This is the annual B.C. Day holiday weekend. However, before Canadians can celebrate B.C. Day with a good conscience, we have work to do. 150 years ago this year, perhaps 100,000 B.C. natives all died within a few months. Among some indigenous Peoples, such as the Haida, Tsilhqot’in, St’at’imc and others, the death toll was as high as 80 percent or more of their whole number. By way of comparison, the death toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is commonly estimated at less than 40 percent of those cities.
August 2 is the 150th anniversary of Victoria’s incorporation. In the weeks before, all natives had been expelled from Victoria and their houses burned. The colonial regime of James Douglas had decided natives would be allowed to remain in the European settlement only if a settler certified that they had employment.
At about 9:00pm on July 4, 1862, Francis Poole and eight men from what had begun as a party of 40 straggled into Ft. Alexandria in the geographic center of colonial British Columbia. Poole would say in his memoir that his party had been in hourly dread of attack by “hostile savages,” that one of his party had been killed by the Tsilhqot’in and that his party left a “sorrowful trail of blood.”
On June 10, after visiting Dr. Clerjon at the Ft. Rupert H.B.C. post on Vancouver Island, a party led by Francis Poole would begin introducing smallpox at Bella Coola and then along the route of the proposed Bentinck Arm road through Tsilhqot’in territory to the Fraser River. Within 30 days an eye-witness estimated 75% of the Nuxalk at Bella Coola were dead or dying from the disease. Over 75 percent of all the Tsilhqot’in people would be dead before year end, a sign of systematic introduction.
Two nations. Occupying the same land. Separated by an invisible wall. A wall nevertheless as certain as bricks and mortar. So a Xatsull elder once described it to me. The Tsilhqot’in Chiefs’ Memorial recognizes this bi-jurisdictional reality in a small way. I discovered the reality for myself at a Tsilhqot’in function this spring.
I began by visiting the Tsilhqot’in Chief’s memorial. To remember, at first, all those who died. Tsilhqot’in or otherwise. The Tsilhqot’in have a central role in this story but it affects all British Columbia natives. Yet this marker, hidden away at Quesnel, is the only one I know of touching victims of the 1862 genocide.