British Columbia

Indigenous activists say the story of Gassy Jack is missing sordid details

Whether you are a Vancouver local or a visiting tourist, you've probably heard of Gassy Jack. What's not so well-known is that he had two wives from the Squamish Nation.

Vancouver founder John Deighton married a 12-year-old Indigenous girl after his first wife's death

Lorelei Williams looks at Gassy Jack's monument in Gastown. She is a Skatin and Sts'ailes advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Whether you are a Vancouver local or a visiting tourist, you've probably heard of Gassy Jack.

Now some Indigenous women from B.C. are calling for the lesser-known history of John Deighton, the "father of Gastown" to be made public. He was married to two Squamish women during his life, one of whom was 12 years old. 

Deighton — called Gassy Jack for his talkativeness — was a Canadian bar owner, originally from England. Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood, where he operated a saloon beginning in the late 1860s, is named after him. Today, a statue of him stands prominently in Maple Tree Square at the junction of Carrall, Powell and Water streets, the former site of his saloon.

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

Deighton married a young Squamish woman, whose name has been lost to history. She became ill and after she died, Deighton married her 12-year-old niece, Quahail-ya or Wha-halia, who had been caring for her sick aunt. Her English name was Madeline Deighton.

Cease Wyss — or T'uy't'tanat — is a Squamish cultural leader and has researched Squamish women for years. In 2018, she wrote a poem, which was published in the Capilano Review about Gassy Jack's treatment of the Indigenous women he married.

The story has been passed down as oral history from Squamish elders.  

"Everybody honours this guy behind us here," Wyss told CBC's Angela Sterritt as they stood in front of his Gastown statue.

"There is no monument to Quahail-ya, but her story's important."

Gassy Jack statue in Maple Tree Square in Gastown, Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

According to Squamish oral history, the 12-year-old Indigenous girl eventually ran away from her much-older husband at the age of 15. Wyss says this makes her a model for Indigenous women to look up to.

"Knowing that woman was really a girl and that she had to stand up for her rights and support herself. And that she left him of her own accord — she didn't ask for assistance. She got up and walked out," said Wyss.

There is little known of the details of Deighton's relationships with the Squamish women.

Archival documents from the City of Vancouver Archives say Quahail-ya did marry Deighton at 12 years old after her aunt died.  The archives make no mention of an escape at age 15, but say Quahail-ya moved to North Vancouver after Deighton's death. She died in 1948 at approximately 90 years old. 

'I think that she could be a real beacon of hope'

Lorelei Williams, a Skatin and Sts'ailes advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, was in the recent documentary Red Women Rising, created by Battered Woman's Support Services. The film explores Deighton's marriages and his effects on Indigenous women, as learned from Squamish oral history.

Williams says Deighton's history with young Indigenous women is indicative of the many struggles Indigenous women have had to face.

"When I first heard about Gassy Jack and what he did, I was so disgusted because I have a daughter ... This goes to show how they treated our women and girls back then."

Williams says tourists who pass the Gassy Jack statue should be made aware of what the statue really represents.

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

"There's no monument to Quahail-ya. I do think that there should be, because we need to inspire and lift up the women in this generation, because they're losing faith. And I think that she could be a real beacon of hope."

Listen to the full story here:

A group of Indigenous women based in the Lower Mainland are calling for the lesser-known history of the 'Father of Gastown' to be made public—the fact that he was married to two young Squamish women at different points, one of whom was 12 years old. 6:02

With files from The Early Edition and Angela Sterritt. 

City of Vancouver archival records of interviews with Quahail-ya or Wha-halia, a Squamish woman once married to Gassy Jack