B.C. Day: Why do we forget?

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VANCOUVER -- ON Aug. 15, 1803, in the former British colony of Berdice, now Guyana, a "free coloured" boy was born to John Douglas, a Scottish merchant, and Martha Ann Ritchie, a Barbadian creole. They named the boy James.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/08/2003 (7068 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

VANCOUVER — ON Aug. 15, 1803, in the former British colony of Berdice, now Guyana, a “free coloured” boy was born to John Douglas, a Scottish merchant, and Martha Ann Ritchie, a Barbadian creole. They named the boy James.

James Douglas would go on to become as significant a force in the shaping of Canadian history as Louis Riel, William Lyon Mackenzie, Joey Smallwood or Tecumseh. Among his many accomplishments, it might be said that he created British Columbia by the sheer force of his own will. But he is remembered dimly, if ever. There is an elementary school in Victoria named after him. That’s about it.

This being the “British Columbia Day” long weekend, it seems as good a time as any to reflect upon the importance of Sir James Douglas, Knight Commander of the Bath, and ponder why it is that he is so poorly remembered.

B.C. Day is as good a time as any, since Aug. 1 was also a civic holiday of sorts during Douglas’ term as governor of the crown colony of Vancouver Island. But back then it was called Emancipation Day, to commemorate the 1834 prohibition of slavery in the British dominions around the world, and it’s still a public holiday in Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana.

Western Canadians are notorious for feeling left out of the national conversation. British Columbians, at least if prime-minister-in-waiting Paul Martin is to be believed, are so downright alienated from the rest of the country that special (as yet unspecified) measures.are needed to make us feel more at home.

Maybe so, but we might make an effort of our own once in a while to consider why we came to be part of Canada, rather than the United States, in the first place.

The answer to that question is James Douglas, British Columbia’s first governor. It happened this way.

During the days before Confederation, B.C.’s future was not at all certain. In 1845, Americans elected James Polk as their president on a “54/40 or Fight” platform, in which he vowed to abrogate the treaty that concluded the War of 1812 and seize everything west of the Rocky Mountains as far as the present-day border between B.C. and Alaska.

Immediately to our south, Americans were bloodying their hands in a series of outrages that came to be variously called the Cayuse War, the Klamath War, the Salmon River Indian War, the Yakima War, the Nisqually War and so on.

We lived in relative peace. This is not to say that there wasn’t some bloodiness here in Douglas’ time, but most of it was confined to a nasty bit of business that came to be called the Fraser Canyon War, in which the Sto:lo and Nlaka’pamux people responded to the sudden influx of hundreds of belligerent American gold miners by decapitating at least 61 of them over a period of a few days in 1858 and floating their headless bodies downriver. And in that war, Douglas was, more or less, on the side of the Indians.

That was the summer that Douglas, fearing American annexation, unilaterally extended his authority, as Vancouver Island’s governor, to the mainland. A few weeks later, the Colonial Office in London approved the measure. And British Columbia, the colony, was born.

But that’s the short version.

The slightly longer version is rather more interesting, and it explains why Douglas was a truly great man and why it would be useful if we honoured his memory from time to time.

Here was a man, an “octoroon” in the parlance of the day, who arrived in what is now British Columbia as a 19-year-old Hudsons Bay Company clerk on a cold and bleak October day in 1825. After establishing his reputation as a fierce but even-handed adjudicator of company business, he married Amelia Connolly, the 16-year-old daughter of HBC trader William Connolly, from an old Quebec-Irish family, and Miyo Nipy, a Cree woman from Manitoba’s Burntwood River country.

After two decades of privation and hardship — only six of their 13 children lived beyond childhood — the Douglases were sent to Victoria in 1849 to run the HBC’s affairs on Vancouver Island, and also to allow James to assume command of the new colony as its first governor. By that time, Douglas had already become firmly set in his views about what this new society should look like, and he’d made those views well known to the Colonial Office in a lengthy treatise several years before.

A woman’s reputation

Medical care should be made available to all people, regardless of their race or status, he wrote. Child labour would not be tolerated. Neither would any form of slavery, which was common among coastal tribes. Runaway slaves should be given the full protection of the law. A woman’s reputation should not be impugned for merely living in a common-law marriage. The care of orphans was a societal duty. Aboriginal rights and title should be respected. Public charity should be encouraged.

Douglas was fluently bilingual. He had his children baptized in several Christian traditions — Catholic, Anglican and Methodist. When American miners swamped Victoria during the gold rush of the late 1850s, he saw to it that the streets were patrolled by the all-black African Rifles, a Victoria militia. When the nuns at his daughters’ parochial school forbade them to dance, he withdrew them from school, permanently.

The treaties Douglas signed with the first nations of southern Vancouver Island were the only treaties west of the Rocky Mountains until the Nisga’a treaty was concluded by the federal and provincial governments in the late 1990s. He regarded American-style democracy as a tyranny of the majority and, during the U.S. Civil War, sent a secret dispatch to London proposing that the Royal Navy seize American ports on the Pacific coast — and keep them.

What Douglas envisioned for British Columbia was the formation of a loyalist, mixed-race society of Orkney Islanders, black American refugees, Asians, Hawaiians (a third of the HBC’s workforce on the Pacific coast were of Polynesian stock), Scots, Englishmen and Frenchmen. And for a while, for a brief shining moment in history, that’s what it was.

But Douglas soon fell afoul of the white elite that was gaining ascendancy around him. The merchant class never felt at home with him or with Lady Amelia, the first lady, with her strange accent and her penchant for dinners of bitterroot and buffalo tongue.

Among the emerging white upper class, little but disgrace was seen in the legions of “half-breed” children British Columbian society was producing. Nothing but scandal was seen in the presence of scores of white women in Victoria cohabiting with black men, or white men who had happily settled into the domestic equivalent of families with Chinese men, who had just as happily taken up the business of “women’s work”.

Douglas lasted as the governor of the united colony of British Columbia and Vancouver Island until 1864. By the time B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, his approach to law, his ideas about settlement and his vision of society had been wholly overturned. It was as though everybody wanted to forget everything he had done to secure the peace and Crown sovereignty on the Pacific coast.

It has been the habit of historians to depict Douglas as cold, stiff and overbearing, loyal only to the HBC’s scruffy ancien regime, and hostile to “progressive” democratic reforms. For the most part, they have treated him badly. By the rest of us, he has been largely forgotten.

Forgetting is a thing that Canadians do all too well. It’s partly because of the overwhelming contributions to public conversation made by all those American voices to the south of us. It’s partly because of our bifurcated nature as a nominally bilingual country.

But these are convenient excuses.

In forgetting Sir James and Lady Amelia, there is no excuse.

Terry Glavin is a B.C. author, critic and journalist. He is the editor of Transmontanus Books and lives on Mayne Island in the southern Gulf Islands.

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