Is it time to change the name of British Columbia? An opinion article in The Tyee, an influential online publication based in B.C., says it’s the right thing to do. According to the piece, the name “honours England’s racist colonizers” and “lionizes Columbus.”
The Village of Pemberton thinks the name should be changed too. They recently put a resolution forward at the Lower Mainland Local Government Association’s AGM calling for a petition to the provincial government to change B.C.’s name, claiming it only represents a brief period of the province’s history and fails to honour First Nations or the multicultural range of its settlers.
But in my opinion the name shouldn’t be changed. For one thing, Sir James Douglas, who did much to establish colonial settlement, trade, and industry on the West Coast, was anything but a racist. For another, part of his resistance to American expansionism was offering a haven to anyone who suffered discrimination south of the border, regardless of their race.
‘Father of British Columbia’
The Colony of British Columbia was named by Queen Victoria in 1858, united with the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1866 and joined Canada as a province in 1871. This brief colonial period saw the transformation of B.C. from an unroaded wilderness inhabited only by indigenous people and a handful of Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading posts into a thriving Canadian province, home to tens of thousands of settlers of all races and nationalities from the United States, elsewhere in North America, Asia, and Europe.
Douglas is rightfully recognized as the “Father of British Columbia.” Born in South America, the mixed-race son of a Scottish sugar planter and a West Indian woman, Douglas was educated in Scotland and joined the Canadian fur trade at the age of 15. In New Caledonia, the name Simon Fraser gave to mainland British Columbia, Douglas met and married his boss’s daughter, Amelia Connolly, whose mother was the daughter of a Cree chief.
By 1840, Douglas was Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, the Pacific headquarters of the HBC on the Columbia River in the vast Oregon Country under a joint American and British occupancy that stretched from Mexican California’s northern border to Russian Alaska, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
At the time, the U.S.-Canada border on the 49th parallel ended at the Rocky Mountains, but negotiations to continue it prompted Douglas to scout out a location for new headquarters on Vancouver Island where he was taken with Camosack, the original name for Victoria Harbour. Local Lekwammen people welcomed the establishment of a HBC trading post and were paid in blankets to cut pickets for the new fort’s walls.
In 1846, the 49th parallel was continued to the Salish Sea. Following the Oregon Trail westward in wagon trains, American settlers poured into the territory while, leaving the graves of five infant children behind, James and Amelia Douglas relocated themselves and their three surviving children to Fort Victoria.
Here they would be free from the persecution of U.S. race laws that declared all Caucasian men to be equal before the law but “negroes, Indians and Chinamen … not permitted to vote or to testify in the courts against white men.” Neither could they own land or intermarry with white people. Both Douglas and his family were categorized as “coloured persons” and, after almost 200 years of operating in North America, so were most of the other employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Fort Vancouver.
The Canadian fur trade created close alliances between the British and the indigenous peoples who brought them the valuable pelts. Many of the traders were of mixed-race backgrounds and, in a land without roads or trains, Hudson’s Bay canoe men were almost entirely mixed-race Métis and eastern First Nation. Mexicans employed as mule train drivers and Kanakas (Pacific Islanders) working in various trades added to the diversity. The U.S. race laws applied to them too, and the first “English” colonists of British Columbia followed Douglas north of the border to escape legislated racism, not to perpetuate it.
By 1851, Douglas was both a HBC Chief Factor and the governor of the new Colony of Vancouver Island. His correspondence reveals that he was a moral man who opposed slavery, prostitution, and child labour. He recognized indigenous peoples and proceeded in signing treaties with them as required by British law, but with more attractive lands further south and the dangerous passage around Tierra del Fuego between the new colony and the motherland, settlement was slow.
In 1858, everything changed. Word got out there was gold in “Frazer’s River” and veteran miners from California’s 1849 gold rush flooded into Fort Victoria. The first ship full of gold seekers more than doubled its population overnight, and they kept coming in by the hundreds to book passage on the steamboats that plied the Fraser as far as the head of navigation at Yale.
In the face of an ultimate invasion of 30,000 American miners, James Douglas rose majestically to the occasion. He was determined that New Caledonia would not become part of the United States. Without any formal authority to do so, he forced them to acknowledge the authority of the British Crown by extracting a $5 head tax for entering the colony and an additional $5 for a miner’s licence before they could board the steamboats.
In July of 1858, the New York Times commented on Douglas’s “half-breed wife” and urged American miners to bypass Fort Victoria and come overland via Oregon Territory to avoid paying the fees. Within a year, the American miners could declare themselves to be “free and independent and ask to be admitted to the Union.” However, with open warfare between the Yakima Indians and the U.S. Calvary south of the border, most of the miners came via Fort Victoria and paid the fees instead.
At the behest of Douglas, Queen Victoria proclaimed the mainland to be the Colony of British Columbia in August of 1858. “Columbia” was taken from the cross-border Columbia River named for the first ship to anchor in the river’s estuary, the rebuilt Columbia Rediviva, which in turn was named for the Lady Columbia, a female personification of American liberty who was supplanted by Uncle Sam, although Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures is still represented by a torch-bearing goddess figure and not a medieval Italian navigator. The name makes it very clear that north of the 49th parallel, the Columbia was a British river, not an American one.
Despite the proclamation of the new colony, the possibility still loomed that the miners would exterminate indigenous people as they had done in California. To his great credit and with very little armed assistance from England, Douglas was able to maintain peace between the American miners and the Fraser Canyon tribes.
Douglas travelled up the Fraser and assured the St’atl’imx people who gathered in Lillooet to meet him that they would be treated in all respects as other British subjects, magistrates would hear their complaints, and they could stake claims and mine gold on the same terms as anyone else.
Douglas further resisted American expansionism by welcoming those who faced discrimination south of the border. British Columbia would be “a refuge for political exiles,” and the original indigenous people and all who came—regardless of their race or mixture thereof—would enjoy equal rights, privileges, and the protection of British law.
At his invitation, hundreds of African Americans, including civil rights leader Mifflin Gibbs and thousands of Chinese miners and shopkeepers, headed north to enjoy freedom under the British flag where a diverse merchant community rose in Victoria that also included many Jewish members.
Sadly, it was not to last. The Americans who stayed became the majority and they soon gained control of government after Douglas was gone. Little by little, the same racist and exclusionary laws they were accustomed to south of the border were brought into effect in British Columbia.
However, hopefully a fuller understanding of the brief period of the province’s history that saw its birth will foster a new appreciation and respect for the original anti-racist values the name British Columbia actually represents, and that honour for all can yet be found in it.
Jane Carrico is a journalist based in B.C.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.