Book review: Claiming the Land tells the story of B.C. and the Making of a New Eldorado

Published in the Vancouver Sun, April 20 / 2019

It’s one of those stories you never heard about in school.

In late August 1858, two unlikely fathers of Confederation met on a grassy benchland, south of Camchin (present-day Lytton), to negotiate a peace during the heighClaiming the Land front cover.jpgt of the Canyon War, a bloody skirmish between miners (mainly American) and Indigenous people (mainly Nlaka’pamux).

Historian Daniel Marshall, winner of the 2019 Basil Stuart-Stubbs prize for outstanding scholarly book on British Columbia, writes in Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado how Nlaka’pamux Chief Cexpe’nthlEm (Spintlum) and Henry Snyder, a U.S. militia captain, negotiated a peace that averted major bloodshed and inevitable incursion by U.S. forces across the 49th Parallel to defend American citizens.

Leading up to 1858, Indigenous peoples had traded symbiotically with the Hudson’s Bay Company and had well-established trade routes with Indigenous neighbours to the south. As Marshall’s research shows, it was Indigenous people who were first mining gold. When news of this trade in gold spread to California, it sparked a mass movement of people north. Victoria and ‘New Caledonia’ were transformed overnight. Americans and other foreigners vastly outnumbered the small, resident British population and their arrival changed Indigenous societies forever.

The California gold rush was noted for its extreme violence toward Indigenous peoples. Such violence was well known to the Nlaka’pamux people and other First Nations, and to British officials like Governor James Douglas and the Colonial office. Marshall describes how London directed Douglas to protect the interests of Indigenous peoples and seek to prevent violence from foreign gold seekers. However, Douglas did not have the troops to back up his authority.

When the miners asserted their claims, with little or no regard to Indigenous or British interests, it was only a matter of time before there was conflict. Bloody battles between miners and Indigenous people took place along steep canyon banks. Miners, under attack, threw the bodies of their dead into the Fraser, where they washed up down river at Deadman’s Eddy. Tensions in Yale boiled over and miners’ militias sprung to action.

Marshall describes the climatic moment when two U.S. militias headed north up the Canyon to confront Indigenous opposition. Captain Henry Snyder led the New York Pike Guards and sought a peaceful compromise. Captain Graham of the Whatcom Guards sought to exterminate the Indigenous threat. Snyder and Graham’s militias both marched north on opposite sides of the Fraser. Then on a fateful August evening at Chapman’s Bar, near Spuzzum, Graham and a lieutenant were killed in a nighttime shooting. Were they killed by Indigenous attackers? Was it friendly fire from their own troops? There is insufficient evidence, but, as Marshall discusses, it was a turning point for peace.

Snyder’s ultimate destination was to meet with Chief Spintlum, who had great stature among his people. Preceding this meeting, the threat posed by the gold seekers was being debated by tribal leaders where Spintlum had to contend with pro-war elements in his midst. He pleaded for peace and prevailed. Peace may well have been a pragmatic choice — the salmon were running — a bloody battle would likely mean hardship and starvation. Against this backdrop, Snyder and Spintlum concluded a peace on August 21, 1858, in view of the Mighty Fraser.

IMG_0564.jpg

Dale Snyder, descendant of Capt. Harry Snyder, and Cecil Salmon, descendant of Chief Spintlum, commemorate the peace that ended the 1858 Fraser Canyon War at Spintlum Memorial, Lytton, BC (photo taken April 2018)

The vivid portrait painted by Marshall of August 1858 raises important historical questions. Had a bloody battle ensued, the Nlaka’pamux and their allies, such as the Okanagan and Secwepemc, could have struck devastating blows on the gold seekers. They had far superior knowledge of the mountainous battleground. What then? It would have likely precipitated a vengeful reaction from the U.S. government and American populace. U.S. troops present in Washington Territory, equipped with howitzers, would have marched across the as yet unmarked border and imposed their will, self-justified in protecting the interests and safety of the tens of thousands of American gold seekers.

Would the American troops have ever left? Marshall suggests not, as the defense of U.S. miners would have been a useful pretext to for troops to pour over a non-existent border; “54° 40′ or fight” was still ringing in the ears of the American public. And what would have become of Confederation if the dream of reaching the Pacific, blocked by . expansionism, no longer existed by 1867? The events in the Canyon War were history-making.

Snyder and Spintlum’s peace held; the Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed that year, while the U.S. soon plunged into Civil War, shifting its political focus away from the Pacific. British Columbia would join Canada on a promise of a new railroad, which would traverse the Fraser Canyon along parts of the Cariboo Wagon Road built for the Gold Rush.

Spintlum’s leadership may have been missing from the history books we read in the past, but it has always been alive among the Nlaka’pamux. In 1927, Nlaka’pamux leaders commemorated his leadership with a memorial where the Fraser meets the Thompson, not far from where the Canyon War ended.

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 4.03.10 PM.png

Dedication of Spintlum memorial at Lytton, circa 1927 (Courtesy of Lytton First Nation)

 

A new generation of textbooks and learning resources for B.C. classrooms also now includes this history. Meticulously documented, Claiming the Land: British Columbian and the Making of a New Eldorado belongs in libraries and schools among the history books that tell our country’s founding story. It helps fill a major gap in our historical narrative — the largely untold Canyon War and the central role of Indigenous peoples — the original discoverers of gold and their important role in B.C. being a part of Canada.

Mike McDonald is Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Kirk & Co. He blogs on B.C. history and current issues at Rosedeer.com.

Advertisements

A local take on the Burnaby South by-election

Guest Shot – by Adam Pankratz.  2015 Liberal candidate in Burnaby South.

Burnaby South has been in the news a lot lately. Burnaby? In the news? Not something we used to read very often, but Burnaby residents have gotten used to the spotlight lately. Whether it’s Kinder Morgan in the north, or Jagmeet Singh in the south, Burnaby’s ridings have been the focal points of several major news stories for 2018 and 2019.

Political observers are talking about how Jagmeet Singh will fare in his bid to gain a seat and become an MP as he deals with turmoil within the NDP. Win or lose Mr. Singh will face serious headwinds…but lose and he’s finished. Will the voters of Burnaby give him his victory and a chance to lead the NDP into the next general election in October?

Kinder Morgan – it’s the issue everyone wanted to talk about 6 months ago, and Jagmeet Singh opened his candidacy by attacking the “leaky pipeline.” I said then that Mr Singh missed the mark with Kinder Morgan, which is a minor issue in Burnaby, and not one that would decide the by-election here. The current situation in Burnaby, despite all the attention heaped on it through the summer and fall, is that no candidate is focused on Kinder Morgan. Burnaby residents are ultimately practical and realistic on Kinder Morgan, as are most Canadians. Responsible resources extraction is necessary for the Canadian economy and the residents here recognize that. It is a very loud minority who made it the issue it was.

What the candidates have all zeroed in on is the major issue in Burnaby of housing. It is the issue which sank Derek Corrigan, the four-term mayor of Burnaby, who lost to current mayor Mike Hurley last October.  Once again, the issue is front and centre. Like all the Lower Mainland, Burnaby is expensive and residents here want to see more action taken at all levels of government.

These issues are in many ways similar to the ones I came across doorknocking and speaking with residents during my 2015 federal election campaign. During that election there was also serious concern about the Harper Government and their impact on Canada’s image and sense of ourselves as a compassionate society. Canadians want a government that listens to them and understands their concerns and Burnaby residents are no different. That is why I always thought, and still do, that Mr Singh’s major challenge this by-election is gaining local credibility with Burnaby voters.

IMG_1741

Pankratz campaign: won Election Day, but could not overcome strong NDP machine delivering support to the advance poll.

Mr Singh clearly thinks Burnaby is an NDP slam dunk or he wouldn’t be here. History is on his side, but will Burnaby voters deliver what Mr Singh expects? “All Burnaby” ridings (that is, ridings entirely within Burnaby, not split over city boundaries) have gone NDP for over 40 years. Mr. Singh and the NDP clearly are hoping for a repeat of the voting pattern in October.

There is, however danger in this. Burnaby is changing and the 2015 general election proved that. In that election Burnaby North Seymour went Liberal and in Burnaby South the incumbent Kennedy Stewart narrowly hung on to best me by 547 votes. But the larger gamble the NDP and Mr Singh are taking is assuming that Burnaby residents are the same as they were 40 years go (they aren’t) and thinking they will readily accept a candidate who parachuted in, with no community connections.

I believe Burnaby residents want an MP who knows the community and understand them. I remember distinctly that the most common response to our team in 2015, an election in which we doorknocked for over a year prior to Election Day, was “No one has knocked on my door since Svend was our MP.” “Svend” is, of course, Svend Robinson, who served Burnaby for 25 years as MP. Like him or hate him, Svend was someone who understood Burnaby, worked tirelessly to be present locally as an MP and develop personal relationships with his constituents. Svend’s rival at the time, Bill Cunningham (Liberal) and successor (Bill Siksay) also had deep, long standing relationships with Burnaby. Burnaby misses this. It is no doubt one of the key reasons our election campaign did so well in 2015, despite the entrenched NDP history. Local wins here. The fact that recent NDP representative Kennedy Stewart resigned as MP and immediately began touting that he was from Vancouver and always wanted the job of Vancouver Mayor has only deepened the desire of Burnaby residents for a long-term MP intent on local priorities and issues.

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 10.49.57 AM.png

Svend: Knocker of Doors, also now on Twitter (photo: CBC)

What can we expect of this by-election?  At the outset my opinion, bluntly put, was that Jagmeet Singh should have lost Burnaby South decisively. However, current events have conspired to make that loss seem unlikely.

Due to the close race in 2015, the story everyone (sensibly) made was that this would be a tight race between the Liberals and the NDP. However, the former Liberal candidate, Karen Wang, was forced to resign due to comments she made on WeChat regarding Mr Singh. This botched campaign start, followed by the scramble to replace her has hurt Liberal credibility locally. Now, the national Liberal scene is being shaken by the SNC-Lavalin affair. Does this mean the Liberals are cooked in Burnaby South? No, but they have made their lives significantly more difficult than it ought to have been.

One party not being talked about at all is the Conservatives in Burnaby. They have flown under the radar in this by-election despite strong results in 2011 (40%) and even 2015 (27%), given the circumstances. In my mind they were a dark horse contender until the People’s Party of Canada was founded. This long shot is now essentially non-existent.

The PPC is running an ostensibly strong candidate in former local school trustee candidate from 2018 Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Ms Thompson has been controversial for her anti-SOGI comments and stance on similar issues, yet still received over 15,000 votes in the 2018 municipal election. While campaign signs don’t mean anything at the ballot box, it’s hard not to notice the disproportionately high amount of PPC signs around Burnaby, given the party is supposed to almost be a fringe joke nationally. If Ms Thompson can rally her supporters from 2018, I would watch for the PPC to seriously surprise people and perhaps even see Burnaby South legitimize the PPC as a minor party.

Jagmeet Singh meanwhile continues to be at best an unknown, enigmatic figure for most Burnaby residents. He talks in bland platitudes, doesn’t have a clear stance on anything and equivocates when asked direct questions. At his first press conference he claimed to be “All in on Burnaby.” He isn’t. His strategy seems to be “Burnaby will vote NDP no matter what.” Past that, it’s hard to see any notable impact he has made on the community or its residents.

In the end, despite his lack of connection to the riding and lack of understanding as to what makes Burnaby tick, I foresee Mr Singh and the NDP pulling this one out on the basis of history. The Liberals did themselves no favours in the run up to or first half of the by-election and simply have too much ground to make up. The Conservatives will be split by the PPC and fade away.

So the surprise is that the Liberals and Conservatives do not look like they can take advantage of a weak NDP leader with no connection to Burnaby, while the upstart PPC might have a boost that puts fuel in its tank.  Politics is always interesting in BC.