British Columbia

Vancouver's Gassy Jack statue defaced, petition calls for its removal

The statue is a monument to “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a saloon owner who Gastown is named for. His legacy has been the subject of re-evaluation in recent years, especially for his marriage to a 12-year-old Squamish girl. A growing petition is calling for the statue to be taken down.

'Nobody asks anything ... you must've done something good. They made a monument out of him'

Gassy Jack statue freshly cleaned after being vandalized earlier Tuesday morning in Vancouver’s Gastown. The statue — and the legacy of "Gassy" Jack Deighton — have been viewed more critically in recent years. A Squamish cultural leader says the statue should be removed. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

When she first heard the Gassy Jack statue in Vancouver had been splattered with red paint Tuesday, T'uy't'tanat-Cease Wyss said she laughed. 

"Good. When's it coming down?" Wyss said.

Wyss is a member of the Squamish First Nation, an artist, cultural leader, researcher and ethnobotanist.

And while she laughed at the statue's defacement, she is serious that it should be removed for good.

The statue is a monument to "Gassy" Jack Deighton, a Vancouver saloon owner in the 1860s. Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood is named for Deighton.

Deighton's legacy has been re-evaluated in recent years, especially for his marriage to a 12-year-old Squamish girl, Quahail-ya, whose English name was Madeline Deighton.

Jack Deighton, Wyss said, was 40 at the time of the marriage.

A worker in the middle of cleaning the red paint off the Gassy Jack statue in Gastown. (Chris King)

"He's celebrated … There's still millions of people that stop and take photos of this pedophile," Wyss said.

"Nobody asks anything. They're just like, 'Oh you must be famous, you must've done something good.' They made a monument out of him."

A petition calling for the City of Vancouver to remove the statue has grown to more than 1,500 names in five days.

The base of the Gassy Jack statue late Tuesday morning still showed some dribbles of red paint. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Ongoing harms

The statue, Wyss said, is symbolic of colonialism's ongoing damages to Indigenous peoples.

Those damages include displacement of Indigenous peoples; suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality; police violence; missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; and environmental degradation.

T'uy't'tanat-Cease Wyss is a Squamish cultural leader and has researched Squamish women for years. She stands in front of the Gassy Jack monument in Gastown in a 2019 photo. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

"It sounds really big but we are only a few generations away from those that faced that storm of having everything taken away," Wyss said. 

"They expect us to smile and get over this stuff but it hasn't stopped."

To have a statue of a grown white man who married a 12-year-old Indigenous girl placed at the edge of the Downtown Eastside is particularly problematic, Wyss said. That was where serial killer Robert Pickton was known to operate.

Quahail-ya (Madeline) Deighton weaving later in life. (City of Vancouver Archives )

"You can't even imagine what it's like to be an Indigenous woman and then have a daughter and have a granddaughter and wonder, will they be safe?" Wyss said.

"That's what society feeds Indigenous people daily."

Lorelei Williams, a Skatin and Sts'ailes advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, appeared in a documentary about Deighton's marriages.

She said she didn't know about that side of his story until about three years ago — when her own daughter was 12.

"When I learned about this I was so disgusted. I could not picture my daughter with a man like that. She's just a kid," Williams said. "That just shows how far back the disrespect to our Indigenous women and girls goes.

"It makes me sick to my stomach."

Other statues toppled

Vancouver police, when contacted by CBC News, said only that they are investigating the defacement.

The City of Vancouver is listed as the statue's owner. According to the city's public art registry, the statue was installed in 1970, commissioned by Gastown business owners.

In an email received Wednesday, a city spokesperson said: "The City of Vancouver is reaching out to Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations, matriarchs and urban Indigenous leaders to understand and co-ordinate dialogues regarding the future of Gassy Jack."

In recent weeks, protesters opposing racism have torn down or defaced statues of historical figures whose legacies are marked by violence toward and oppression of Black and Indigenous peoples and people of colour.

In Vancouver, the statue of English explorer Capt. George Vancouver at City Hall was vandalized last week.

Wyss said she'd like to see the Gassy Jack statue removed once and for all — along with other monuments and place names that celebrate colonial figures.

She said it's high time Indigenous women — like Gassy Jack's wife, Quahail-ya — are celebrated instead.

With files from Angela Sterritt and Micki Cowan