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.
It was this dramatic depopulation of B.C. in 1862 and the resulting degradation of power among the indigenous regimes which allowed the subsequent imposition of British law and institutions with little reactive native violence. Nevertheless, this change of constitutions at the founding of British Columbia took place without the consent of the majority, without political treaties and without compensation for the resources then unlawfully seized from the native occupiers.
No one can understand any of the current natural resource use controversies in B.C. or grasp the true issues underlying relations between Canada and B.C.’s indigenous population without understanding how we arrived at the current juncture.
These B.C. natives died in several massive smallpox epidemics. And from the collateral effects of those epidemics: economic collapse, famine and despair. According to the attorney-general, natives at that time “universally believed” the settler community, and its authorities, had imported the disease and methodically spread it to kill them for their land. This “universal” native judgment of genocide, or of ethnic cleansing, was based on the evidence of witnesses and survivors.
This narrative of a regime change having been the product of genocide, rather than the product of a just war or of mutual co-operation, is still the teaching of elders from diverse native communities. As I show at length in my book, nothing in the written record contradicts this teaching either. Indeed, if one applies the standard of proof appropriate to criminal cases, there is evidence in the written record which supports the elders’ version of B.C. history well beyond a reasonable doubt. This includes evidence of record purging and of false claims having been deliberately placed in the records.
Summarizing the native view in my own words, the smallpox epidemics should be understood as only the beginning of a genocide which soon became routinized or normalized in Canadian culture. After smallpox, natives experienced a period of great brutality: settlers drove them off all the desirable lands; Canada implemented regimes of religious, political and judicial persecution; native children were taken from their parents by force and suffered beatings whenever they might cling to their own culture; and so on. Native culture itself was to be eradicated through a forced assimilation; in part, because its survival would always raise the embarrassing-to-Canada question of how the original transfer of sovereign power took place.
In one sign that this is a still ongoing genocide, Canadian historians seldom mention the allegations of genocide “universally” held in diverse native communities. Nor do they commonly give credence to any discomforting evidence which might be preserved in local native traditions. Instead, Canadian historians typically promote colonial propaganda with little critical evaluation and with no self-awareness of the historians’ role in the service of genocide denial.
Yet honor and a self-interested commitment to truth require instead, at the very least, that the native history be told alongside colonial history. Currently, the authorized narrative of Canada’s history in B.C. not only continues the original crime of genocide, it creates a new crime of fraud against all other Canadians who are left unaware of the whole history and ignorant of their own circumstances.
Until we have undertaken the work of curing the cultural defect of Canadian society which makes anti-nativism and the denial of genocide acceptable, and which continues to create new harm among the indigenous Peoples, we cannot celebrate B.C. Day with a good conscience.