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.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 10.21.52 AMWhether or not this might also succeed as a small step in healing the host-guest relationship will depend on the dominant community’s reaction. The current official name is an homage to Governor James Douglas, often supposed as the “Father of British Columbia.” Is it worth preserving?

On May 22, a hereditary Saanich leader will lead a procession up this landmark and actors will re-enact events from the day when the host-guest relationship began going wrong. On that day, about 161 years ago, there was a ceremony here with Douglas. As the local history has it, the need arose when a Saanich youth crossed some space newly occupied by settlers and a settler shot him. Some warriors then assembled to confront Douglas as the European guests’ representative. Douglas wrote that the Saanich people “came forward” when setters began stealing cedar trees to feed a lumber mill. These accounts are not necessarily exclusive.

As the highest point of land, tradition has this landmark as a setting for affirmations and reaffirmations of the space around that the Creator had assigned to the sovereign care of the various local People. And for other sacred occasions, like marriages or ceremonies for mutual recognitions of joint purpose. It was put to Douglas that, if settlers did not respect the Creator’s will and the law of the land, then the law demanded that they must leave or be killed. As the tradition goes, Douglas solemnly affirmed under the existing indigenous law that it was not the guests’ intention to offend the People’s sovereign authority.

The People believed there had been a meeting of the minds. They believed Douglas had promised to respect their sovereign authority and to compensate people for their harms or to pay for the use of resources. In return, the People allowed the settler community to stay. While the guests were still weak compared to the host communities, Douglas commonly would seal such agreements with blankets, clothing or cash.

Douglas on a pedestal. Langley Advance photo.

Douglas on a pedestal.
Langley Advance photo.

For his part, instead of just paying a royalty for timber, (as his account described the context,) Douglas’ notes say he “thought it advisable to purchase the whole of the Saanich Country….” One can see in this how relations between the People and their European guests then went wrong. No honourable or objective person would imagine that a meeting which began in a context of landlords demanding rent (again, on Douglas’ account) would resolve in a document where the tenant…for the same sum, mind…acquired control of a whole country and even obtained the landlord’s willingness to live as a tenant at will, subject to eviction without notice. This does not pass the test of probability. Even less so if the context actually was a meeting about settlers’ keeping the peace and respecting the law.

Between April 29, 1850 and Feb. 11, 1862, Douglas produced pieces of paper, some blank, for various local community heads to sign. But, rather than summarizing peace and payment agreements, these documents were cast as conventional English land sale agreements conveying rights of possession. Truly, they allowed only for Douglas seemingly to meet an obligation to the British Crown requiring him to purchase something of “native title” before he could allocate land to settlers.

With respect to the native constituency, however, these documents contained an implicit fraud. They implied, through this sale agreement, that the native signatories also had acquiesced in their political subjugation. And that their political rights now no longer derived from the Creator but from the British Crown.Yet, the Saanich or Songhees at no time had consented to any such constitutional change: neither documents nor local traditions contain any record of negotiating such a change or its terms. Imagine if, today, Chinese companies that signed agreements with Canada for access to oil and gas interpreted the clauses as implying that China actually had bought political control of Alberta. No Canadian court would ratify this sharp practise.

Following the preferred British mythology, Douglas was to purchase only “empty land.” However, in the result, these documents purported to convey all the land in perpetuity, except for some small spaces actually under native dwellings and enclosed fields…and not for periodic payments but for a one-time purchase price. Essentially, they also presumed that natives had agreed to a new economic system based on European-style agriculture. Nominally, these land sales left natives the liberty to fish and hunt on empty space until settlers had a desire to occupy it. But, in the result, backed by the constant threat of a large British military presence…and eventually by the dissemination of smallpox through actions of the colonial police…settlers crowded natives from virtually all their land, just as these documents envisioned. And, through taking control of their capital and depriving them of income, reduced natives to abject poverty and powerlessness in the economic and political shift.

Settlers soon changed the name by which they called this landmark from Cedar Hill to “Mount Douglas,” presumably to commemorate the roll played by his guile there in facilitating a settlers’ insurrection by fraud and stealth against the sovereign authority of their hosts.

As “Mount Douglas” this landmark has always been a symbol of exclusion. Fundamentally racist and white supremacist at the inception, Douglas’ conveyances (now called treaties in apparent recognition of the implicit political effect) had said, “the land itself becomes the entire property of the white people forever…”

When the Crown relieved Douglas as Governor in 1864, one of his last actions was to “occupy” Mount Douglas within the meaning of the conveyance. By having it surveyed, and the boundaries formally set, he removed this space from the category of land over which natives still had liberty to hunt. When the European guests held a farewell banquet in his honor  (See the British Colonist March 11-15,1864), Douglas gifted Mount Douglas to the citizens of Victoria…which further excluded the Saanich and Songhees hosts since the settler community had excluded them from political participation as citizens.

The banquet celebrating Douglas’ term was itself a model of racial exclusion. “Coloured people” were denied tickets. It seems unrecorded whether other “non-white people” tried to buy tickets.

No Saanich or Songhees representative spoke at the farewell banquet. Natives generally did not respect Douglas. June 8, 1864, The British Columbian reported that natives called him, “He gives many good words but never performs.” One could provide many examples of Douglas not keeping his word to natives…and this makes his version of the land transaction untrustworthy. Then, at the banquet, while every colonial institution or social entity received a toast, not a single mention of gratitude was recorded as expressed toward the indigenous population. Not a word. Two St’at’imc chiefs travelled to Victoria apparently to attend the function from a sense of politeness. But they were not invited to speak…and may not even have been able to purchase tickets.

Decent settlers have always detested the Douglas regime for its dishonourable character. While protesting the express exclusion of “coloured people” from the banquet, one writer linked this to protests against the judicial murder under Douglas’ supervision of seven Cowichan natives the previous summer. He went on to describe the political community created under Douglas’ leadership as a place that did not honor the essential equality of human beings as recognized in English customary law; and nor, despite his verbal pretences, did Douglas see that natives were treated with rights equal to those of British subjects in the colonial judicial system. Douglas had made no political treaties extending the Crown’s jurisdiction to Cowichan, and so they were not British subjects but, after some Cowichan applied their own law in killing settlers seizing land or feared to be spreading smallpox, his policy was indicative of his later treatment of the indigenous people. (From The British. Colonist, April 15, 1863.)

As the European guests gained strength in number and military power, and as Douglas began extending colonial jurisdiction outward from his base at Victoria, he soon stopped making land conveyances and token payments to secure access to native resources. Settlers began occupying the land of other native peoples or taking their resources without either treaties or payments while Douglas stood ready to back them with violence. This culminated in the settler community spreading smallpox during 1862/63 in an ethnic cleansing exercise that resulted in a massive depopulation. The Haida Camp at Cedar Hill (Victoria Daily Press, June 8, 1862), undoubtedly located there under local native protocols, would have been among the Haida expelled at Cadboro Bay June 11, most of these would then die at Bones Bay, just south of Alert Bay. These expulsions under the auspices of the Douglas Regime truly established colonialism in British Columbia and greatly contributed to the spirit of exclusion that still lingers.

It is a spirit that every decent person hopes to see overcome. Restoring PKOLS may provide some of the remedy. No one has anything to fear from accretions of Indigenous Nationhood and everyone has much to benefit. Retaining the name “Mount Douglas” is not a value worth preserving.

The evidence concerning the deliberate dissemination of smallpox and the expulsion of all natives from Victoria, local or otherwise, can be found in The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific, or in the documentary screenplay The Great Darkening.

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