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Woodcock’s top ten B.C. characters

August 07th, 2012

During his lifetime, here Woodcock was variously described as “quite possibly the most civilized man in Canada”, “by far Canada’s most prolific writer”, “Canada’s Tolstoy”, “a regional, national and international treasure” and “a kind of John Stuart Mill of dedication to intellectual excellence and the cause of human liberty.” Woodcock’s oft-reprinted Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962) demystifies anarchism and views it as constructive philosophy; a biography of his dear but difficult friend George Orwell, The Crystal Spirit (1966), will also long remain in print. In addition to his literary work, George will be remembered alongside his wife, Ingeborg, for their dedication to charitable work, including the establishment of non-profit organizations – Trans Himalayan Aid Society and Canada India Village Aid – along with a multi-million dollar endowment fund to benefit Canadian writers in distress, administered by The Writers Trust.

The following essay is the last column George Woodcock submitted to BCBW before his death on January 28, 1995. Woodcock’s “ultimate hero” is the Everyman – and to many, the author and anarchist was just that.

No matter how many colourful and important individuals have appeared in B.C. history, I must begin my list of significant characters by saying the ultimate hero west of the Rockies has always been the ever-changing Everyman whom “historic” figures sometimes represent.

Thus if I begin by mentioning the Native chief Maquinna – who was encountered by so many Europeans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (likely Maquinna was not a single individual but at least two men bearing the same title in succession) – I’m really referring to the complex of Native life that Maquinna represents.

The importance of George Vancouver lies in the fact that he charted so much of the “new” world of the north Pacific (new to white society). But I cannot detach Vancouver from his Spanish rival and friend Bodega (whom we wrongly call Quadra) or from the many minor officers and seamen who rowed their boats into obscure inlets and many of whose names – English and Spanish – define the features of our coast.

James Douglas is another person who stands out in early B.C. history. He was the man who picked the site of Victoria, transferred the Hudson Bay Company’s headquarters there from American territory, governed the colony of Vancouver Island and virtually founded the colony of British Columbia, presiding over its transition from a fur trading domain into a mining colony.

Yet behind Douglas the administrator stood the countless traders and voyageurs who created the routes and built the forts of the fur trade; and later the Royal Engineers who built the Cariboo Road.

The gold rush produced some striking figures such as Matthew Bailie Begbie, the judge who sent much of his life in the Cariboo proclaiming the law with panache and often with compassion. But behind Begbie stood his Irish chief of police Chartres Brew an the constable without whom British Columbia would not have been saved from California-style vigilantism.

Billy Barker, the man who struck it rich at Barkerville and lost it all to calculating women was also significant. On my list he represents tens of thousands of anonymous miners who tramped out the pattern of our roads and drew farmers and ranchers to the province’s northern regions.

B.C.’s second premier, Amor De Cosmos, came from California with the Fraser River goldrush of 1858. He soon became British Columbia’s first fighting journalist, its leading advocate of entry into confederation and later a stalwart defender of local interests. He combined the role of the first of our federalists with that of the first of our separatists, when as premier he threatened secession because Ottawa had not kept its word over completing the CPL in the agreed time.

De Cosmos established the populist trend in British Columbia. The most interesting politicians since that time have been populists. Most notably there has been W.A.C. Bennett who smashed the old-line political pattern in British Columbia when he led the Social Credit to power. The Socreds ruled, well or badly, because people trusted them in a highly polarized society of an arrogant class of exploiters and an increasingly militant mass of workers.

Inevitably the polarization has thrown up its rebels. Here I will cheat slightly by mentioning two figures together; one who became a hero among the Native people and another among radical labour. Simon Gun-an-Noot, the Gitskan outlaw who spent 13 years in the bush avoiding the police was later found innocent of murder. Ginger Goodwin, the labour militant who went on the run to protest conscription in the First World War, was shot down by the police on Vancouver Island.

Politics, even the extra-parliamentary kind, has not been the sum of British Columbian life. The province has been large and challenging enough for people to live most of their lives outside of the political context, partly in an increasingly active life of the arts.

It is from the arts that I draw two more names; Emily Carr, the first major artists to paint here, and Ethel Wilson, the first major artist to write in British Columbia. Both of these remarkable women must be regarded as representative of thousands of artists who continue to contribute to the cultural reality of British Columbia.

Essay Date: 1996

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