On May 22, the Saanich and Songhees indigenous people, whose territories host much of Greater Victoria, will ask their guests to honour the area’s most notable landmark by calling it with the same name as they do, PKOLS (p’cauls.) Settlers now call it Mount Douglas. Restoring the indigenous presence here would be a strong symbol of cultural unification or sharing.
Before April 1862, the indigenous population of what became British Columbia had no reason to think that its relationship with settlers would be any different from its mutually beneficial experience trading with the HBC. Then, suddenly, everything changed.
Films with a legitimate claim to the title “documentary” should have a sense of objectivity and be rooted in actual events. The word documentary, after all, refers to evidence observable outside anyone’s creative process. With any documentary, part of the creator’s contract with the audience is clear before even the audience takes its seat: in what they are about to see, viewers can expect information to have been given a higher value than entertainment or motivation. It does not follow from this that documentaries will be inherently boring.
What role did the 1862 smallpox epidemics play in the transition from indigenous sovereignty to colonial rule at “Comox,” often translated as “Place of Plenty.” Canadian academics commonly teach that European diseases swept North America ahead of settlement, leaving an empty wilderness to be occupied innocently by settlers. This is not what happened at Comox or throughout British Columbia.
On March 12, 1862, two smallpox carriers, each suffering only a mild case consistent with having acquired the disease deliberately through inoculation, arrived at Victoria on the half-empty Brother Jonathan from San Francisco. One went to New Westminster the next morning to begin the epidemic in each of the major newly urbanizing centers in the young colonies…at the same time and in the same way.
In 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?
Smallpox did not arrive at Port Douglas on the south end of the Douglas road at Harrison Lake until January. Then two merchants travelling down the Cariboo Wagon Road brought the disease to Lillooet. Tradition has it that the disease arrived in blankets that had been infected with smallpox and then repackaged as new for trade. As in other documented cases, such as that of John McLain who admitted taking smallpox-infected blankets to Tatla, those traders were also disease carriers.
Since no Colonial official had even contacted any Tsilhqot’in official before July 20, 1864, let alone begun treaty negotiations, it is impossible for any Colonial law to have become extended before then to Tsilhqot’in territory. What, then, led British Columbia to martyr these Tsilhqot’in officials before a crowd estimated at 250 in one of the largest and most dramatic mass hangings in Canadian history?
On Aug. 18, 1862, taking advantage of the Cowichan having fled “in the wildest state of alarm” as smallpox swept through the fertile land coveted by settlers, Governor James Douglas invaded Cowichan territory with gunboats, men at arms, surveyors and 100 settlers. Douglas had been trying since 1852 to subjugate the Cowichan so that he could give their land to speculators who would, in turn, flip it to settlers wishing to farm
It was my honor yesterday to meet Cecil Planedin. Cecil identifies himself as a Doukhobor wood-block printer. Doukhobors have hands on experience with religious persecution in Canada, with promises to minority communities made and broken, and with enforced assimilation. Like me, he was amazed to learn that a one acre mass grave of several hundred northern native smallpox victims in Victoria could go without being generally known.