means to discover the vessels and learn the final fate of Franklin and his men, rather than the equally correct but far less thrilling, low-tech story the Inuit had told each other for generations.
The oral account is ignored when it is convenient to do so.And so it goes with history.National Aboriginal Day is a celebration of people and culture because it’s fun and easy for modern white Canadians to enjoy indigenous art, music and food.
Accepting the history is much harder but hopefully, in time, that too will change.