100 years of BC books

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British Columbia & Me

July 09th, 2014

Here’s historian Jean Barman’s acceptance speech for the 21st George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, presented at Vancouver Public Library on June 19, 2014. News of the award has appeared previously on this site.

Each year the $5000 award is suppoted by Writers Trust of Canada (Mary Osborne, Executive Director), Yosef Wosk, Vancouver Public Library and Pacific BookWorld News Society.

For info on the award, visit the PRIZES section of this site.

Jean Barman’s next book is a ground-breaking investigation of the early French presence on the West Coast, French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest (UBC Press 2014).

As part of the very prestigious George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, for which I am very grateful, I was asked to read from my upcoming book, French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest.

I will do so in a bit, but I first want to acknowledge some of those who have given support over the years. First and foremost is my family. We arrived here on my husband Roderick Barman, who is a historian of Latin America and more specifically Brazil, accepting an academic position at the University of British Columbia, and have never regretted the decision.

The province to which we came was both familiar and unfamiliar to me. As I explain in a history of British Columbia I audaciously wrote on finding none such was in print, and here I am quoting myself: “As a child growing up on the prairies…, I dreamt of faraway British Columbia. Totem poles and snow-capped mountains, as depicted in the pages of the National Geographic magazine, symbolized the west coast … I fell in love sight unseen with this west beyond the west. Only in adulthood was I fortunate enough to come to live in British Columbia. Residence has not dimmed the attachment formed as a child. British Columbia continues to fascinate, in part because it so often presents an enigma. Reality and perception, the geographic entity and its social construction, Vancouver as a cosmopolitan city amidst one of the world’s last frontiers – they all come together into an intriguing whole that is British Columbia.”

The success of The West beyond the West was in no way mine alone, just as it is with any book we write. By virtue of its publication by University of Toronto Press, British Columbia as a province was integrated historically into the national fabric. The West beyond the West’s more provincially oriented counterpart, British Columbia: The Spirit of the People, for which I was invited to write the text, was spearheaded by then premier Gordon Campbell, with the support of Harbour publisher Howard White, for the 150th anniversary of the British Columbia mainland becoming a British colony in 1858. I thank them both.

BARMAN Sandra Singh &  Jean Barman, Paul Whitney 2014

Jean Barman (centre) with VPL Chief Librarian Sandra Singh and former VPL Chief Librarian Paul Whitney.

As with these two general histories, my name may be on the cover but I am only one small part of a much larger process. Taking a chance on me as an author, along with University of Toronto Press and Harbour Publishing, each three times over, have been UBC Press also three times including the forthcoming French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women, New Star, and University of Hawai’i Press. These five publishers have enormously facilitated – indeed made possible — my writing life, and I thank them, just as I do UBC Press and several others for the ten books which I have co-edited over the years. We are who we are as writers and editors only because of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes with far too little recognition.

Every book we write belongs to many others as well as to ourselves, and I have accumulated obligations differently in respect to three kinds of books I have written.

Three books began with a trace created by a person of potential interest, in other words in the “selfies” of the day.
Three others originated in descendants’ stories.

The third kind of book, as with the British Columbia histories and the upcoming French Canadian book, is synthetic. It is my reconstruction of past events drawing on the sources at hand.

One of the three selfies projects interrogated a forgotten British Columbia writer, so I explain in the book’s introduction: “Given the silence in Canada, it is not surprising that Constance Lindsay Skinner entered my life through a side door. I did not search her out, nor would I have reason for doing so, not being a literary scholar. Her Red Willows sat on a shelf in the University of British Columbia Library next to a book I came to find. Intrigued by the title, I had a look. A puzzle formed in my mind as I scanned the pages. How was it that a novel, published in New York at the end of the roaring twenties, had a British Columbian setting and, moreover, considerable understanding of its subject matter, yet someone like myself who read widely on British Columbia had never heard of the author? Neither had colleagues to whom I proffered her name. I could not find her in any of the Canadian biographical dictionaries or literary histories that I checked over the next several months. It was only on… chatting at a summer garden party with Carole Gerson of Simon Fraser University, expert on the history of Canadian literature with emphasis on women writers, that I got my first clue. Carole said she had heard of some papers in the New York Public Library. My curiosity awakened, a year later I read through them.

“The Constance Lindsay Skinner I encountered in the Manuscript and Archives Division of the New York Public Library gave me pause. There she is a name to be reckoned with, assumed to be worth the attention that has been lavished on her. I came away convinced that her writing life merited attention.”

Connie Skinner’s story, it turns out, is sadly commonplace. Descended from one of British Columbia’s earliest newcomer families, she grew up in privilege as is evident from the family home on Robson Street, but even then could not survive as a writer. Hence came the move to New York City, where she realized her dream by evoking British Columbia in mild disguise as the United States.

As to why she acted as she did, let me quote again from the book: “Every nation acquires a canon, a set of writings and authors promoted by critics, academics, and anthologists as ‘great literature.’ The process of inclusion, and exclusion, is not neutral. Gender, class, race, and sexual orientation all play a role, as do taste, optics, and acquaintance…. British Columbia was during Constance’s lifetime a very long way away from central Canada, whose much larger, longer settled population determined it would have control of the literary game. … Another part of the silence has to do with gender. Even where women of Constance’s generation persisted in getting themselves published, theirs was what … [has been] termed a ‘literary half-life.’”

This evening I thank Constance Lindsay Skinner for her persistence, the UBC Library and Carole Gerson for leading me to her, the American publishers that considered it worthwhile for her to be part of their lists, and the friend who gathered up her papers on her sudden death to lodge them in the nearby New York Public Library.

With two sisters who also left me a trace in another version of the selfies of the present day, it was not as with Connie Skinner a matter of their departing British Columbia to make their careers, but the reverse. Jessie and Annie McQueen were teachers in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, earning $50 a term when they learned that in the far west they would get $50 a month. And so, in order to assist the family economy as was expected of unmarried daughters of the day, they hopped on the just completed Canadian Pacific Railway. Their mother was still very much in charge of their lives, to whom they thereupon wrote long letters describing every aspect of their new lives.

I came across a handful of the sisters’ letters while doing other research in the Nicola Valley Archives in Merritt and in the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, and intended to write an article, that is, until the Nova Scotia relative who had donated the letters, with whom I was in correspondence, told me an elderly grandniece lived near Victoria. I went to see her out of courtesy, only to be summarily informed: “You can’t do that.” She explained that she had kept out of the archives any letters that were the least bit romantic or sexy for fear of soiling the family’s reputation. With that she pointed to a large plastic bag on a nearby table

I did a lot of fast and, in retrospect, persuasive talking about changing times and the worth of women’s lives in their entirety, after half an hour or so of which she said I had decided her to bring the letters to the BC Archives the next morning. To my great relief, not only did she do so, but on condition they would photocopy them for me free of charge. I remain tremendously grateful for her decision, just as I do to the sisters for writing in the first place.

Then came the hard part. I now had over 500 letters the McQueen daughters exchanged with their mother, but what to do with them? Soon I was getting advice from Jessie and Annie, as I explain at the beginning of Sojourning Sisters:

“Two strong women have lived with me for a long time. They’re hung around the house, woken me up in the middle of the night, become real nuisances. Tell our story, they say. Parts of it I have already done [in draft], but they are not satisfied. Write it all down, they say, so we can be on our way. The time has come, they prod me, and so I do so here.

“Each of the McQueen sisters has told me what she wants me to say. She left a trace during her lifetime. Indeed, that’s how Jessie, Annie, and I became acquainted in the first place….At the same time, how a trace is turned in to a narrative gives the teller enormous power.”

As to what the sisters told me to write, let me share another short excerpt: “As sojourners intending to remain in British Columbia only over the short term, Jessie and Annie McQueen largely acted as they would have done at home. By virtue of doing so, they domesticated in two distinct but linked meanings of the word. They turned the frontier that was most of British Columbia in the direction of settlement and nudged the province as a whole closer towards the rest of Canada. The conversations the sisters had, [the lessons they set for their pupils,] the causes they supported, the friends they made,…all served, in small but incremental fashion, to encourage British Columbians to think and act in ways familiar to the sisters. It was through such means, rather than any single political act, although the Canadian Pacific Railway was very important, that the province was domesticated into Canada. The frontier receded and British Columbia became more like Nova Scotia, and more like the imagined community that was Canada, not in a single swoop but as a matter of accretion.”

In acting as they did, Annie and Jessie shared in the prejudices of the day, never more so than in respect to men recently brought to British Columbia from China to construct the transcontinental railway who now, short years later, made their living as best they could. The sisters were at one and the same time smugly superior and curious: “’I saw my first Chinaman … [he was] sawing wood – with his pig-tail twisted up round his head. This fellow as quite as dark as our Indians – but smaller featured, with bright black eyes.’ If men from China were exotic, women were even more so. ‘There are heaps of Chinaman in K.[amloops] and some women too. The latter are desperately low – no character at all. I saw three of them wending their way to the photographers one day – got up regardless, of course. They just looked as if they stepped out of a picture book….’ Jessie acquired [all the same] a certain appreciation of the role men from China played in the economy. Writing from Victoria, [there to take the provincial teachers examination]…, [she] sought to impress [her family back home] by her familiarity with things Chinese. ‘I like to peek in at the Chinese Laundries, they are so spry about their work. We pass them every day,’ …. Not having had letters recently, she rationalized that ‘I suppose they’ll come in a bunch ‘bime-by’ as the China man says.’”
A second book drawing on letters had a very different impetus. I got a phone call one day from a woman I did not know explaining how her mother was determined that her grandmother’s letters should be put in print just as they were written and needed someone reliable who would promise to do so. Those of you who know Louise Hagar, who long ran the bookstore Women in Print and still does so online, will know how persuasive she can be.

Once I realized that Louise’s great-grandmother was Emma Crosby, whose husband Thomas Crosby was the well known early Methodist missionary on the north coast, I was intrigued, even more so on consulting with a doctoral student of mine, Jan Hare, who now teaches at UBC, as to whether she was also interested in the project. I am white and Jan is Anishnaabe, which would give us a tempered perspective on a potentially difficult topic.

In our introduction to the book that resulted, Jan and I interrogate its title, Good Intentions Gone Awry:
“About Emma’s good intentions, there can be no doubt. It is also the case that by the time she left the north coast of British Columbia with her husband in 1897, her good intentions had gone dreadfully awry. The girls’ home, a mainstay of the Crosby mission, grew in its capacity to take in girls and transform the mission order within gendered spheres. While spiritual and moral direction remained the home’s goal, the means to achieving that end changed dramatically. The protection afforded to the girls became confinement, where rules and structure dominated the operations of the home. Girls came under surveillance to adhere to strict obedience and be guarded from what they might become if they returned to their families and communities without a suitable marriage partner. … Women might no longer be sold, as missionaries were convinced occurred up to the time of their arrival on the north coast, but they were no less valuable commodities.”

Jan and I thank Helen and Louise Hagar for letting us into the life of their grandmother and great-grandmother respectively, Emma for writing the letters, her mother for holding on to them, and Caroline Dudoward, descended from the Tsimshian family that nurtured the Crosbys, for generously writing a postscript to the book.

Three other books in which I also interrogate the enigma that is British Columbia had very different origins. They did not originate with a trace, but rather with descendants’ stories.

The impetus to Maria Mahoi of the Islands was then provincial minister Mel Couvelier, who I thank for wondering out loud to me at a government event whether academics were ever willing to do something useful and explained how he had once been told there was, to quote him, “Indian blood” in the family that was never to be mentioned and wanted to know if it was true. He later sent me the single piece of information he had, which was an uncle’s obituary, and it was this that led me to his great-great grandmother Maria Mahoi, born on Vancouver Island in about 1855 to an Hawaiian employed in the fur trade and a local indigenous woman, and to her daughter Ruby, who on leaving residential school was married off to a Belgian named Cuvelier who she soon abandoned along with her indigenous inheritance by escaping to Vancouver.

What started out as a favor became, with many descendants’ encouragement for which I am grateful, a book seeking at one and the same time to tell Maria’s story and to make a larger point, and again I am quoting myself:

“Maria Mahoi was an everyday woman. According to the ways we usually think about the past, her life counts for little. She doesn’t belong. She was a cipher in the larger order of things….
“The events going on around Maria Mahoi during her lifetime in no way depended on her for their happening. The gold rush of 1858, British Columbia’s entry into the Canadian Confederation in 1871, the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1886, population explosion and the rise of Vancouver–they would have occurred just as surely had Maria never been born. Using accepted bases for recognition, Maria had no accomplishments. She held no office, participated in no organized activities, wrote nothing, indeed was illiterate. She had what most of us would consider a hard life….Her death in 1936 went unnoticed. Whatever the measure, Maria Mahoi was very ordinary.

“But wait. Maybe the easy dismissal of Maria’s worth lies not with her, but with how we think about the past. Only a handful of us will end up in the history books as they are usually written. Most of our lives will be forgotten. We matter for naught, but not because of ourselves. The measure is wrong. The big events can take us only so far in understanding the past. Instead of leaving history to others, we need to claim it for ourselves. It’s time to take back the past.”

Descendants’ taking back the past has never been more in evidence than respecting Joe Silvey, a Portuguese immigrant arrived with the gold rush. It was Mark Forsythe’s midday BC Almanac on CBC radio, on which I have been a sometimes contributor, that brought us together. One day the topic was Vancouver’s original location of Gastown, and more particularly Gassy Jack’s saloon on Water Street. To make some point which I have now forgotten, I mentioned how Gassy Jack as an Englishman became part of Vancouver lore to the extent of having his own large statue, which I am sure we have all seen, whereas Portuguese Joe Silvey who ran a saloon at the other end of the block was completely forgotten.
But Portuguese Joe had not been forgotten.

Two weeks later I received a letter forwarded from CBC written by their teacher on behalf of two small boys who had listened to the show during the lunch hour and drawn this picture for me. Their last name was Silvey and they had never before heard anyone on the radio talking about their family, and wanted to know more. It was this request that with the help and support of descendants became the book.

But that is only the first half of the story. Not only have there been two television documentaries about Portuguese Joe’s life, one originating with the much larger Portuguese community in Toronto, the other with Portuguese state television, but Portuguese Joe is being returned to Stanley Park where the family once made their home. A large sculpture depicting him and his Squamish and Musqueam wife Khaltinaht and on her death his Sechelt wife Kwatleematt has been carved by well-known artist and Silvey descendant Luke Marston and is in the process of being erected at Brockton Point site where the family once lived.

Much the same sequence of events unfolded with Stanley Park’s Secret. The impetus was once again BC Almanac. This time I was talking about the various stories I had been told about once living in Stanley Park, which I discounted on finding nothing about it in Vancouver Park Board minutes. I was, in other words, behaving like a traditional historian by relying a paper trail.

My easy assumption was thereupon upended. Shortly after I left the studio, CBC got a call asking me to contact the individual. It turned out to be a woman whose mother wanted to tell me their Stanley Park story, and to bring a tape recorder. With, I hate to admit in retrospect, more than a touch of skepticism, I met the sisters and their mother Olive where she lived in the Fraser Valley, and we talked and talked and talked some more. As I was finally leaving at the end of a very long afternoon, Olive put a floppy disc in my hand, on which she told me she had written her life story, just in case I still didn’t believe her. “Now you are going to write the book, aren’t you?” I recall her telling me as I walked out the door. And I did write it after returning a big sheepishly to the several others who had shared Stanley Park stories and doing more imaginative research, including into legal records.

The launch of Stanley Park’s Secret in the Vancouver Museum brought together as many descendants as could attend, each of whom I thank this evening for making the book possible. Olive had sadly died, but knew the book would appear and would have, I know, taken special pleasure that it won that year’s award for best book about Vancouver.

As with Portuguese Joe, Stanley Park’s Secret has had consequences going well beyond anything we as authors anticipate. Robert Yelton, the son of the last woman to grow up at Brockton Point before families were evicted, determined on her death to erect a pole in her honour near her childhood home. Created jointly with Squamish, Tseil-waututh, and Musqueam carvers, the pole was raised at the entrance to Brockton Point’s other totem poles on a 2009 summer day. I thank Rose, Robert, and the other carvers.

One final story, attesting to the many debts I have incurred in my writing life, takes us full circle to my current book. No single individual has had a more enduring influence on my thinking than Carey Myers. He would come to the house and we would chat sometimes for hours on end, whenever he located another bit of hard got information on his two British Columbia predecessors, one he fondly termed “The Hawaiian,” the other “The Iroquois.”

The two consequence, as nudged on by Carey along with many other descendants, to whom I am tremendously grateful, have been Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest, co-written with fellow historian Bruce McIntyre Watson, and French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women incorporating Iroquois along with Canadiens from Quebec and men of mixed French and indigenous descent. Both books, as with the BC histories, are synthetic composites of multiple sources.

So it is we finally get to the promised reading with apologies to anyone who felt the pathway there was too long and meandering. Let me quote:
“Those of us who think about the past have a double obligation. On the one hand, we need to respect the findings of our predecessors. On the other, we must not let ourselves be so persuaded as to fail to consider other possibilities. The Pacific Northwest [which is the geographical focus of both books] is a case in point.

“Bounded by California to the south, Alaska to the north, Pacific Ocean on the west, and Rocky Mountains on the east, the early Pacific Northwest has been mostly passed over in histories of the United States and Canada. Well into the nineteenth century, this far corner of North America, home to many and diverse indigenous peoples, little interested outsiders apart from their acquisition of animal pelts, for which external governance was a hindrance. The region was only in 1846 divided between the United States and Britain,… [later] Canada, whereupon each country pinned its version of the past on the Pacific Northwest. …

“My beginning point [in this book] is a long generation of French Canadians who, I argue, together with the indigenous women in their lives and then their descendants have shaped the Pacific Northwest as we know it today. Mostly born between 1790 and 1830, 1,240 [men] whose names survive were attracted by the region’s first outsider economy, based in furs, up to 1858 when the last part of the Pacific Northwest acquired outside governance.

“Not only did French Canadians head to the Pacific Northwest, … two-thirds [of those with a choice to make] remained for as long or short as their lives might be. Until the early 1840s they made up the largest group of outsiders. ….

“French Canadians shaped the Pacific Northwest [in five important ways] ….
“They, first, facilitated the five overland crossings to the Pacific Ocean between 1793 and 1812 that together opened the region’s enormous land base to the United States and Britain rather than to Russia to the north or Spain to the south, both of which had earlier explored the coastline. ….

“Second, French Canadians drove the ensuing economy wrapping around furs. Regardless of where companies were headquartered, be it the United States, the former New France, or Britain, French Canadians formed the bulk of employees. ….

“Third, French Canadians, collaboratively with indigenous women, initiated the earliest agricultural settlement in the Pacific Northwest that was not wholly indigenous. …

“Fourth, when the time came to establish external governance, French Canadians’ presence ensured the United States would not get it all, as it sought to do, but that the northern half would go to Britain, giving today’s Canada its Pacific shoreline. …. [and bringing into being the future province of British Columbia]

“Fifth, French Canadians, along with the indigenous women in their lives, eased relations with indigenous peoples both within and beyond the fur economy. [as their descendants continue to do into the present day]”

As I write in a conclusion to French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women which applies equally well to all of the books I have written, for which I am being honoured this evening: “Once we extend our gaze beyond the English speakers who long determined how we would interpret the Pacific Northwest, we encounter a whole range of persons doing so. Be it indigenous peoples or later arrivals from Asia, Europe, and the Americas, individuals and groups have effected change by, as with French Canadians, being in the right place at the right time and behaving decently. Just as with all of us, actions have consequence, both intended and unintended. We need not be so beguiled by the dominant interpretations respecting the past that we fail to fail to consider other possibilities.”

Thank you.

One Response to “British Columbia & Me”

  1. theresa says:

    She’s an amazing woman.

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