Home Truths: Highlights from BC History
November 4, 2013
Review By J.I. Little
As co-editors of BC Studies, Richard Mackie and Graeme Wynn surveyed all the essays published in the journal since it first appeared in 1968 before deciding to focus on what they concluded were two dominant and complementary themes for this volume of “highlights,” namely the search by newcomers for a home and the concomitant struggle by Aboriginal peoples to resist dispossession in the face of the colonialist onslaught. Reflecting the fact that BC Studies is an interdisciplinary journal, the majority of the eleven essays in Home Truths were not written by historians, but — in keeping with the subtitle — the approach in most cases is a historical one.
To begin with the four essays on Aboriginal history, Cole Harris’s skillfully written “The Fraser Canyon Encountered” relies heavily on archaeological and ethnographic studies, as well as on the reports of the Sproat and McKenna-McBride commissions, to describe the rapid transition from a densely settled canyon in the early nineteenth century to one in which the indigenous population was radically reduced in size as well as culturally dislocated. Daniel Clayton, also a historical geographer, shifts the focus northward to the lower Skeena, examining how the Coast Tsimshian “became ordered as objects of discourse” in the three major settlements of Fort Simpson (a fur trade post), Metlakatla (a missionary settlement), and Port Essington (a salmon-canning town). That discourse shifted from an interest only in the Natives’ collective economic motivations to an expressed desire to change their daily lives as individuals, and, finally, to attempts to subject them to government regulation.
With Michael Thoms’ essay on fishing and colonialism at Pennask Lake, we have a worthy example of the exciting work being done by the province’s environmental historians. The story Thoms relates is not only one of displacement of a traditional Native food fishery by a group of wealthy American sportsmen in 1929, but of the hubris involved in attempting to engineer the lake to produce larger fish for the fly rod. The displacement theme shifts to Vancouver with Jean Barman’s article on the “unsettling” of Kitsilano and Stanley Park. She describes how the Squamish families on the eighty-acre Kitsilano Reserve (known as Snauq) were essentially cheated out of their land by the provincial government in 1913, and how the Kwakiutl totem poles erected on Brockton Point in 1923 marked the removal of the last of Stanley Park’s Native residents, as well as replacing what Barman refers to as “indigenous Indigeneity” with a sanitized Indigeneity imported from elsewhere. It is rather ironic, then, that the Squamish recently decided to generate revenue by erecting giant commercial billboards on the ten acres they reacquired from the CPR under the Burrard Bridge.
In choosing the theme for the other part of this collection, the editors were inspired by George Bowering’s literary essay, included in the volume, which argues that the “unifying and informing symbol” for this province’s culture is “Home, or more specifically, the attempt to find or make a home” (53). This would seem to be a given for any colonization zone, but Bowering himself points to what I (as an “immigrant” from eastern Canada, myself) feel is more characteristic of the non-Indigenous population of this mountainous continental fringe, namely, a sense of rootlessness. Referring to the principal characters in the novels he examines, Bowering, himself, writes: “People in BC are less likely to feel trapped in their families than to be several thousand miles from them or working with them on a patch of land out of sight of the next family” (54). Implicit in this statement is the sense that — unlike the early nineteenth-century Irish and Scots who migrated in kin groups to the eastern part of the country as economic refugees — many of those coming to British Columbia were seeking to escape the confines of “Home.” The fictional characters whom Bowering discusses may be looking for a home, but it is generally one that is utopian or Arcadian in nature, and therefore not attainable.
The utopian theme is central to the Finnish settlement of Sointula on Malcolm Island, though Mikko Saikku’s article describes how that ideal was eventually abandoned by those who sank roots there. As we learn from Nelson Riis’s article on Walhachin, the environment proved to be even more challenging for the genteel English settlers who attempted to create an Arcadian orchard economy in the arid Thompson valley prior to World War I. Victoria’s Chinatown was certainly no Arcadia or Utopia, but the essay by Dunae, Lutz, Lafreniere, and Gilliland applies GIS technology to demonstrate that in 1891it was also far from being the insular ghetto of popular imagination. In their words, it was instead “a transactional space for social and commercial interactions between Victoria’s Chinese and non-Chinese residents” (212). Twenty-five percent of the city’s Chinese residents lived outside Chinatown, presumably motivated by the same desire for home ownership that made Vancouver what Deryck Holdsworth’s essay describes as a low-density suburban landscape. The frequency with which Vancouver addresses were changed, however, suggests that owning a house did not necessarily bring an end to the sense of dissatisfaction and rootlessness.
And the sense of rootlessness was particularly marked among the men described in this volume’s final two essays. Megan Davies studies the problems faced by, and posed by, the “lonesome prospector,” as well as the many unmarried loggers and fishermen, once they reached old age. She suggests that the state provided relatively generous assistance to these old men in recognition of their pioneering role in the province’s extractive industries, but also finds that it began to play a more intrusive role in their lives with the professionalization of social work in the late 1930s. Finally, we have Peter Harrison’s first-hand sociological account of the summer he spent in a logging camp on Haida Gwaii in 1979. The key elements of the subculture he found there were an emphasis on toughness or “manliness,” the insistence on a degree of freedom or independence at work, and the sense that work was central to the men’s self-identity. The older men, in particular, expressed little interest in the search for “home,” at least if one defines it as life with a wife and children in a permanent or semi-permanent residence. In fact, there isn’t a single essay in this collection that focuses on the theme of family or domestic space.
In short, while I can agree with the editors’ claim that “the struggle to belong, to overcome the sense of homelessness, has been particularly acute” (42) in British Columbia, I would add that there is considerable evidence in these articles that the newcomers also placed a high value on independence and material gain, and that many continued to feel restless and dissatisfied long after arriving here. In fact, one inescapable feature of this province, surely, is the degree to which owning a home outside the First Nations reserves has represented a speculative investment in real estate. But the editors are to be congratulated for selecting essays that not only provide broad geographic coverage and create a strong sense of time and place, but stimulate readers to think about the cultural identity of this province.
Home Truths: Highlights from BC History
Richard Mackie and Graeme Wynn, eds.
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2012. 460 pp, $26.95 paper