Posts Tagged 'matthew begbie'

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.

 


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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