Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/11/2005 (5305 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
All the more reason, then, to take heart with the way British Columbia Lt.-Gov Iona Campagnolo and Washington state Lt.-Gov Brad Owen are quietly working to resolve a profound grievance between Canada and the United States that goes back almost 122 years.
The case involves the lynching of a 14-year-old Canadian boy, just north of the Canada-U.S. border, on a moonlit night in February, 1884. An American mob rode north, kidnapped the boy, and hanged him from a tree 130 paces north of the Canada-U.S. boundary, at Sumas Prairie, about 80 kilometres east of Vancouver. The mob then rode back across the border.
Canadian authorities went to extraordinary lengths to persuade U.S. officials to bring the lynchers to justice, but Canada's entreaties were rebuffed. British Columbia went so far as to dispatch two undercover detectives to infiltrate the American town of Nooksack, where the lynchers came from. The detectives returned with a list of the lynchers' names, along with overwhelming evidence implicating one of the lynchers in the very crime the boy had been accused of committing - the murder of a Nooksack shopkeeper. Still, the American authorities did nothing.
The boy's name was Louie Sam. He was from the Sto:lo Nation community of Kilgard, and while the memory of his murder lingered among the people of his village, pretty well everybody else had forgotten about it.
Then, last June, the United States Senate adopted a resolution confessing to its shame in having failed, when it mattered most, to enact anti-lynching laws. The Senate resolution apologized to the descendants of the 4,743 people lynched in the U.S. between the 1880s and the 1960s. The one lynching for which the Senate resolution does not atone is the lynching of Louie Sam -- the only documented case of lynching in Canadian history.
Around the same time the U.S. Senate resolution was attracting attention, a brilliant little documentary-drama, The Lynching of Louie Sam, was making the rounds of Canada's film festival circuit. Directed by David McIlwraith, the film's first major public screening was at the Royal Ontario Museum, in April.
That's how the Louie Sam case came to Campagnolo's attention.
Campagnolo is mindful of the constitutional convention that prohibits a lieutenant-governor from trespassing upon politics. But it was the Crown, and not the House of Commons, that held jurisdiction over Canada's foreign affairs in the 1880s. The British Crown didn't formally relinquish jurisdiction over Canada's military and foreign relations until 1931. This meant the murder of Louie Sam, and the disgraceful American intransigence that followed, was also an offence against the Office of the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia.
Campagnolo is known widely and affectionately among British Columbia's aboriginal peoples. She carries the Tsimshian name Notz-whe-Neah, (Mother of the Big Fin) and the Haida know her as Saan-naag-Kaawaass, or (Person who Sits High). She's not known for passing up opportunities to further the cause of aboriginal-settler reconciliation.
So, on Sept. 8, when Campagnolo was called upon to officiate at a formal Government House reception for a delegation of senior Washington state legislators, she began her remarks in French, offered some amusing and friendly comments contrasting Canadian and American traditions, and then gently raised a matter of unfinished business arising from the events of that February night in 1884.
After recounting the basic facts of the case, Campagnolo addressed herself directly to Washington's Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, and suggested he might want to consider the case an opportunity of sorts, a means of "putting right an historic wrong." Owen was paying attention. On Sept. 27, Owen wrote Campagnolo to say his staff would be looking into the Louie Sam case with a view to "reaching a positive resolution."
Owen's office is now working with two historians -- Keith Carlson from the University of Saskatchewan and Michael J. Pfeifer of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington -- to come up with a proper resolution to the case.
Pfeifer is an authority on the 23 lynchings that occurred in Washington between the 1860s and 1919. Carlson is an authority on Sto:lo history, and it was he and Sto:lo historian Sonny McHalsie who originally reconstructed the archival record of the Louie Sam lynching and its aftermath. Carlson and McHalsie both served as advisers to McIlwraith's documentary.
McHalsie, from the Fraser Valley community of Shxw'owhamel, is also the treaty director for the Sto:lo Nation. "I think it's great," McHalsie says of Owen's response to Campagnolo's gentle suggestion. "Of course, there has to be some kind of apology. That seems to go without saying. But I don't think anybody would say that an apology is necessarily enough."
Carlson doesn't think an apology is enough, either. Certainly, an apology is owed Louie Sam's family, and also the Sto:lo Nation, but there is also the offence to Canada's dignity that the affair represents. Carlson says he's considering proposing that the Washington state legislature adopt a resolution atoning for its complicity in failing to prosecute Louie Sam's lynchers, and also perhaps fund an annual scholarship for aboriginal students, or host an annual commemoration of some kind.
Washington's Owen calls the Louie Sam lynching an "unfortunate historical stain" in Canada-U.S. relations, and Campagnolo deserves much credit for having presented Owen with an opportunity to do something about it.
He should not flinch.
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