Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

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James Douglas and the Colony of British Columbia

February 22nd, 2021

With the push to “Decolonize” society we might want to review how British Columbia came to be.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was the legal government from the 1820s. It operated under King George’s 1763 Proclamation that First Nations were sovereign. Up until the spring of 1858, there were no settlers, no religious missions and no military on the entire mainland of what we now call British Columbia. Employees had to return to Montreal to get paid.

Then 30,000 fortune seekers from the US arrived upon hearing news of gold. When they met native resistance they formed into military units, killed many and burned villages. The Aborigines Protection Society was a politically powerful group in London that was generally hostile to colonies except in the case of South Africa and British Columbia where they thought the alternative was worse. They lobbied for action.

There was a serious possibility that the US would annex British Columbia. Congress formally received a petition from BC settlers to do just that. Indeed within a decade the US would purchase Alaska and demand Britain hand over British Columbia in return for Civil War reparations. Foreign Secretary Granville refused and paid the US the equivalent of $300 million to keep the province out of the US.

South of the 49th, the US Army waged a dozen wars in the Pacific Northwest and moved native nations into distant reservations. James Douglas travelled the province meeting three large groups of First Nations to discuss the new Colony. Their greatest concern was being moved off their land.

Oxford Professor Herman Merivale had been a fierce critic of colonies. He was recruited to head to Colonies Department and recommended a new model which was instituted in British Columbia. James Douglas, part black with aboriginal wife and children was appointed first Governor.

Colonial Secretary Edward Lytton defined the new Colony based on two principles.

1. All native settlements would be reserved in place permanently. Douglas sent surveyors to map out the reserves on boundaries “as they may be pointed out by the Indians themselves”.

2. Lytton instructed that Douglas should welcome to British Columbia “all peaceful settlers without regard to nation”. British Columbia was one of the first jurisdictions to be explicitly multicultural from its inception. Outside of the reserves, native people could own property privately but this would also be available to settlers.

One of Douglas’s first acts was to invite 800 black people fleeing discrimination in California. He found a legal loophole to enable them to vote for the first time. He welcomed Hawaiians fleeing racist laws in Oregon and Chinese from California. Two years later a London Times journalist remarked that “there is no distinction made against them in these colonies”.

The Colony of British Columbia lasted only 12 years. Douglas’ democratically elected opponents unravelled many of his policies as soon as he was gone. They sent surveyors back to reduce the reserves and cancelled the ability of indigenous people to own land privately off of reserves. They turned their backs on the founding principles by mandating residential schools and banning the Potlatch. It would be many decades before British Columbia returned to the original ideals the Colony of British Columbia.

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