British Columbia

James Douglas is the founding figure of British Columbia — how should he be remembered?

You cannot tell the story of British Columbia without James Douglas, but how you tell his story matters a great deal.

City of Langley councillor hopes a proposed new plaque will note all aspects of Douglas' legacy

A statue of James Douglas sits outside Fort Langley, where he was proclaimed the first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia in 1858. (Christian Amundson/CBC News)

If Canada has John A. MacDonald and the United States has George Washington, then British Columbia has James Douglas.

"I think almost every historian in British Columbia believes if there had been no James Douglas, there would be no British Columbia," said historian Jean Barman, author of the pre-eminent book on general B.C. history, West Beyond The West. 

Douglas, a career Hudson's Bay Company man, founded Fort Victoria in 1843, was governor of Vancouver Island when the 1858 Gold Rush happened, and subsequently was appointed the first governor of the new colony of British Columbia by Britain.

It's why there are streets and schools and parks named for him across the province, an obelisk at the legislature, and a statue at Government House — nobody remotely looms as large in the creation of B.C. as a political entity. 

"It's just 25 years between when the first non-Indigenous people — apart from some people in the fur trade — came into this territory, and British Columbia became a province," Barman said.

"If he wasn't here, I honestly think there would have been no British Columbia because he pulls the strings."

At least, that's one part of the story. 

Many historical documents of B.C., like this excerpt from an early map, refer to Douglas as "the father of British Columbia" while having little information about the Indigenous population. (Vancouver Archives)

Founder and colonizer 

The other part of the story is the decades of displacement, discrimination and depopulation of Indigenous people that happened after Douglas effectively colonized this province.

"He was part of the colonial overrule that was being forced onto the Indigenous communities of the time, and my community [was] essentially colony one," said Brandon Gabriel, a Kwantlen artist and former historical researcher for the Kwanten First Nation. 

The Kwantlen people resided along the Fraser River long before Douglas was sworn in as B.C.'s first governor at Fort Langley in 1858 — and long before it was known as the Fraser River.

Gabriel argues Douglas didn't do anything to put Indigenous people on equal footing, and left them out of most discussions when it came to the political formation of the province. 

"Their presence as a colonizing force wasn't met on agreeable terms, to put it nicely … I see him as kind of a beachhead," he said.

And he says that part of the story was ignored for far too long.

"The telling of the story of the making of this province and this country is largely developed by the colonizing forces … there's a pervasive overrepresentation of that narrative that we contend with. And it creates a difficult situation for Indigenous scholars." 

Barman agrees that Douglas' record, ultimately, is mixed.

"Douglas was not a racist as such," she wrote.

"He made participatory — as opposed to wholly imposed — land treaties in 1850 on
Vancouver Island and sought to do much the same in the Interior in the wake of the 1858 Gold Rush during which he attempted, with not a great deal of success, to address the concerns of Indigenous people who had often gotten to the diggings first.

"Douglas doing all of this does not cancel out, however, his preference for Englishmen as being respectable and suitably in charge."

Langley City councillor Nathan Pachal believes all aspects of Douglas' legacy can be addressed on a plaque. (Christian Amundson/CBC News)

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

In the middle of this debate — and in an era where statues for colonizing figures around the world are being taken down — a City of Langley councillor wants to put up a plaque. 

"I really want people to understand the complex history of this province and to celebrate the positive attributes and also acknowledge the horrific things that happened as well. And I think we can do both," Nathan Pachal said.

Pachal presented a motion passed by council that will see the city consult with the Kwantlen and other nearby First Nations, along with the B.C. Black History Awareness Society, in creating a plaque in Langley's Douglas Park.

Douglas was mixed race, born to a Creole mother in Guyana. Pachal's mother immigrated from Liberia, and he wants the plaque to mention the hundreds of Black immigrants from San Francisco that Douglas invited to settle in Victoria. 

The obelisk that sits on the lawn of B.C.'s legislature is dedicated to Douglas. (Courtesy Michal Klajban)

"When you don't see yourself in history you don't feel like you're connected to this place as much as other people and you can even start to question your legitimacy," he said.

Pachal says the plaque won't go ahead without support from local First Nations. Gabriel says he hopes engagement with them isn't "tokenistic."

"I hope their intention is to create something that is very lasting, very visible, and not a mere plaque … I don't think it will work if there's not a buy-in, and I think there needs to be some honest discussion."

Whether the totality of Douglas' legacy can be agreed on by all sides — and fit on a single plaque — remains to be seen.

But plaques are symbols, symbolizing who matters in this province, and why.

You cannot tell the story of British Columbia without James Douglas, but how you tell his story matters a great deal.

"I hope it will help spark interest in people about [our] past history," Pachal said. 

"We have a rich history, and a rich history means that there's ups and downs, but we can … acknowledge our past and hopefully help us make better decisions in the future."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now