Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Joseph Trutch, B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor, left trail of controversy

With calls to remove statues of controversial figures such as Sir John A. Macdonald, the University of Victoria is putting on a series of lectures about the historical characters in the news.

With calls to remove statues of controversial figures such as Sir John A. Macdonald, the University of Victoria is putting on a series of lectures about the historical characters in the news.

Four historians are presenting brief “warts and all” biographies of four historical figures in the news: John A. Macdonald, Joseph W. Trutch, Matthew Baillie Begbie and James Douglas and putting them in their historical context to help inform public discussion. Each talk will be followed by a discussion on such questions as “how should we remember these characters and their contexts?” and/or “to commemorate or not commemorate?”

John Lutz will speak about Joseph Trutch on Tuesday, June 19. All talks will take place in Council Chambers, City Hall, 1 Centennial Square, Victoria, 7-8:30 p.m.

Yesterday’s heroes are not necessarily today’s, and our old villains — take Louis Riel, for instance — can become heroes. From Confederate generals to Halifax’s founder Edward Cornwallis, we are in a time of revisiting the heroes whose bronze and gilded forms glower from statuary pedestals and whose names grace our streets, buildings and landscapes.

No surprise, then, that recently, the legacy of one of British Columbia’s celebrated men, a “father of Confederation” and British Columbia’s first lieutenant-governor, Joseph W. Trutch, has been questioned, and some are calling to remove his name from the streets that honour him in Victoria and Vancouver.

Who was Joseph Trutch and why is there a Victoria street named after this man who both was born (in 1826) and died (in 1904) in England? Trutch spent his first eight years in Jamaica, where his father was a lawyer, after having originally served there as a soldier. He was the third of five children, and he and his younger siblings John and Caroline, born in Jamaica, were all later to come to British Columbia. In 1836, the family returned to England where the boys were schooled and apprenticed as engineers.

Some people are born with a lucky horseshoe, and so it was with Trutch, who had a knack of connecting with important people. Trutch’s first job was as an apprentice with Sir John Rennie, a famous engineer then working on the Great Northern and Great Western railways in the golden age of railway expansion.

By the time he was 25, his family had had a streak of poor fortune, and his father was becoming increasingly abusive, so when the excitement of the California gold rush of 1849 reached England, Trutch was drawn across the world with a commission to build a warehouse. He did not fit into the wild west of California — a place where he had no contacts and which he considered uncouth. From there, he wrote his parents prophetically: “If I could get known among the best people, I mean the capitalists, I should be sure to do well.”

Within a few months, he moved to Oregon and connected with John Bower Preston, surveyor general and member of a prominent Illinois family, who first hired him as assistant surveyor and, in 1855, became his brother-in-law. Soon thereafter, Trutch and his new wife, Julia, moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Trutch worked for Preston on the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

The newlyweds took a trip to Niagara Falls, where he was reportedly impressed by the suspension bridge over the Niagara River, a design he later brought to B.C. Trutch had earlier encouraged his brother John to join him in Oregon and soon after the former had left for the east, John headed north to Vancouver Island, where in 1858 he was hired to do the first survey of the Saanich Peninsula.

Trutch carried away two characteristics from his American time, a me-first entrepreneurial/land speculator spirit and an antipathy to Indigenous people. He wrote his parents shortly after arriving in Oregon from California, where active genocide against Indigenous people was underway, that the native people were “the ugliest and laziest creatures I ever saw, and we should as soon think of being afraid of our dogs as of them.”

When the Fraser gold rush hit, it was John who encouraged his brother to come to Victoria. By chance or design, Trutch returned from a trip to England on the same ship as Col. Richard Clement Moody, who commanded a detachment of Royal Engineers being sent to the new colony of British Columbia. By May 1859, Joseph had a $10,000 contract from Moody to survey part of the Lower Mainland into 160-acre lots.

Trutch purchased a 10-acre lot from Gov. James Douglas and had built an Italianate villa-style house (still standing) which he called “Fairfield” in 1861. The Trutches had no children, but his younger sister, Charlotte, and his mother joined them in Victoria, his father having spent some time in debtor’s prison. In 1862, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, then a separate colony from British Columbia.

The Trutch brothers bid on the construction of part of the roads to the gold fields, first a contract for the Harrison-Lillooet route and then the Cariboo Road along the Fraser from Chapman’s Bar to Boston Bar, each section employing 100 men. Joseph’s best-known engineering feat was the Alexandria Suspension Bridge, the only crossing of the Fraser River at that time, which earned him a fortune in tolls.

After the Royal Engineers were recalled to England in 1863, and after Douglas stepped down in 1864, the new governor, Frederick Seymour, appointed Joseph to the post of chief commissioner of lands and works in May 1864.

Trutch’s new position put him in charge of Indian reserves. Trutch denied the existence of the treaties signed in the 1850s by Douglas. Governor Seymour was soon directing Trutch to shrink many of the reserves Douglas had created — a view Trutch supported, saying: “I am satisfied from my own observation that the claims of Indians over tracts of land, on which they assume to exercise ownership, but of which they make no real use, operate very materially to prevent settlement and cultivation.”

Trutch knowingly revoked reserves already set aside for First Nations, reducing them in some cases to 10 per cent of the original. Trutch was also, no doubt, instrumental in reversing Douglas’s policy that allowed First Nations to pre-empt (homestead) 160 acres per family, as any white family could.

In 1867, four eastern colonies came together to form Canada, and discussion began in British Columbia as to whether this colony should join the new nation. In 1870, Trutch was appointed by the governor to lead a delegation of three from British Columbia to negotiate the terms of the colony’s entry into the young country. John A. Macdonald surprised the B.C. delegates by accepting all the proposed terms, including a railway, and even accelerating the promised completion date of the railway; in 1871, British Columbia joined Canada.

Trutch seems to have been the author of clause 13 of the terms of Confederation, which committed the federal government to an Indian policy “as liberal” as the colonial policy of British Columbia. After 1871, the federal government was shocked to find out that no treaties had been signed on mainland British Columbia, many First Nations had no land reserved for them and others had reserves that amounted in some cases to only two acres per person. Trutch’s cagey wording meant the federal government had little leverage to improve First Nations’ land base.

Trutch’s commitment to Confederation prompted Macdonald to offer him the post as British Columbia’s first lieutenant-governor, a role that put Trutch in charge of the government of the new province until an election could be held. Trutch picked the first premier and executive and presided over government policy meetings for the first year of provincehood.

Trutch’s term as lieutenant-governor ended in 1876, and he retired to his beloved England, only to be called back in 1880 by the newly re-elected Macdonald. Trutch was appointed the federal representative in British Columbia and oversaw the British Columbia portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was completed in 1885. He also oversaw the completion of the E&N Railway and the Esquimalt Graving Dock, and meddled in Indian affairs until he retired in 1890, with a reward of a knighthood from a grateful queen, to an estate in England

Trutch died in 1904 in Somerset, England. His 10-acre property “Fairfield” was subdivided and is the heart of what Victorians call the Fairfield district. Two years later, as the developers were naming the streets in the new subdivision, they called the one in front of his former house Trutch Street.

It seems that the street was not named after the lands and works commissioner, or the father of Confederation or even the first lieutenant-governor. Named only when his property was being divided, the name remembers the first family to live on what became Trutch Street.

Prof. John Lutz chairs the history department at the University of Victoria, and is the author of Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-Settler Relations.