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Enter, colonizing settlers

Barman's On the Cusp of Contact describes the unfairness of "the land grab we know as settler colonialism."

October 05th, 2020

Historian Jean Barman has become one of the province's most essential writers.

Her 16 essays are “thought-provoking” says reviewer Ian Chunn and give opportunities to ponder how the difficulties of colonialism can be resolved.

On the Cusp of Contact: Gender, Space and Race in the Colonization of British Columbia (Harbour Publishing $34.95)

Review by Ian Chunn

I was using my computer’s voice recognition system when I was writing this, and “cusp” kept coming up as “cost” – and indeed, there were profound human costs to the meeting of cultures in settler colonial B.C. This book brings together 16 essays by historian Jean Barman, published between 1995 to 2013, providing readers with many readable, clear, and thought-provoking opportunities to learn about the striking unfairness experienced by the less powerful under “the land grab we know as settler colonialism,” and to ponder how we ourselves might work to resolve some of the present difficulties that are its legacy.

Editor Margery Fee wanted to save us the trouble of tracking down the essays in library stacks, as she had had to do, and we owe her a debt for giving us such easy access to these enlightening, often prize-winning essays. Barman’s background as an archivist and librarian means she is not afraid to research under-examined resources, including oral histories, statistical records, family trees, and local history, as well as poetry, drama, and fiction; these sources provide great leads in the notes, for those who want to go further. (There is also an excellent index.) Fee notes that Barman says that anyone mentioned in the notes should be considered a co-author.

The result is a group of essays that are models of their kind, with an interesting statement of a problem, a clear statement of the approach, a compelling delivery of evidence and a concluding lesson about us and history (which we are part of).

The book divides the essays, whose content occasionally but usefully overlaps, into four sections: Making White Space, Indigenous Women, Finding Solace in Family and Place, and Navigating Schooling.


Making White Space

In “Race, Greed, and Something More,” Barman interprets her “unselfconsciously self-confident” colonialist sources to intuit “the perspectives of those being acted upon as well as those who considered themselves the actors.” Indigenous people living on reserves near growing cities were coming to be seen as “seriously inconvenient” (an 1862 Royal Navy officer in Victoria) and “a source of nuisance and an impediment to progress” (Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1911). However, the mixed-race offspring of Indigenous women on the Songhees reserve in Victoria mimicked the colonial discourse (Barman uses postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha to advantage), “gazed back at the dominant society in a fashion beneficial to themselves,” and made a good bargain for the land, a success which was echoed in Vancouver.

The Vancouver story is told in “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity in Vancouver,” which documents the ways that newcomers unsettled reserve lands at Kits Point and Stanley Park: “Most everyone agreed that Indians who did not use land set aside for them in ways consistent with newcomers’ assumptions had no right to retain it.”

Tom Abraham, a Squamish elder who testified on behalf of families living in Stanley Park at the trial seeking to evict them.

What the city wanted, and what the province helped them get, was both the land and a reputation for being Indigenous-friendly. The totem poles in Stanley Park – not Squamish, like the people who lived there, but Kwakwaka’wakw, from the northern end of Vancouver Island – stand as an example of what Barman dubs “sanitized indigeneity”: “The passion to rehabilitate the imaginary Indian who existed prior to the arrival of outsiders was very different from coexisting with real people.”

Drivers using the Burrard Bridge experience a solid reminder of that very coexistence: in 2002, the Squamish won a court case that saw the return of ten acres expropriated for the CPR, and as Barman writes, “Roadways free of billboards except when passing through an Indian reserve have become a staple of British Columbian life”; the billboards now so visible from the bridge are a present-day reminder that “the hasty erasure of indigenous indigeneity earlier is coming full circle.”

Indigenous Women

In Indigenous Women and Feminism on the Cusp of Contact,” Barman provides several vignettes from contemporary accounts providing glimpses that show Indigenous women acting as independent agents. From the time of Cook, whose crews were searching for the Northwest Passage, furs, and “women to bed,” we learn that “Except for women taken in war or otherwise exploited, Nootka women on the cusp of contact controlled access to their bodies.” As Barman remarks, “These accounts challenge the easy stereotype held at the time, and into the present day, of Indigenous sexuality as a commodity.”

Later records from Fort Langley are often limited and brief, but Barman finds “the daily post journal ‘pithy.'” She further explores its revelations regarding Indigenous women’s freedom of action in “Family life at Fort Langley.” In “Indigenous Women on the Streets of Victoria.” Barman thoughtfully explores patriarchal and colonialist responses to Indigenous women’s resourcefulness: “I am not so much doubting contemporary observers’ credibility as I am wanting to understand what newcomers saw, why they saw what they saw, and what were the consequences for Indigenous women.” Those women had “many…reasons for being on the streets of Victoria, be it selling beans… hawking clams, going about their everyday lives as the wives of Indigenous or non-Indigenous men, working for wages as a servant or washerwoman, or perhaps also getting a bit of cash from evenings in the dance halls.” Nevertheless, Barman argues, they were “harassed to the margins, for the most part off the streets of Victoria, just as they have been in most accounts of the colonial encounter.”

In a similar vein, “Taming Indigenous Sexuality” begins with reflections on the 1996 trial and conviction of Catholic Bishop Hubert O’Connor, charged with raping or indecently assaulting four young Indigenous women three decades earlier: “The more I have thought about Bishop O’Connor, the more I realize that those of us who dabble at the edges of Indigenous history have ourselves been seduced… We have become entrapped in a partial world that represents itself as the whole world.” What Barman would like to undo is “the campaign to tame Indigenous sexuality [that has] so profoundly sexualized Indigenous women that they were rarely permitted any other form of identity.” She sees “newcomers’ construction of Indigenous women’s sexuality” as central for understanding the period from 1850 to 1900, “when your, my, and Bishop O’Connor’s British Columbia came into being.”

Finding Solace in Family and Place

This third section does a brilliant job illuminating themes indicated in “Invisible Women: Indigenous Mothers and Mixed-Race Daughters in Rural Pioneer British Columbia” claiming “Acknowledgment of these pioneer women as part of our common history challenges one of the last bastions of the frontier myth” – that settlers were white, and not diverse.

At Fort Langley, “it was the arrival of children that forged long-term relationships.” The trading fort was not just a workplace, but included family life. Similarly, “Beyond Chinatown” draws our attention to “an alternative so obvious it should not have slipped from view:” Chinese men and Indigenous women forming families. Barman notes that both groups were “outsiders to the dominant society” so “their lives went largely unrecorded.”

Again, “Lost Okanagan” supplements the existing records by retrieving a whole generation of settlement, recognizing the first settlers as being white men with Indigenous wives. Here the lesson is that “The past, just like the present, is always being constructed in our own image… We are all victims of assumptions about what counts as history and what should not be revealed.… [W]e need to be aware that by protecting some sensibilities we are silencing other voices.” As Henry Pennifer remarks, quoted elsewhere: “‘Not white and not Indian but we look Indian and everybody but Indians takes us for Indian… It has been a complicated world.'”

Barman demonstrates that “The best history grows out of a combination of perspectives” in “Island Sanctuaries,” examining some successful mixed-race settlement on the Gulf Islands, and in “New Land, New Lives,” which draws on the community’s memories and on archives to examine the history of Hawaiians who settled in B.C. Canada granted them full civil rights – perhaps because of their work in the fur trade – and they often married into Indigenous families. The group remains enthusiastic about their heritage. In 1992 (in line with Canada turning 125), “The Hawaiian Connection” brought together 200 people, who learned that they had stories and sometimes ancestors in common – which meant some physical resemblances as well. I was touched to read, “One man quipped that, while looking for a parking space, he had seen his uncle nine times even though his uncle was long since dead.”

1905 presentation of the Roll of Honour at Isabella Point public school on Saltspring Island to Johnny and Sophia Palua’s son Willie, on the far left. Next to him is his teacher, and standing four people to the right of her is the Hawaiian known as Nawana and later Tahouney. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Archives.

Navigating Schooling

I first read a couple of these essays when I took a History of Education course, and I was glad to re-read them in the broader context of the whole collection. In “Families vs. Schools,” Barman uses the correspondence and diaries of school inspector John Jessop to trace how the ideology of common schooling, in  linguistically and ethnically diverse B.C. (where in 1867 the large majority of the population was Indigenous), was overwhelmed by the ideology of racism, with its assumption that non-whites would perform less well in any setting. Schools thus “almost certainly played a role in the process whereby attitudes of inferiority were internalized.”

We go further in “Schooled for Inequality,” which outlines flaws in the system of school governance, including under-funding and volunteer teachers (“One pupil shrewdly observed, ‘Mr. Hall wasn’t paid to teach us, I don’t think. I think he was just paid as a minister'”).

As always, Barman tells a good story with the data: for instance, school boards were often sympathetic to the idea of Indigenous students, but in 1893 a Victoria-area Superintendant wrote to one board, “‘If a single parent objects to the attendance of Indian pupils, they cannot be permitted to attend’ to which a School Trustee indignantly responded, ‘It is desirable that in every locality the relations between Indians and settlers should be friendly but this ruling is not likely to secure it.'”

Schooling could provide Indigenous students a chance to choose their own destiny, but white prejudice and lack of federal funding meant fewer opportunities for them to lead lives that would help overcome that prejudice. In “Separate and Unequal,” Barman writes about All Hallows School in Yale, where an initial period of mixing is changed to separation – in the classroom and the playground – as the federal policy for Indigenous peoples moved from assimilation to preparing “‘the Indian for civilized life in his own environment.'”One white girl describes the party around the Indian Christmas-tree: ”’We were not allowed to go to it, only to peep in through the open door for a little while…The Indian children…singing carols…looked very nice.'”

Barman quotes touching essays and letters from the Indigenous students: 12-year-old Emma, in “About Music” writes, “‘There is music in everything. Someone told me there was music too when everything was quite still, you could not hear that kind of music but you could feel it in your heart.'” And former student Mali, in a letter from 1900, tells us, with reference to a by-then illegal potlatch, “‘After an absence of many years, I went back to live among my people for a few months, and I saw again some of their customs which must appear to white people as very strange, and sometimes very wrong — but I think it is because they do not understand.'”

Barman writes, “The past cannot be undone, but it can be better understood,” and she highlights for us some of the difficulties still to be resolved: a lack of Indigenous teachers, not enough support for teaching Indigenous languages, and lack of appropriate Indigenous content in textbooks and the classroom.

Perhaps we could start with a book or biopic or TV series about my new hero, Sophie Morigeau – “Free Trader, Free Woman.” Barman’s essay uses the example of this extraordinary woman to explore identity negotiation – emphasizing that we all do it, all the time – as well as the relationship between agency and structure: here, familial fluidity, occupational flexibility and racial stereotyping. According to her contemporaries, Morigeau “was as fearless in her business dealings as any man;” further, Barman suggests, “as a woman of mixed race she used whichever identity was most profitable to her at a particular point in time.” She led a life in the Kootenays and in Tobacco Flats, trading and packing during railway construction and in the Wild Horse Creek gold rush. Was she tough? A little neighbour girl wrote retrospectively, “‘Sophie had a flock of big white geese on her little lake; and Sophie had a piece of one of her ribs hanging on the wall of her cabin with a pink bow tied around it, that she had amputated herself when it was broken and protruding after a runaway accident with the team and buggy… And she liked you, and ‘everybody liked Sophie.'” Barman’s takeaway: “No matter how different Sophie’s life was from our own, we must all find ways to negotiate the tension between the structures we inherit and our individual capacity for agency… Just as she affected those around her, she continues to influence all of us who are intrigued by her.” Allons à l’Ecole Sophie Morigeau (à Fernie) – it’s there because of Jean Barman’s work.

The itself book is robust and very well produced, with excellent illustrations. It is ideal for courses across a range of disciplines (history, sociology, education), but in fact, because it so successfully enriches our common understanding, I think it deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf. 978-1-55017-896-8

Retired college instructor and teacher, as well as former BC Book Prizes executive-director Ian Chunn reads and walks on Galiano Island.

An edited version of this feature will appear in the Winter 2020 issue of BC BookWorld.

Photo of Jean Barman by Laura Sawchuk.

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