Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Historical Retrospective

"It seems horrible to hang five men at once."
"Yet the blood of 21 whites calls for retribution."
Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie, 1864, British Columbia supreme court chief justice

"[The six chiefs were not  criminals and they were not outlaws."
"They were warriors, they were leaders, and they were engaged in a territorial dispute to defend their lands and their peoples."
B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Quesnel, B.C., 2014
The Law Society of B.C. will remove a statue of Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, known as B.C.'s 'hanging judge,' from its lobby because it’s a colonial symbol that offends natives. Arlen Redekop / PNG

The event named the Chilcotin War between Canada's First Nations tribes and the provincial government of the 1860s is seen at the present time through the lens of colonialist fault, when native peoples found themselves, their heritage and culture and the land they lived on in dispute by Europeans who claimed it for themselves as sovereign territory the original inhabitants had no right to. There were efforts at treaties that would defuse the hostilities between the two sides, but they were placatory in nature with little substance to support any recognition of equality.

At the-then provincial capital of New Westminster in 1964, news was received of a massacre, warranting the dispatch of two volunteer militias to seek revenge on a war party comprised of some 25 Tsilhqot'in warriors whose Chief Klatsassin lead an attack on a work camp. Three of the work camp members escaped the deadly assault. The crew had been building a road to the interior. The work crew had been fast asleep and when dawn broke found themselves facing a war party.

Fifteen of the work crew were killed in the attack, and a following attack killed another six. The volunteers dispatched to meet the war party in combat succeeded only in doing physical harm to each other in friendly fire. Five Tsilhqot'in chiefs offered to negotiate for peace. As they approached the white camp they were manacled, charged, convicted and hanged though one of the condemned chiefs explained "We meant war, not murder".

When another chief advanced toward authorities with gifts in a traditional method of seeking forgiveness for his part in the massacre, he was hanged in New Westminster. The chiefs had a defined and planned purpose for the attack, it was to influence the colonial authorities to move away from their ancestral territories. Their presence had brought epidemics of smallpox whose result was destructive to Tsilhqot'in communities.

Some of the road crew that had been slaughtered by the road party had contemptuously promised the Tsilhqot'in that they could expect an increase in the incidence of smallpox, thanks to the roads they were building to advance the presence of whites in the geography that the First Nations considered their own. And which brought not only whites with their hostile arrogance, but disease and exploitation to the indigenous communities their presence suffocated.

The Law Society of British Columbia has issued authorization to remove a statue of Justice Begbie from the lobby of their building for the purpose of making people "feel comfortable and included on the premises". In response, Chief Joe Alphonse, Chair of Tsilhqot'in National Government sang praise for the society's removal of "this monument to injustice and symbol of B.C.'s colonial past."

In one fell swoop phasing out the honours that historically fell to the first chief justice of the province for representing the tenor of the times. Also obliterated will be the school names in honour of the man, street names, and plaques dedicated to Justice Begbie located province-wide. The Tsilhqot'in Nation has called for the name of Justice Begbie to be removed "from all public places".

This politically correct move to assuage the present-day indignation of First Nations over past events perceived to represent wrongs against their ancestors leaves little room for negotiations. Writing into the record, for example, that matters might have taken a different turn but could not, reflecting the political/social tenor of the times. Justice Begbie was adhering to a code of conduct and laws enacted that reflected the values of those times in which he lived.

In any society at any time, a planned assault for the purpose of destroying lives whose presence and purpose were perceived to be potentially injurious to the interests of the attackers, would see them being held liable for murder in the first degree. Frontier, colonialist justice made quick work of exacting the ultimate penalty from those involved in the war party and the deaths of 21 human beings.

History attests that Justice Begbie officially represented a racist system, but he was himself inclined to be more socially liberal, representing a personage who acknowledged indigenous title, accepting indigenous testimony when the majority of British Empire colleagues would not hear non-Christian witnesses. Justice Begbie familiarized himself with a number of indigenous languages, giving him the capability of speaking with indigenous witnesses, including the chiefs and surviving work crew members.

Undated photo of Matthew Baillie Begbie, B.C.'s first chief justice. VANCOUVER SUN

He presided over courts in barns, cabins and fields of stumps. He became fluent in Secwepmc and Tsilhqot’in. He told the government in 1860 that First Nations held aboriginal title that had to be recognized. He opposed efforts to displace First Nations from land desired by settlers. He forced provincial legislation ensuring that First Nations women were entitled to a share of the estates of white partners. And often he commuted the expected death sentences for First Nations — something he never did for a non-aboriginal offender. Some of his best judgments thwarted racist provincial legislation directed at Chinese communities, which he denounced as infringing on their personal liberty and equality before the law. Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, April 2017 

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