British Columbia

New Westminster votes to remove statue of Judge Begbie from courthouse grounds

The city will "engage in a conversation with the Tsilhqot'in Nation about the history and legacy of Judge Begbie," and work with the Tsilhqot'in and New Westminster community to "find an appropriate place for the statue." 

B.C.'s first chief justice was responsible for the hanging of 6 Tsilhqot'in chiefs

New Westminster council voted Monday night to remove the statue of Judge Matthew Begbie from the grounds in front of the courthouse. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The City of New Westminster has voted to remove a statue of B.C.'s first chief justice, Matthew Begbie, which stands outside the provincial courthouse.

Council made the decision Monday evening in a 4-2 vote following a debate centring around the proper way to give context to Begbie's role overseeing a 1864 trial that resulted in the hanging of five Tsilhqot'in chiefs, and a sixth chief a year later.

As a result, the city will "engage in a conversation with the Tsilhqot'in Nation about the history and legacy of Judge Begbie," and work with the Tsilhqot'in and New Westminster community to "find an appropriate place for the statue." 

"Having public statues are not only a reflection of our past, but also a vision of future for our community," said Coun. Nadine Nakagawa, who put forward the motion. 

"What messages are we sending to Indigenous members of our community?"

The statue is currently in Begbie Square, outside the provincial courthouse on Carnarvon Street.

The motion was opposed by Coun. Patrick Johnstone, who said that while he supports removing the statue, it should take place after the public has an opportunity to give more feedback.

"There's a lot of things that people in this city see through different lenses … and I hope we can address them in a way that heals," he said. 

But the majority of council believed it was important to act immediately, particularly given that the Tsilhqot'in had already made their request known. 

"I'm not sure what kind of other engagement we would need. We've been told what they want," said Coun. Mary Trentadue.

"It's never easy to do something like this, and I also have mixed feelings on this. But I do believe sometimes you have to do the thing now. You can't wait. You have to just do it." 

New Westminster council voted 4-2 to remove the statue of Begbie, who was British Columbia's first chief justice. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

'It is divisive'

While council and the majority of speakers were in favour of the decision, not everyone was complimentary. 

"What bothers me about the current motion is it is divisive ... it pits people against the motion as though they are against truth and reconciliation," said David Brett.

He acknowledged that New Westminster, as B.C.'s first incorporated municipality, would continue to have conversations about the province's colonial history. But he said there should be more consultation with the public before making a decision over the statue. 

"There doesn't seem to be a consensus around this idea," he said. 

"It would send the wrong message that we're hastily putting forward a motion … that might be seen a few years down the road as incorrect." 

New Westminster's decision comes two years after the Law Society of British Columbia removed a statue of Begbie from its building, and a year after Victoria city council voted to remove a statue of John A. Macdonald from outside city hall. 

What was the Chilcotin Uprising? 

Begbie served as the chief justice of British Columbia for close to four decades — first during the gold rush, when British Columbia was a colony of the British Empire, and then after the province joined confederation.

While he was given the nickname "The Hanging Judge" after his death, 22 of the 27 people he put to death were Indigenous. 

Twentieth century historians in British Columbia were generally complimentary of Begbie's tenure, but his role in the conflict known as the Chilcotin Uprising has come under broader scrutiny in recent years.

During a period when Tsilhqot'in chiefs were at war with the Colony of British Columbia, five chiefs were deceived into meeting with government officials for the purpose of peace talks. They were instead arrested, tried and hanged.

In 2014 the province apologized to the Tsilhqot'in Nation for hanging the chiefs and exonerated them. In 2018 the government of Canada also exonerated them, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to B.C.'s Central Interior and apologized to the First Nation in a special ceremony.

With files from Chad Pawson