Posts Tagged 'first nations'

The rectification of names: Wakash Island.

After moving to Vancouver in 2012 I occasionally saw references in local media to something called the “Salish Sea”. I thought it must be an obscure body of water somewhere up the coast.

Finally I bothered to look it up, and it turned out the Salish Sea was the new name for what I grew up calling the Strait of Georgia. Or rather, as the inventor of the name explains, the Salish Sea encompasses the Strait of Georgia along with other adjacent bodies of water:

[T]he ecosystem science … showed clearly that the inland marine waters of Washington State along with the inland marine waters of British Columbia formed a single integrated estuarine ecosystem.

salish sea boundaries and watershed

Salish Sea boundaries and watershed. Map by Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute.

Though some are under the impression that it predates European contact, the word “Salish” has no connection to the area – it comes from a Montana tribe whose name was borrowed by linguists to describe their whole language family. The term “Salish Sea” dates only to the 1980s, and didn’t come into widespread use until the 2000s, when some aboriginal groups began lobbying for its adoption. In 2009 the name was officially accepted by the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and it was swiftly taken up by politicians, academics, and the media.

I generally disapprove of changing names for ideological reasons – for instance, because some hero of the past has fallen out of political favour. However, I do approve of changing names for reasons of clarity.

The Strait of Georgia was named after King George III. The year was 1792, and Captain George Vancouver had just arrived in the Pacific Northwest after surveying the coast of Australia, where he’d already left behind a King George Sound. Needless to say, King George never set foot in either corner of his domains.

There was nothing to prevent Captain Vancouver from coming up with a more distinctive name for the strait. There were any number of geographical features along the coast which had already been given ear-catching names by their native inhabitants, which he might have adapted to the purpose. But thinking up memorable, non-sycophantic names wasn’t how he got to be captain.

So I don’t think demoting the name Strait of Georgia is a great loss. But it’s confusing that the part of the Salish Sea that most resembles a sea – the broad part between Vancouver Island and the mainland – is still known officially as the Strait of Georgia; and that while the sea includes all the narrow appendages of Puget Sound to the south, for whatever reason it includes only some of the narrow appendages to the north.

Also I see that on Google Maps, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound are still prominently shown, while the new name has taken the place of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

salish sea google maps

Salish Sea, as shown on Google Maps.

So, as often happens, the result of the new name has been to increase confusion. Wikipedia links to a 2019 survey showing that only 9% of Washingtonians and 15% of British Columbians, when shown the body of water on a map, could correctly name it.

***

Lately I get most of my international news from the Daily Mail. Don’t judge me. When I get too irritated by the idiocy of the headlines I can always cast my eye over to the sidebar and take in some starlet modelling her signature swimsuit line.

I’m not very invested in the dramas of the British royal family, but I couldn’t help being annoyed, during the “Megxit” perturbations that dominated headlines earlier in the year, at the way Daily Mail writers kept referring to the “Vancouver” mansion where Harry and Meghan holed up during their retreat from their royal duties.

The mansion in question is actually located on Vancouver Island, a 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver.

meghan markle vancouver island

Meghan Markle in Horth Hill Regional Park, Vancouver Island, January, 2020. Source: Daily Mail.

This lack of precision is extremely irritating to British Columbians, just as it must be irritating to upstate New Yorkers when outsiders assume they live in the vicinity of Manhattan, or to Welshmen when outsiders refer generically to the UK as “England”.

But in all these cases the errors are understandable. Who would predict that Vancouver would not be on Vancouver Island?

Captain Vancouver has done pretty well for himself. He’s remembered by a big island, a world-famous city, a less famous city, a peninsula (in Australia’s King George Sound), a couple mountains, and numerous statues and monuments.

Unlike King George and some of the other bigwigs celebrated in BC place names – Queen Victoria, Prince Rupert, Prince George, and, oh yeah, Christopher Columbus – Vancouver actually visited most of the places named for him.

I have no wish to take anything away from his legacy. And yet I feel that he can afford to lose a Wiki page or two in the interest of reducing geographical misunderstandings.

The city of Vancouver wasn’t called that until 1886, when it was chosen as the terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Previously, when residents of the British Empire referred to “Vancouver” it was assumed they were talking about the island, which had been known by that name for half a century.

So in fairness the island ought to keep the name, and the city to come up with a more original one. But realistically I think if either is going to change, it must be the island. It would be different if there were many small islands off the BC coast, all of roughly equal size, one of them known as Vancouver. In that case people would be used to calling it by its full name to distinguish it from the rest.

But in fact there’s one big island, which most British Columbians refer to as “the Island”. Even residents of the smaller islands, Pender and Saltspring and Mayne and so forth, will say, “I’m headed over to the Island for the afternoon”.

So as with the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver Island can be renamed without creating too much friction in ordinary conversations. The downside is that precisely because the name doesn’t come up every day, it would take a while for people to get used to the change.

***

I wouldn’t be thinking about this at all except that – speaking of confusing names – I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with the various First Nations along the BC coast.

There are a lot of them, and it’s not always clear whether we’re talking about a single community, like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, population 257; or an entire culture, like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, population 3,500, comprising six band governments and dozens of reserves.

Additionally, many of them have changed their names – like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, which used to be called the Broman Lake Band; or adopted more “authentic” versions, like the Kwakwaka’wakw, who used to go by the less tongue-punishing Kwakiutl.

It was while reading up on the Kwakiutl and their near neighbours the Nootka – sorry, the Nuu-chah-nulth – that I learned about a name that appeared on some old maps of the Pacific Northwest: the Wakash Nation. [1]

wakash nation quadra and vancouver's island

The Wakash Nation shown on 1840 Oregon Territory map. Image source: Walmart.com.

The Wakash name was bestowed by Captain James Cook during his 1778 encounter with the people of what we now call Nootka Sound (which, of course, Cook called King George’s Sound):

Were I to affix a name to the people of Nootka, as a distinct nation, I would call them Wakashians; from the word wakash, which was very frequently in their mouths. It seemed to express applause, approbation and friendship. For when they appeared to be satisfied, or well pleased with any thing they saw, or any incident that happened, they would, with one voice, call out wakash! wakash!

As it happened, the name Nootka, from a phrase meaning “sail around” – as in, “Come park your boats over here, strangers” – was extended from the village to the entire culture. But in the early years, Cook’s suggestion was followed: the Wakash Nation appeared on maps well into the 19th century, and Wakashan was eventually adapted as the name of the family to which the Nootka and Kwakiutl languages belonged.

Wakash Island strikes me as a pretty good name. I’m not sure if any of the native peoples of the region had a word that referred to the entirety of what we call Vancouver Island; but even if they did, there were two major language families and at least a dozen different dialects there. Rather than privilege one over the others, it would be fairer to use a hybrid word that emerged through cross-cultural interaction.

Those who recall their Heritage Minutes will recall that the name “Canada” came about in a similar way:

There are a few hits if you search for “Wakash Island”, including this letter to the mayor of Victoria reported by the Daily Colonist in 1943:

james skitt matthews wakash nation victoria mayor andrew mcgavin

Vancouver archivist J.S. Matthews proposes a name change. From the Daily Colonist, February 21, 1943.

The letter writer wasn’t some random crank – that’s Major James Skitt Matthews, founder and longtime head of the Vancouver Archives. (Nor was he some soppy liberal seeking to make amends for Canada’s imperialist past: “a staunch patriot, he once fell out of his chair with rage upon glimpsing Canada’s new maple leaf flag”.) [2]

The only trouble with Wakash is that I’m not sure how to say it. I’m guessing “WAH-kawsh” – but the Catholic Encyclopedia offers the variant spellings wakesh and waukash, which makes me uncertain.

The danger is that some influential person suggests Vancouver Island be renamed Wakash Island, all the nice white people nod and say, “Yup, sounds good to me,” and then some indignant First Nations activist jumps up and declares that if we’re going to use a Nuu-chah-nulth word we have to use a Nuu-chah-nulth spelling, with two apostrophes, three diacritics, and a number 7 in the middle. Of course all the nice white people are too scared to say no, and we wind up with a name no-one can spell or pronounce, and more confusion than ever.

Maybe it’s safer to stick with Vancouver Island.

M.

1. Many of these old maps place the Wakash Nation on “Quadra and Vancouver’s Island”. Poor Quadra’s name would soon be dropped, but as David Paget points out, it’s still linked with Captain Vancouver’s in the name of a federal electoral district – appropriately, as the two captains’ relationship was built on diplomatic haggling over ownership of the coast.

2. It doesn’t really matter how Wakash is pronounced, as long as everyone agrees about it. Looking up archivist J.S. Matthews I came across this anecdote from the poet John Pass, who worked briefly with the elderly Major in the late 1960s:

I liked hearing him fulminate, for example, on the universal mispronunciation of Burrard, that the man for whom the street was named would be livid to hear us put the accent on the last syllable, Burrard. It was Burrard.

My previous post on the “rectification of names” touched on Chinese characters, the “Wuhan flu”, and The Neverending Story. I’m a big fan of the City of Vancouver’s online archive, which I consulted for a post last year on abandoned rapid transit plans and which was the source of many of the out-of-copyright film clips used in this music video.

The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party belatedly endorses Andrew Scheer.

In the 6th century BC, as the Persian Empire expanded under Cyrus the Great, the citizens of the various Greek settlements of Ionia, along the coast of Asia Minor, gathered to debate how the invaders could be resisted.

A famously canny fellow called Bias of Priene stepped forward with (as Herodotus puts it)

a most admirable suggestion which, had they taken it, might have made them the most prosperous people in the Greek world. The proposal was that all the Ionians should unite and sail for Sardinia and settle together in a single community; there, living in the biggest island in the world, they would escape subjection, rule over their neighbours and be rich and happy.

But the Ionians didn’t bite. Sentimentally attached to their homelands, they stayed where they were, and were conquered one by one by the Persians.

This wasn’t such a terrible fate. The Persians were fairly laid-back overlords. Many of those Ionian towns are still there, 25 centuries later, still populated by the descendants of those stubborn Greeks.

Most towns in the Canadian prairies date back no further than 150 years. How many of them will still be there in the year 4500?

***

The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party is an internet joke that – until now – never made it as far as the internet.

I came up with the idea years ago, when I lived in Saskatoon. My intention was to produce a mock political ad in time for the 2007 provincial election in which the leader of the party – me – would lay out a plan for the province’s million or so residents to relocate to a newly-built city in British Columbia’s sunny Okanagan region.

The trouble was that my supposedly whimsical evacuation plan struck me as a pretty good idea. Whenever I tried to write a script for my mock ad, I wound up getting bogged down in practical details, and it turned out more pedantic than funny.

As I saw it, the relocation would be funded by continued exploitation of the province’s mineral resources, leaving the bulk of the landmass to return to nature. By the time the petroleum, potash, uranium, and other reserves were exhausted – as they someday will be – our descendents, instead of lapsing gradually into poverty on the bleak and windy prairie, would be happily established in a big and growing city in one of Canada’s most attractive regions.

In the meantime, over the course of the multi-decade plan, outlying towns and villages, most of them withering already, would be deliberately wound down – their residents given priority relocation to the Okanagan, or else moved to more central locations, into homes vacated by those who had already headed west to help erect the new metropolis.

In the end, only a few small cities would remain at key points on the main east-west transport corridors – perhaps Regina, Moose Jaw, and Swift Current on the Trans-Canada highway; Yorkton, Saskatoon, and North Battleford on the Yellowhead. A few other towns could be maintained along roads leading to summer tourist spots like the Qu’Appelle Valley, Cypress Hills, and Prince Albert National Park. Elsewhere the buffalo would roam.

saskatchewan evacuation plan

Saskatchewan, after the Evacuation Plan.

I saw my vision as an extension of the American geographer Frank Popper’s Buffalo Commons proposal to restore most of the Great Plains to their natural state. The idea, which dates back to the 1980s, seems to have enjoyed a brief surge of media interest in the early 2000s, which petered out as the fracking boom brought new population growth to the northern Great Plains.

While I daydreamed about turning out the lights on my home province, I failed to notice that we were in the process of shifting from perpetual “have-not” to “have” status.

For my entire life – for pretty much its entire history – Saskatchewan had been a farm-based backwater whose finances heaved and yawed with the whims of the sun and rain, dependent on equalization payments from Ottawa to stay barely solvent. Overnight we became a swaggering energy superpower, airily tithing a fraction of our boundless fossil fuel wealth for redistribution to the less lucky provinces.

It was no longer the weather upon whose whims Saskatchewan’s fortunes would balance, but the international energy market. My newly prosperous province gloried in the boom times for perhaps a decade before the price of oil collapsed in 2014.

(The disaster had little effect on me. I had already instituted a small-scale Saskatchewan evacuation plan, by relocating in 2012 to Vancouver.)

From its nadir in 2016, the price of oil gradually recovered – before collapsing again this year, floored by the one-two punch of a Saudi-Russian price war and reduced gasoline use due to coronavirus. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the fossil fuel trade, but I’m told that Saskatchewan and its neighbour Alberta failed to reap the full benefit of the four-year recovery because of a lack of pipeline capacity. The federal government, wary of agitating environmentalists and First Nations, dithered over the approval of new pipelines, and continues to offer far less than full-throated support for the construction of those already approved.

The maligned fossil fuel industry was championed in the recent federal election by the Conservative Party, led by a bland, good-natured Saskatchewanian named Andrew Scheer, who, despite whittling Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals to a minority, was nevertheless deemed to have blown an easy win, and has since been nudged out of the leadership.

I didn’t vote for Scheer’s party. I didn’t vote at all. As far as I could tell, none of the leaders shared my peculiar viewpoint: that in the short term the federal government should help Saskatchewan and Alberta by making it easier to build pipelines, and that in the longer term Saskatchewan and Alberta should cease to exist.

***

I will come back to Andrew Scheer eventually. First let me take a detour through the 2015 election – the one that saw the previous Conservative leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, defeated by Justin Trudeau.

In that election, strange as it may seem to foreigners, one of Trudeau’s winning campaign themes was his promise to airlift 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada within the year. This was 15,000 more than the frosty-hearted Harper had promised to bring in. Trudeau didn’t quite meet his deadline, but he didn’t turn off the tap afterward – as of 2019, more than 50,000 Syrians had resettled here.

I can’t find any data on where those Syrians ended up living. Assuming they’re distributed in roughly the same pattern as other immigrants, about 60% of them went to Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver; another 30% were divided among Canada’s other thirty or so Census Metropolitan Areas, ranging in size from over a million down to 100,000; and the remainder of less than 10% went to smaller cities and towns.

I’d wager that no Syrians were resettled in Natuashish, or Attawapiskat, or Pikangikum – three northern communities known (to the degree that they’re noticed by the outside world at all) as sites of epic dysfunction.

There are dozens of tiny, isolated native villages dotted across Canada’s north, most in somewhat better shape than the ones mentioned above, others equally if less infamously afflicted with squalor, substance abuse, and suicide. Six months of winter. Six months of blackflies. Run-down, overcrowded houses. Unsafe drinking water. No paved roads. No jobs. Nothing for the kids to do but huff paint behind the general store.

I’m not sure it’s fair or accurate to say that growing up in such a village is worse than being stuck in a refugee camp. But I doubt that a family of dispossessed Syrians, evacuated from a camp in Turkey or Lebanon to a fly-in village in the Canadian Shield, would feel their situation had materially improved.

With respect to the Syrians, we had very little to do with their misfortunes. Whereas – while I’m skeptical of the narrative that places all the blame for First Nations dysfunction on the sins of colonialism – the least Canada can do for the populations it dispossessed is provide them the same opportunities the rest of us enjoy.

So why don’t we airlift the populations of Natuashish, Attawapiskat, and Pikangikum to Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver?

We took in 50,000 Syrians in a few years – many of them traumatized, lacking skills useful to a modern economy, and unable to speak either of Canada’s official languages. 50,000 is probably a decent guess at the number of aboriginal Canadians living in settlements unconnected to the highway or rail networks. I’d venture that the savings from consolidating them in a few big cities, rather than having to provide infrastructure and social services at dozens of remote locations, would in a few years more than cover the relocation costs. Throw in a guaranteed annual trip home to their traditional territories to indulge in some culturally enriching wilderness activities, and the government would still come out ahead.

There’s a chance my guesstimate is totally wrong, of course. As with my fanciful Saskatchewan Evacuation Plan, I haven’t actually run the numbers, nor would there be any point attempting to. However fiscally prudent depopulating the Canadian Shield might be, if the government were to actually propose it, the people affected would riot. They’d see it as a continuation of Canada’s various clumsy attempts over the years to relocate native people for their own good.

So the people of Natuashish, Attawapiskat, Pikangikum, and dozens of other places just like them, will continue to complain about failing infrastructure, high prices, and lack of access to services that big-city folks take for granted. And every few years, when the complaints get especially noisy, Ottawa will lay out just enough money to address the worst of the deficiencies. And things will grind on much as before.

***

If the Saskatchewan Evacuation Plan has a mirror image, it’s the Mid-Canada Development Corridor.

richard rohmer mid-canada development corridor

Richard Rohmer and a map of “Mid-Canada”. Source: Maclean’s.

Conceived in the late 1960s by Toronto lawyer Richard Rohmer, a politically-connected former fighter pilot who has been called “the most interesting Canadian alive”, the idea was to cultivate a chain of boreal cities in an arc from Labrador to the Northwest Territories, to “add a second tier to the country”:

What’s the alternative? Canada will have 100 million extra people a century from now. Where are they going to live? Do we just make every southern city as big and impersonal as Toronto? Or do we try to build a different kind of civilization farther north?

That quote is from 1969, when Canada had 21 million people. Even maintaining our present historically high immigration numbers, we’re going to fall at least 50 million shy of Rohmer’s forecast.

But Paul Ehrlich had just dropped The Population Bomb into the Johnny Carson-watching, Time­ Magazine-reading Middle American consciousness. In those days, everyone accepted that a future of overcrowding and scarcity was inevitable. If Canada couldn’t be bothered to populate, protect, and harvest the wealth of its underutilized north, some hungry neighbour would march in and take it away from us.

In the 1970s, as the Mid-Canada hype petered out, Rohmer began a profitable side career as a writer of bestselling bad novels, many of them concerning the American government scheming to take our stuff. 1974’s Exxoneration was (as he put it)

an attempt to point out and emphasize the growing need for vigilance and concern over Canada’s relationship with its good friends, the Americans, whose demands for our natural resources, especially natural gas, are increasing dramatically.

I came across my dad’s old copy of Exxoneration in the 1980s as a pre-teen already sophisticated enough to recognize that it was terrible. Still, for anyone with a boyish interest in maps, diagrams, and far-fetched what-if scenarios, Rohmer’s premises are hard to resist. What if the United States invaded Canada? What if Quebec separated and then the United States invaded Canada? What if Canada went bankrupt and had to sell British Columbia to the United States?

Plainly, Rohmer had a bit of a sci-fi streak. (It seems vaguely relevant to mention here that Flin Flon, Manitoba, the small mining town he identified as a gestational Mid-Canadian metropolis, is named for a character in a sci-fi novel.) His northern vision naturally attracted fellow visionaries, who would arrive bearing sketches of domed cities and atomic-powered dirigibles, which critics were happy to depict as representative of the whole. But this was caricature. I just spent an hour poking around in Essays on Mid-Canada (“Presented at the first session of the Mid-Canada Development Conference, August, 1969”), trying to find some harebrained predictions to make fun of. Nada. It’s all pretty tame.

In the 2000s I looked ahead and saw the gradual abandonment of the prairies. In the 1960s Rohmer looked ahead and saw roads and pipelines creeping into the Canadian Shield to carry its mineral and energy wealth southward. It might appear that our forecasts were in conflict. But not necessarily: the future might entail both a general abandonment of Canada’s less hospitable regions and a concentration of the remaining population in a few profitable corridors.

Therefore I’m fully on board with the Canadian Northern Corridor described by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. It’s Rohmer minus domed cities, plus buzzwords:

The guiding principle behind the corridor concept is the establishment of a shared transportation right-of-way, in which multiple modes of transportation can co-locate in order to realize economies of agglomeration (i.e. the benefits obtained from locating near each other, share costs such as those associated with surveying and negotiating land use agreements), mitigate environmental risks within a contained footprint and reduce the emissions intensity of transportation in Canada’s north and near-north.

The right-of-way could accommodate roads, rail, energy pipelines, electrical transmission and fibre-optic lines. It would hook in dozens of remote population centres – lowering freight costs and hence the cost of living – and create thousands of new jobs constructing the route, monitoring and maintaining its component parts, and providing services for the workers, truckers, and tourists who would travel on it.

canadian northern corridor population distribution

Population distribution, with potential Northern Corridor. Modified from “Planning for Infrastructure to Realize Canada’s Potential: The Corridor Concept”.

The Conservative Party found this idea compelling enough that they floated a version of it during the last election campaign. Andrew Scheer emphasized the benefit of getting all those wearisome reviews and consultations out of the way in one go:

With a single corridor, industry wouldn’t need to submit complicated route proposals for every new project. With a single corridor we could minimize environmental impacts, lower the cost of environmental assessments, without sacrificing quality, increase certainty for investors, get critical projects built, and create good-paying jobs.

In the months since Scheer’s defeat, we’ve seen energy projects hobbled by uncertainty at both ends of the mooted corridor. On the west coast, protesters stalled the construction of a liquid natural gas pipeline to Kitimat, BC. On the east coast, Warren Buffett’s company backed out of a planned $4 billion investment in an LNG facility in Saguenay, Quebec, reportedly due to “the recent challenge in the Canadian political context”.

Clearly there’s room for a politician with more charisma than Andrew Scheer to make a renewed case for the Mid-Canada Corridor. It needn’t be a Tory:

  • In 2003, northern Saskatchewan Liberal MP Rick Laliberte, inspired by Rohmer’s ideas, wangled $134,280 from Ottawa for a Mid-Canada Research Institute to develop “national policies and programs for the resource-rich Mid-Canada region”. (The institute no longer seems to exist. I hope the consultant who nabbed that $134,280 spent some of it up north – re-roofing his cottage, maybe.)
  • In 2016, the same year the School of Public Policy made its pitch for a Northern Corridor, the Northern Policy Institute published a parallel case – lighter on the pipelines and heavier on the aboriginal consultation – for a Mid-Canada Boreal Corridor. The author was left-leaning urban planner John van Nostrand.
  • In 2016-17 the Senate’s all-party Banking, Trade, and Commerce Committee held hearings on the Northern Corridor, agreed that it was a nifty idea – “[t]he federal government must seize this opportunity” – and recommended the establishment of a task force to study it further.

However many institutes and task forces get launched, I’m not holding my breath for a Mid-Canada Corridor. Forget about vast nation-building projects – between lawsuits and protests and blockades, at the moment Canadians seem incapable of building anything at all.

Perhaps an un-building project would be more in tune with the zeitgeist. On that note: if any aspiring politician is interested, the Saskatchewan Evacuation Party is looking for a leader.

M.

Last week’s essay about First Nations sovereignty and pipeline protests started out as a long-winded digression in the middle of this one. A couple weeks before that I wondered whether those attempting to preserve Canada’s aboriginal languages might be better off cutting their losses. Digging deeper into the archives, my one previous mention of Herodotus, in a reluctant defense of the movie 300, predates the creation of this blog.

Nation-to-nation.

Okay, it’s time to accept that this essay I left untouched for two months – a characteristically logorrheic three-parter that was going to touch on everything from E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project to leaky sewer pipes in Granville Lake, Manitoba – is not getting finished. The issues that animated it – particularly the anti-pipeline protests that were all over the Canadian news back in February – no longer seem terribly pertinent.

Update, May 19 2020: It turned out that all I needed to do to get past my writer’s block was carve out the bloated middle section – which became the present essay. The remainder became “The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party belatedly endorses Andrew Scheer”.

Nearly every day I pass by the provincial courthouse in New Westminster. It’s an unlovely 1980s judicial fortress looming over a courtyard called Begbie Square, until recently presided over by the effigy of its namesake, the first Chief Justice of the Colony (and subsequently of the Province) of British Columbia, Matthew Begbie.

It’s a pretty elegant statue, by Canadian standards, created by the Hungarian refugee Elek Imredy. I persist in using the present tense because I presume it still exists, crated up in a warehouse somewhere. Here’s Begbie Square after its cleansing:

begbie statue removal new westminster record september 12 2019

Let us all gather before our new idol. Image source: New Westminster Record.

Begbie’s crime, to modern minds, is to have tried and sentenced to death five members of the Chilcotin tribe (now more usually called, with varying degrees of diacritic fealty, the Tŝilhqot’in First Nation) found guilty for the murder, over the course of a few months in 1864, of about twenty whites – roadbuilders, settlers, and prospectors – who had penetrated their territory. This spasmodic series of butcheries, ambushes, and skirmishes, entailing the deaths of perhaps thirty men on all sides (including those executed), came to be known somewhat grandiosely as the Chilcotin War. [1]

As recently as 2017, the debate about Begbie’s statue concerned whether it should be “balanced” by the addition of a monument to the six Chilcotin martyrs (the five tried by Begbie at the town of Quesnel, and a sixth tried later at New Westminster). But as the wave of monument-toppling accelerated, this reasonable compromise was forgotten. By 2019 nothing less than complete obliteration of the villain’s name and image was deemed sufficient.

Whether the hanged men were tried fairly, according to 1860s rules of jurisprudence, I don’t claim to know. Certainly there were colonists who, inflamed by early reports of the massacres, would have sidestepped the formalities of the legal process:

[A]re we to stand idly by when dozens of Victorians are being murdered, and make no effort to avenge them or prevent further atrocities? The blood of our murdered countrymen calls loudly for signal and sweeping vengeance. It is mere folly to await the tardy action of the authorities. Let the citizens take the matter in hand at once – to-day! There are hundreds of bold, hardy spirits who would at once volunteer to march against the savage murderers; hundreds of rifles in the hands of Government, and hundreds of citizens who will cheerfully contribute liberally to charter a steamer to convey the volunteers to the scene of the thrice repeated atrocities, where let them not stay their hands till every member of the rascally murderous tribe is suspended to the trees of their own forest – a salutary warning to the whole coast for years to come.

But the trials, although brisk by modern standards, were not the judicial lynchings that might be suggested by lizard-brain emanations like the above. Of the eight Chilcotins who surrendered and were brought to Quesnel for trial, two were released by Begbie without charges, another was found not guilty on insufficient evidence and escaped before he could be tried on a different charge, and five were convicted based largely on witness testimony. One of the five was found guilty only of attempted murder – a crime, Begbie conceded, for which in England he would not have been hanged – but he was implicated in other killings for which no witnesses had survived.

As the judge wrote in a letter outlining the outcome of the trials to the colonial governor, Frederick Seymour,

All the 5 convicts have confessed their guilt of capital offences generally & of the offences for which they have been convicted in particular.

There’s little question that the five hanged men were all active participants in the killings, though it was difficult to assign responsibility for each specific gunshot or hatchet blow. As the killers saw it, they were resisting uninvited aliens who were deliberately spreading smallpox in their community. Begbie believed that an unidentified white man had tried to exploit the Chilcotins’ fear of the disease – which had wiped out as many as two-thirds of their tribe only a few years earlier – by threatening to unleash it on uncooperative natives.

The belief that Europeans introduced smallpox into native communities intentionally – rather than through negligence, as is generally admitted – used to be regarded as an unfortunate but forgivable misunderstanding on the part of traumatized plague survivors. Lately the revisionist view – that settlers, with the support of the colonial administration, in fact engaged in a policy of premeditated biological warfare, a crime that was successfully covered up for a hundred and fifty years – has gone mainstream.

Here for instance is Tom Swanky, author of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific (his scare-quotes, not mine), arguing that to dissent from the deliberate-infection theory puts one in the company of…well, guess who:

[I]f Canadians truly seek reconciliation and not to be seen as hypocrites, then educators who demonstrate “anti-indigenous-ism” should be treated just as we treat those who show “anti-semitism.” The rule of law requires us to treat genocide-deniers equally.

I haven’t read Swanky’s book. I’m not being dismissive when I call him a conspiracy theorist – which, by definition, he is. Like many such theorists, he knows more about his subject than most experts, let alone dabblers like me, whose research amounted to reading a couple of books and doing some Googling.

As a dabbler, I lack the wherewithal to investigate every 10,000-word, painstakingly-sourced webpage purporting to prove that, say, John McCain covered up evidence of POWs left behind in Vietnam, or that Israeli intelligence knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks, or (if I may be forgiven a timely parallel) that Covid-19 was stirred up in a lab and spritzed around Wuhan on the personal orders of the CIA or Bill Gates or whoever.

While theorists like the ones above must swim against a strong current of public skepticism, those claiming to stand up for indigenous rights are whisked along on wakeboards of cultural sensitivity. [2] For example, in his most recent post Swanky mentions that,

While exonerating the “Chilcotin Chiefs,” the Crown acknowledged, as a matter of historical fact based on reliable evidence, that settlers did spread smallpox intentionally to set in motion the colonization of Tsilhqot’in territory.

I scoffed when I read this. Surely Swanky was tendentiously misrepresenting BC Premier Christy Clark’s 2014 statement clearing the hanged men? Not really:

Many newcomers made their way into the Interior. Some of those came into conflict with the Tsilhqot’in, and some brought with them an even greater danger. That was smallpox, which by some reliable historical accounts there is indication was spread intentionally.

I didn’t realize that BC’s former premier had, on the floor of the legislature, endorsed the theory that her province was founded on acts of genocide. It’s not quite Swanky’s assertion that the colonial government deliberately infected natives under the guise of inoculating them, but it’s at least halfway there.

***

Some years after the trials, in a memorandum submitted to Canada’s Minister of Public Works, H.L. Langevin (another long-dead nation-builder lately demoted from respectability), Judge Begbie pinned the blame for the Chilcotin War on the white interlopers:

There has never, since 1858, been any trouble with Indians except once, in 1864, known as the year of the Chilcotin Expedition. In that case, some white men had, under color of the pre-emption act, taken possession of some Indian lands ( … their old accustomed camping place, and including a much-valued spring of water), and even after this, continued to treat the natives with great contumely, and breach of faith. The natives were few in number, but very warlike and great hunters. They had no idea of the number of the whites, whom they had not seen. They shot down every white whom they did see, twenty-one I think, including a trail party of Mr. Waddington’s – one or two escaped their notice. Six Indians were induced to surrender, and were hung.

The surrender of the Chilcotin rebels was brought about through a combination of threats and deceit; they apparently thought they were there to parley. Feeling some unease that this “annoying circumstance” might throw doubt on the justice of the verdict, Begbie went afterward to the leader of the rebels to clarify the sequence of events. The judge convinced himself that they would have come in eventually – they had been harried into the mountains and were short of food – and that the confusion over the terms of their surrender had no bearing on the fairness of their trial.

Mentioning this and other mitigating circumstances in his letter to Governor Seymour, who would decide whether the executions should proceed, Begbie concluded, “I do not envy you your task of coming to a decision.” (The governor did reprieve one of two Chilcotins who a year later “surrendered” under similarly dubious circumstances, and were tried at New Westminster under a different judge.)

In 1977, a few years before his courthouse statue went up, Begbie was the subject of a full-length biography, The Man For A New Country, by David R. Williams. In his telling, Begbie was an erudite, humane, and broad-minded jurist who stood up for the rights of the colony’s non-British population in general and for BC’s aboriginal people in particular.

A practicing lawyer, Williams looked closely at Begbie’s judgements and where possible reconstructed his reasoning from his handwritten trial notes. Summarizing his handling of the Quesnel trials – and particularly his allowing into evidence statements that were elicited as a result of the suspects’ “induced” surrender – Williams concludes:

At a trial today, it is unlikely any admissions of guilt obtained under these conditions would be admitted into the evidence, but in the nineteenth century, in spite of the existence of the exclusionary rule, the courts did not so often apply it to the protection of accused persons; Begbie, in ruling that the evidence could be heard by the juries, perhaps correctly as the law then stood, experienced nonetheless twinges of conscience.

And on a wider examination of Begbie’s record:

Begbie had such influence with the Indians that he could confidently assert: “I have never known the Indians deny the justice of a sentence arrived at in a Court of Assize of which I approved myself.” This influence stemmed not only from his fair dealing and from his admiration of the race but also from a genuine sympathy for the cause of preserving the Indians’ “rights” against the intrusion of white settlers.

This is – to put it mildly – no longer the received view. No new evidence has arisen: the old evidence is simply seen through a different lens. What new offenses the lens will uncover in a further forty-odd years, I won’t attempt to predict.

Ahan, the Chilcotin hanged at New Westminster, whose name and likeness may be installed in Begbie’s place, claimed in his testimony that he had acted under duress – that another Chilcotin had threatened to shoot him if he didn’t participate in the ambush of a group of prospectors en route to the Cariboo gold fields.

This was a reasonable and plausible defense, as the rebels appear to have acted out of varying degrees of zealotry, peer pressure, and fear of retaliation from their fiercer comrades. But such ambiguities have been scrubbed away in the urgency to elevate the martyrs to hero status. They are all granted the honorific “Chief”. Their less inspiring deeds, like the murder of Mr. Waddington’s road-building crew – slaughtered in their tents in the early morning by men they’d welcomed to their camp and chatted amiably with the night before – are simply left out of the picture.

This doesn’t make Ahan (who wasn’t present at the massacre of the road-builders) unworthy of commemoration. I hope his statue lasts longer than forty years. In any case, I look forward to the return of a human figure to blunt the hard edges of that concrete courtyard – though, given trends in the art world, I will be surprised if the replacement is as artful and attractive as Imredy’s depiction of Begbie.

***

I bring this all up in the context of this winter’s Canada-wide protests over a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. The controversy began with attempts by some hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people to block the construction of a pipeline to carry natural gas from Alberta to Kitimat, on the BC coast, along a route passing through their traditional territory.

The elected councils of the five Wet’suwet’en communities nearest the pipeline, along with those of fifteen other northern First Nations, have given their consent to the project and negotiated a share of the jobs and revenues it will create.

But the protesters claimed that the elected councils are responsible only for administering the few dozen reserves which together constitute a tiny part of the sprawling Wet’suwet’en lands over which, as they see it, the hereditary chiefs retain sovereignty.

In this view, the pipeline builders are foreign invaders, like the workmen who a hundred and fifty-odd years ago began building their road without securing, as we say nowadays, social license from the Chilcotin people.

I don’t say this view is wrong. In any case my opinion is irrelevant beside those of the judges and politicians who have, over the last quarter century or so, issued various rulings, resolutions, and misty-eyed avowals that Canadian First Nations retain some unspecified degree of sovereignty over their traditional territories.

How much sovereignty is up in the air, although one can’t help noticing that each new ruling, resolution, and avowal seems to concede a little more. From the Liberal Party’s winning 2015 platform:

It is time for Canada to have a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples …

We will immediately re-engage in a renewed nation-to-nation process with Indigenous Peoples to make progress on the issues most important to First Nations …

Maybe the authors of the above intended “nation” in the way it’s sometimes used to refer to the two cultural nations, English-speaking and French-speaking, that were once extolled as the founding races of Canada. It’s this limited definition of “nation” that most Canadians probably had in mind when they acquiesced to the use of the term “First Nations” starting in the 1980s – a symbolic acknowledgement that there were folks here already when the French and English showed up. [3]

Outside of the narrow realm of Canadian constitutional wonkery, most people hearing the phrase “nation-to-nation relationship” will visualize, say, Donald Trump stepping across the North Korean frontier to shake hands with Kim Jong-Un.

It turns out to mean the government of Canada begging to negotiate on equal terms with a handful of chiefs claiming to speak for five communities totalling perhaps 3,400 people. [4]

By the same logic that vilifies Matthew Begbie – that a minority of the Chilcotin were justified in using deadly force to resist an invasion by foreigners – surely the Wet’suwet’en protesters can’t be blamed for their non-violent resistance to the pipeline builders. You or I might prefer to ignore the hereditary chiefs and deal only with the elected councillors, who are far more amenable to democracy, capitalism, and the rule of law – our law.

But if we are foreigners, then whom the Wet’suwet’en appoint to speak for them is none of our business. They, or any other of the dozens of little sovereign entities that cover much of British Columbia, or any minority within any one of those sovereign entities who can convincingly claim the right to speak for their people, are free to tell us to take our pipelines, roads, rails, bulldozers, and personal selves, and bugger off.

I hope that this winter’s ructions will encourage parliament or the courts to mark out unambiguously who’s in charge of these entities, and to what degree their mystical utterances override Canadian laws. It wouldn’t bother me much if the courts declared that the First Nations were in fact honest-to-god nations all along, and that what we grew up believing to be the world’s second-largest country is actually a vast patchwork quilt of Tuvalus, Palaus, and San Marinos. If it comes to it, we can weave our roads and pipelines through the gaps between the little independent entities – but first we need to know where the entities end.

M.

1. How many died in the Chilcotin War? According to Judge Begbie, the death toll (not counting those later executed) amounted to “21 white men and 3 Indians”. Seems like he ought to have known.

However, I count only 19 white men – 14 road-builders, 3 prospectors, a settler named Manning, and a member of the expedition hunting the Chilcotin rebels. On the Chilcotin side were one warrior killed during the ambush of the prospectors and two others who later committed suicide – or perhaps one killed the other, then himself. Finally there was one Chilcotin woman, wife or concubine to one of the prospectors, who was in some versions of the narrative murdered by her own people for betraying their plans to the whites.

2. Almost a decade ago I spent days researching another controversy concerning put-upon indigenous people – in that case, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú, whose inflammatory accusations were being passed along uncritically by the media. In the end I decided that, lacking the time and expertise to properly weigh the evidence, I had better keep my big yap shut. I must be getting reckless in my old age.

3. Former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker vigourously objected when his own party endorsed the “two nations” usage back in the 1960s. He saw it as a threat to national unity. His objections were, of course, chalked up to anti-French bigotry.

But as Dief correctly foresaw, when you tell people they are a nation, they start to believe you.

4. How many Wet’suwet’en bands are there? What is their total population? Which of them do the hereditary chiefs claim to represent?

One site says the Office of the Hereditary Chiefs represents two bands, another site says four; their official website says five. Confusingly, one of their constituent bands is itself called the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. I made a spreadsheet to help sort things out.

british columbia six wet'suwet'en bands

British Columbia’s six Wet’suwet’en bands. Click for full size.

The council of Hagwilget Village, the one Wet’suwet’en band that didn’t sign an agreement with Coastal GasLink, is about 120 kilometres from the pipeline route. One source implies that Hagwilget was left out of the negotiations because it wasn’t directly affected, another says the band council was approached by the company but rebuffed them.

 

The rectification of names.

The Chinese government seems to have been successful in its campaign to guilt us into replacing the logical, easy-to-remember “Wuhan virus” with the turgid, clinical “Covid-19”.

Apart from everything else, it strikes me as a blown marketing opportunity for the city of Wuhan. When international travel picks up again, western tourists who would otherwise hop straight from the Great Wall to the giant panda sanctuary at Chengdu might be convinced to add a stop at Wuhan Virusland. The mascot could be a pangolin wearing a surgical mask. Ozzy Osbourne could star in a promotional video where he dips into a bowl of delicious bat soup.

But if Beijing has its way, in a year or two Wuhan – that insignificant provincial town, home to a mere nine million souls – will recede into the obscurity it enjoyed before the virus made it briefly famous.

We in the west are pretty clueless about Chinese geography. It’s partly because China was closed to the outside world for 30 years, partly because their language looks so forbiddingly strange, and partly because, in a test-run of the Wuhan/Covid guilt trip, we went meekly along with their decree that we should junk our old, familiar names for their towns and provinces and replace them with hard-to-pronounce Chinese versions – so Tsingtao became Qingdao, Canton became Guangzhou, Amoy became Xiamen, and so on.

(In his 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux is corrected by a government flunky when he refers to Peking and Canton. “I’m giving you their English names, Mr. Zhong,” he replies. “We don’t say Hellas for Greece, or Roma for Rome, or Paree, if we’re speaking English. So I don’t see the point–” But the flunky smoothly changes the subject.) [1]

Speaking of under-publicized tourist destinations, Zhengzhou is another huge city – almost six million people – that I couldn’t have placed on a map before the other day. That’s probably why I was unaware of this monument to the ancient semi-mythical emperor-heroes Huang and Yan carved into a mountain outside of town. Their faces are three times as big as the ones at Mount Rushmore.

Meanwhile in Changsha (population five million) there’s an oddly sexy 100-foot-tall bust of Mao Zedong. Or if you like your colossi a little shaggier, the 1200 year old giant Buddha statue near Leshan (a quaint village of 1.2 million) gives a preview of how Mao will look in a millennium or so, when the elements have done their work.

I was watching The Neverending Story with a friend a while back and when I saw the Ivory Tower – the fortress sprouting like a pistil from the shell of a hollowed-out mountain – I said, “How come our multibillionaires all live in boring suburban mega-mansions when they could be using their fortunes to erect cool fantasy architecture like that?”

But even if Jeff Bezos yearned to live in a hollowed-out mountain, he would never get away with it. For that matter, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t get the go-ahead nowadays. The local Native Americans would raise a fuss, protesters would converge, lawsuits would be launched, and after a few years the whole thing would be quietly dropped, as happened to that “grandiose” (actually, by Chinese standards, rather understated) statue of “Mother Canada” the Tories were talking about building in Cape Breton.

The Chinese, poor rubes, lack the sophistication to realize that enormous monuments to their heroes and heritage are gaudy and wasteful, and that developed countries have more important things to spend their money on, such as…wait a second, what are we spending our money on? Our infrastructure is rickety and inadequate. Our streets are full of homeless drug addicts. Our homes are full of cheap made-in-China crapola. Is it possible that all our extra wealth is going into inflated university degrees and pipeline litigation?

***

Ever since I moved to Vancouver from the Canadian prairies, I’ve had the vague intention of learning a little Chinese. Not enough to actually talk to people – I figure that’s unrealistically ambitious – but maybe enough to make out the gist of signs outside the many local Chinese businesses.

As I understand it – and I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification – Chinese characters, or hanzi, are built from ideograms representing ideas rather than sounds. Two quick strokes make a person; a few extra strokes denote a woman; two women side-by-side, hilariously, represent a quarrel. The concept of “big” is communicated by a little man, arms thrown wide, going “it’s this big!

Thus speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc. – can still communicate by scrawling characters on a piece of paper. Chinese travellers in Japan and Korea can also get along, to some degree, without knowing the local languages because hanzi (or kanji, or hanja) form part of the Japanese and Korean writing systems.

I’ve heard mixed reports as to whether Chinese languages are especially difficult for westerners to learn. I assume they are: on top of the usual challenges of learning a foreign A) vocabulary and B) grammar, you’ve also got C) a completely alien tone system and D) at a bare minimum, a few hundred non-phonetic characters to memorize.

Maybe if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker you need to learn A, B, C, and D together. But I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to disaggregate the various off-putting features of learning Chinese. Maybe you could, for instance, acquire a basic vocabulary without worrying about tones.

Consider English: every word has a stress that falls on one syllable or other, sometimes according to a predictable rule but often not. We say “AUTomobile”, “autoMOtive”, and “auTOMoton”, which is just something foreigners have to learn – but we can still understand those words if all the syllables are stressed equally, even if the result sounds funny and robotic to us.

The go-to example for the Chinese tone system is the sound “ma”, which in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, and “scold”, depending which tone is used. But those are pretty distinct concepts – couldn’t the listener figure out by context which is intended, the same way we do with “be” and “bee”, or “high” and “hi”?

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

[B]elieve it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.

But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself…don’t! It’s a big mistake! You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese. And the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.

You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.

But if “complete beginner” is all you’re aiming for – why not? There are a lot of people who, like me, might be interested in acquiring just a smattering of Chinese, who would be happy to take this shortcut if they knew it existed.

Likewise, maybe it would be useful to learn Chinese characters without learning a word of Chinese. Maybe we could absorb a limited set of hanzi into our language, which we could use to communicate across language barriers not only with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but with Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and so forth.

You might say, why import a bunch of antique, abstract, overly complicated ideograms from a foreign country? Why not devise a brand new set of simple, rational ideograms of our own?

Well, consider the fate of Blissymbolics, the hanzi-inspired, hyperrational universal language invented by a disillusioned Eastern European Jew during World War II. (It was introduced in a book called Semantography: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.) Blissymbolics caught on in a limited way as a method of teaching writing to handicapped kids in Canada, and nowhere else.

blissymbolics charles bliss

From The Book to the Film “Mr. Symbol Man”, by Charles K. Bliss. Image source. You can watch Mr. Symbol Man on YouTube.

That’s how it goes with a constructed language: absent a pre-existing population of speakers and a pre-existing body of texts, there’s little reason, apart from ideological enthusiasm, to learn it. With no-one to talk to and nothing worth reading, students grow bored and chuck it over. Whereas with Chinese you can just take the bus down Kingsway and every third or fourth storefront will present a new opportunity to test your vocabulary.

If our descendants ever do wind up adopting hanzi into the English language, it won’t be through the efforts of armchair theorizers like me. Attempts to benevolently direct linguistic evolution tend to backfire. For instance, the Chinese government “simplified” their writing system in the 1950s, reducing the number of pen strokes needed to draw many common hanzi. But in Hong Kong and Taiwan they ignored these directives, so that now many readers of “simplified” Chinese have trouble reading the “traditional” forms, and vice versa. Meanwhile the Japanese adopted some, but not all, of the simplified forms. (See also.)

This reminds me of the various ineffective attempts to preserve Canada’s endangered aboriginal languages. I can appreciate that aboriginal people would like to hang onto those languages. I think it’s a laudable goal. But to take a local example, there are 14 different Coast Salish dialects on or near the southern BC / Washington coast, distributed over an area smaller than Ireland. (The modern convention is to call them “languages”, but it seems that adjacent tribes could understand one another, though more distant ones couldn’t.)

squamish language road sign

The “7” stands for the number of people who can actually read this. Image source.

Left unmolested by Europeans, a single dominant dialect would eventually have emerged – or maybe the Coast Salish would have been conquered by some other, more unified tribe and had an alien language imposed on them, as happened to the Irish.

My point being, in my imaginary Coast Salish Republic, there’d still be at least 13 dialects regrettably falling into disuse, with old-timers in the sticks grousing that their grandkids didn’t know the words to the old folk songs anymore. But Coast Salish as a whole would stand a chance of survival. It would have enough speakers to sustain newspapers, a publishing industry, radio, TV, and so on.

My further point being, if there’s any chance of preserving Coast Salish now that its surviving dialects are mumbled by a handful of codgers each – it will be by picking one. But then, how do you get the 14 or more Coast Salish-speaking communities to agree to a strategy that involves 13 of them euthanizing an essential part of their culture for the good of the rest?

M.

1. Re Peking/Beijing, Kingsley Amis grumbled in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, under the heading “Didacticism”:

[T]hat right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion. Peking was an English word for centuries before it was suddenly replaced by Beijing, however you pronounce it; Ceylon has notoriously been replaced by Sri Lanka; Lyons has reverted to Lyon (Lee-on(g)) and Marseilles (pronounced Marsails) to Marseille (MarSAY, often with an attempt at the French uvular trill in the middle); Seville and Genoa have come a step nearer being pronounced in the native fashion. What about Brussels and Brussels? Ah, that I predict will go on as before. The British/English form conveniently steers between Bruxelles and Brüssel, the Walloon and Flemish versions of the name of the Belgian capital.

Mark Steyn once referred to this trend as “the reflexive multicultural cringe that automatically assumes any new, less familiar (and thus less ‘western’) name must be more ‘authentic'”.

 

A powerful heap of room.

In George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Redskins, [1] the seventh installment in the memoirs of the self-serving, sexually predacious Victorian mountebank Harry Flashman, we find our hero leading a wagon-train over the Santa Fe trail, joining John Gallantin’s gang of scalp hunters, [2] being adopted into a band of Apaches, escaping to civilization with the help of Kit Carson…and that’s just the first half, which sets off a chain of events leading eventually to Flashman’s scalping (non-fatal) at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In the wake of his narrow escape from the Apaches Flashman is understandably cynical about Indians, but big-hearted Kit Carson can wax sentimental over their impending dispossession:

“They’ll go, as the buffalo go, which it will, with all the new folks coming west. I won’t grieve too much for the ’Pash [Apaches]; they have bad hearts, and I wouldn’t trust a one of ’em. Or the Utes. But I can be right sorry for the Plains folk; the world will eat them up. Not in my time, though.”

I observed that the land was so vast, and the Indians so few, that even when it was settled there must surely be abundant space for the tribes; he smiled and shook his head, and said something which has stayed in my head ever since, for it was the plain truth years ahead of its time.

“An Injun needs a powerful heap of room to live in. More than a million white folks.”

***

The conservative blogger and columnist Steve Sailer, prolific coiner of grabby yet neglected catchphrases for underrecognized social phenomena, likes to refer to the Dirt Gap that contributes to the ongoing political polarization of the United States. [3]

The premise is that, while coastal cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York are hemmed in by oceans, mountains, or both, limiting their potential for geographic expansion, cities in the middle of the country, like Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta, are surrounded by dirt on all sides, and thus free to sprawl in every direction.

This simple observation predicts that, all else being equal, it will be easier in inland cities to find an affordable house within commuting distance of downtown. Young couples who’d like a yard for the kids to romp in will therefore tend to move inland, while childless singletons who don’t mind investing vast sums in one-bedroom condos are likelier to remain on the coast.

The inland dwellers will tend to vote for low-tax, pro-growth policies they see as sustaining their family-centred lifestyle, while the coastal dwellers will vote for high taxes to fund the generous welfare state they expect to care for them in their childless old age. These voting patterns will exacerbate the cost differences, driving more and more families away from the ever-pricier coast to affordable inland cities, accelerating the sorting process.

Hence, the Dirt Gap.

In last weekend’s Vancouver Sun I came across a good illustration of the Dirt Gap at work here in Canada. Freelance writer Lee Abrahams has been scraping by in the outer suburbs:

In the Fraser Valley, about an hour and a half or so from Vancouver, my husband and I live in a tiny home. We occupy 400 square feet with two young children and three pets, and pay a low rent to our family for occupying their property. My husband commutes more than two hours to work, each way, five days a week. …

In addition to the difficulties of tiny living, we face the same issues everyone else here does: astronomical gas prices, tax on goods and income, car insurance and the price of food. Car insurance in B.C. is on track to be the highest in Canada, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada as reported by Global BC. The price of gas in B.C. was the highest ever in North America this year, according to Gas Buddy.

Despite the challenges, they enjoy the perks of coastal living. But lately those perks are under threat:

[M]y husband and I take comfort in knowing we have beautiful scenery and abundant mountain hikes to relieve our stress. Nothing calms us more than crisp air and stretching our legs in the quiet forest. Except, the forest isn’t quiet anymore. The Fraser Valley has been flooded by more people having to move further east from the city for the reasons noted above.

So they’re giving up and relocating to dirt-rich Calgary.

Now, one modification I’d make to Sailer’s Dirt Gap theory is that while in the short term it seems to predict a balanced sorting of tax-’n’-spend subway-riders to coastal cities and guns-’n’-sprawl SUV-owners to dirt cities, in the longer term it winds up spreading coastal-style policies to every big city.

In the early stages of the process, when the price differential is small, it’s only the most rabid clingers to the low-density lifestyle who flee to the dirt cities. As the sorting accelerates, it’s not only dedicated sprawlers, but coast-culture folks like Lee Abrahams – mommy blogger, “tiny home” dweller, unironic user of the phrase “safe space” – who are priced out of their native environment and driven inland.

As more coast people settle in dirt cities like Calgary, bringing their culture and voting habits with them, the dirt cities become more welcoming to coastal refugees, who pour inland in ever-greater numbers, driving up prices, forcing the dirt-culture people further and further from the city centre, and eventually to smaller cities as yet unaffected by the Dirt Gap.

Now, I know it’s a bit gauche to compare these non-violent migrations to the conquest of the Plains Indians. I’m not trying to portray tax-harried suburbanites moving to Medicine Hat as the new Trail of Tears. But there’s an important insight contained in the observation that the Indians needed “a powerful heap of room”: one of the ways in which cultures vary is density.

The Indians couldn’t simply scooch over and make room for the white immigrants. Their lifestyle was based on following the wild buffalo around the wild prairie; even a smattering of settled farmers and ranchers made that untenable. In the early stages of the inundation the Indians could move further from the frontier, but no matter how far they retreated, the frontier snuck up behind. So they resisted; and the pioneers, who only wanted a little more elbow room than the overcrowded east could supply, couldn’t see why these backward savages struggled so desperately to preserve their old and inefficient ways.

“We’ve set aside reservations for them. We’ve offered to teach them how to farm. All we’re asking them to do is live as we do. Is that so terrible?”

But the Indians didn’t want to give up their low-density ways and take up farming, any more than Greg and Terri in Abbotsford want to swap their four kids, three dogs, and two-car garage for a used Prius and 700 square feet in Yaletown.

The Dirt Gap separating pioneers and Plains Indians was vastly wider than the one separating our modern cultural tribes. But the history of the Old West gives us a guide to how current trends will play out, as population growth drives migration from high-density regions into low-density ones: expect misunderstandings, conflict, and the ongoing retreat of the dirt culture into poor and isolated enclaves.

M.

1. Millennial readers who somehow get past the “redskins” in the title will no doubt be turned off by Flashman’s casual racism. They might not notice that for all his rough language one of the hero’s endearing traits, along with his good-humoured awareness of his own dastardry, is his readiness to see the good side of the alien cultures he encounters (usually accidentally, through recklessly pursuing some exotic trim). In our era, Flashman’s hypocrisy would manifest itself as prompt re-tweeting of the latest #MeToo meme; but in the 1840s it’s the superiority of Anglo-Saxon manners and morals that he publicly avows, while admitting to his readers that under the surface there’s not much to choose between his island tribe of ruddy-faced empire-builders and whichever rabble of cannibals he’s been kidnapped by this week.

2. “John Gallantin” is better known as John Glanton, driver of the remorseless sun to its final endarkenment and leader of the murderous gang in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

3. Re Sailer’s “grabby yet neglected catchphrases”. As he accurately predicted around the time he invented the term:

I fear, though, that despite the explanatory power of the Dirt Gap, the concept will not be widely discussed. The problem is that it’s too morally neutral. What people want to hear are explanations for why they are morally superior to their enemies.

In a post this summer I talked about the impact of Vancouver’s high rents and low vacancies on ordinary working folks. Last year I mentioned the rising cost of land acquisition as one of the factors making rapid transit infrastructure so prohibitively expensive to build.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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