B.C. roots of Idle No More passion: displacing the law among the Tsimshian

Idle No More in VictoriaIn the course of many Idle No More discussions there are references to broken and dishonored treaties. In British Columbia, however, there are few treaties. How, then, did the indigenous Peoples here lose their sovereign power?

In “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific,” I show that the key transition period for extending British institutions in most B.C. native territories was during or immediately after the smallpox epidemics of 1862/63. Natives then believed, and my book shows overwhelming confirming evidence from the written record, that the settler community deliberately advanced smallpox for the very purpose of subjugation and dispossession.

In the midst of the smallpox epidemics, the British Pacific colonies sent several conventional military expeditions against the host indigenous regimes. The first was Aug. 18, 1862 when Governor Douglas led a military expedition that landed settlers in Cowichan territory while the Cowichan had fled “in the wildest state of alarm” from smallpox. The dispossession and subjugation of the Cowichan came to a climax in summer 1863 when Douglas would martyr seven Cowichan on the streets of Victoria.

In September, Douglas sent two war ships and some marines against the Tsimshian. Smallpox had appeared among the Tsimshian villages near Ft. Simpson in May. This was the direct result of Douglas using the colonial police to force sick and healthy natives together onto canoes and then expelling them from Victoria accompanied by gunboats.

Steamers plying the coast also would drop smallpox carriers at native villages or invite natives on board where they would become exposed and carry the disease back to their villages.  This is what happened to Tayak, a Tsimshian warrior, after his family was invited onto a steamer.

All in all, it was clear to many natives, especially perhaps to the Tsimshian who had been expelled from Victoria to spread the disease, that the Pacific colonies had begun a war of extermination against their hosts. In self-defense, 500 Tsimshian fled their settlements near Ft. Simpson to a refuge down the coast. There they kept settlers and the disease at bay by firing on several boats attempting landings.

Then, on July 27, a party of Tsimshian from this camp, including Tayak, killed two settlers.  The survivor described it as follows:

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Notice, however, both that a state of war existed between these two social entities and that, since the Colony had made no treaties with the Tsimshian, the law still in effect in Tsimshian territory was the local law…and not English law. Since the Tsimshian would then go to heroic efforts not to surrender these three warriors or the woman they had rescued, we can assume the Tsimshian generally believed they had acted correctly; that is, that by killing these settlers, they had done nothing wrong.

British war ships appeared in September and would spend six weeks intimidating the Tsimshian by taking hostages, landings its force of marines, seizing food and canoes and so on. Critical to the exercise was that, depleted by smallpox, the Tsimshian did not have the number or presence to haul the main British war ship onto the beach and burn it as they suggested they might otherwise have done.

Eventually the pressure of defending the law and the integrity of their regime became too great. At first, two warriors surrendered themselves. This met the universal requirements of native law on the Pacific… the law still actually in effect: two settlers had died, two Tsimshian were surrendered to restore the equilibrium. However, this was not enough for Colonial officials. They were using the pretext of this event to implement the new law by force and not by treaties…and the new law required all three warriors to be surrendered for murder trials. The third warrior finally surrendered himself.

The three warriors were taken to New Westminster for murder trials. On further investigation, despite the effort used to arrest all four, it turned out ironically that the woman and one of the warriors could not be said to have participated at all in the killings. The evidence at trial all came from one of the warriors, neither of whom believed they had done anything wrong. The entire report of the trial in the newspapers was as follows.

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Judge Begbie’s notes confirm that no proper defence was provided. This was a mere show trial.  The smallpox context rated only one line in his notes as the reason offered by Tayak himself in his defence for killing these settlers. It was a defence sure to have been good under Tsimshian law, the law actually in effect at the relevant time and place. This coverage reflects the truth that the trial was only very minor compared to the precedent or policy established: the law of the land had been overturned and English law was now installed in its place.

Tayak was martyred in the second week of January 1863. Afterward, buried in the same graveyard would be a Heiltsuk named Jim, martyred in 1864 for killing a settler believed to have introduced smallpox at his village and the Tsilhqot’in Ahan, martyred in 1865 for killing a settler over smallpox at Puntzi.

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This example, repeated throughout British Columbia, explains the passion behind many native actions and in the support for Idle No More. Because of the unconstitutional and immoral means by which they were imposed, by force and with the assistance of genocide, Canadian law and institutions lack the necessary moral authority to be regarded as the legitimate sovereign power to most natives.

The fundamental issues here is a crises of sovereign legitimacy: whether the power claiming a sovereign right to make the rules has the appropriate moral authority in the heart of the governed to make these rules.

This lack of authority is so fundamental that it extends to the chief and council structure imposed by Canada on the native population. Hence the need for something like “Idle No More” to represent the “grassroots” where the true moral authority actually does reside; now still without formal representation for the most part because of the destruction of the traditional lines of authority in so many native communities.

More details about the use of smallpox among the Tsimshian in 1862 and, generally, throughout British Columbia, can be found in “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific” which is available on this website or via Amazon in Canada, the United States or the United Kindgom.

 

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About Tom Swanky

Tom Swanky is the author of The True Story of Canada's 'War' of Extermination on the Pacific. You can connect with Tom on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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