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“We’re distinct, too”: Woodcock’s history of B.C.

August 07th, 2012

Born in Winnipeg and raised in England, George Woodcock came to BC to farm near Sooke in 1949.

Following a brief stint as a ditch-digger and some time as a university teacher, he has survived mostly as a self-employed writer for the past 40 years.

His earlier books on BC include a 1952 narrative, Ravens and Prophets, followed by a definitive history of the Doukhobors (co-written with Ivan Avakumovic), a biography of Amor De Cosmos, a pictorial history of BC and a study of Native British Columbians, Peoples of the Coast.

“It is part of the pride of a man of letters to be willing to tackle anything,” he has said, “as long as one does it with dignity.”

Now with nearly 100 books to his name, Kerrisdale’s most famous anarchist has turned his hand to writing a definitive history of British Columbia.

It’s the first book of its kind to appear since Margaret Ormsby’s British Columbia: A History was commissioned to mark the 1958 centennary of the creation of the Crown Colony of British Columbia.

Not surprisingly Woodcock’s British Columbia: A History of the Province (D&M) reflects the regional biases of a man who likes to refer to himself as a British Columbian first and a Canadian second.

After researching our past, Woodcock now views BC as a distinct society full of people with a common desire and respect for individuality. Our election of so many colourful politicians can be traced to the widespread appeal of this maverick spirit.

“Eccentricity seems to pay off more in BC politics than anywhere place else,” says Woodcock, “I think British Columbians reach to eccentricity because it represents individualism.”

Modern political eccentrics such as teetotaler W.A.C. Bennett and ex-religious theme park owner Bill Vander Zalm have their historical precedent in BC’s second premier, Amor De Cosmos. Woodcock has previously examined this radical dreamer in his biography, Amor De Cosmos, Journalist and Reformer (Oxford University Press, 1975).

Born in Nova Scotia, De Cosmos changed his name from William Smith to the Latin words for “lover of the universe” in 1854. He developed a flamboyant style in the legislature and often had fights with his opponents “on whose heads he would freely use his heavy walking stick.” De Cosmos spent 19 years in the BC legislature. Shortly before he died in 1897, he was declared insane.

Unlike the rest of Canada, BC had no major organized political parties in the infancy of the province. The early BC legislature was comprised of shifting groups and many “loose fish” with their idiosyncratic viewpoints.

But Woodcock points out that our electorate did not always choose the most flamboyant politicians. Among early BC premiers were such dullards as Theodore Davie, J.H. Turner, and William Smithe – names better-known today as Vancouver streets.

Unlike most earlier BC history books, Woodcock’s book emphasizes the importance of Native history. He begins his book in “pre-history” – before written accounts – and then discusses Indian life with encroaching white settlement.

“Native culture went from splendour in the mid-19th century to the lowest ebb in population in the 1920s,” says Woodcock, “overall we’ve had a very bleak history of dealing with Native peoples. But I think that is finally beginning to change.”

Next spring UBC historian Jean Barman is slated to publish her own new history of BC, from University of Toronto Press. Barman and George Woodcock have had only a few full-length histories as precedents.

Reaching back to New Caledonia days, Father A.G. Morice’s The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia (republished 1989 by Interior Stationery in Smithers, BC) remains a scholarly and readable history of BC from 1600 to 1880.

In 1887, Hubert Bancroft published History of British Columbia in San Francisco based on events that happened between 1792 and 1887.

1894 was a good year for BC history books with the appearances of Alexander Begg’s History of British Columbia (Toronto’s Ryerson Press) and O.H. Cogswell’s title of the same name, which was published by Victoria’s “Colonist” Presses.

Native Indian past was not overlooked by anthropologist Wilson Duff when he published The Indian History of British Columbia in 1964.

Other major histories of BC have included Frederick William Howay’s British Columbia: The Making of a Province (1928) and an extensive two-volume study from Discovery Press by the Akriggs, who also published essential reference work on the place names of BC.

Essay Date: 1990

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