Comment: Beyond ‘quick wins’: Decolonizing British Columbia

British Columbians will soon be going to the polls to determine the next government of the province. Whatever happens, the new government will face the momentous challenge of decolonizing the province. Searching for “quick wins,” or passing token apologies for historical wrongs will only saddle future generations with the legacy of a century of racism.

When B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, one of the first acts of its legislature was to disenfranchise “Indians” and Chinese in British Columbia. Otherwise, as one legislator put it, they might see “an Indian occupying the Speaker’s chair, or have a Chinese majority in the House.”

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This act symbolized the legislature’s determination to make British Columbia a “white man’s” province. The B.C. government pursued this racist agenda with dogged determination, opposing the persistent demands of indigenous peoples and Asian-Canadians for justice. Thus in 1917, it was only white women who won the provincial right to vote — indigenous and Asian-Canadian women and men remained disenfranchised.

Is it not time to allow a new generation to learn the truth about this province’s past? That at the time of confederation, colonial officials in the province misled the federal government into believing that aboriginal title had been extinguished. Despite persistent First Nations demand for land, successive B.C. governments upheld this position, allowing white settlers to pre-empt and encroach onto indigenous lands. The treaty issue and hunting and fishing rights remain largely unresolved, and the province remains notably resistant.

Shouldn’t non-natives learn how indigenous peoples in B.C. ingeniously found ways to maintain their central practices despite provincial and federal enforcement of oppressive and paternalistic laws, including the 1876 Indian Act and the banning of the potlatch in 1884? Or how indigenous peoples resisted, persisted and persevered, even when the unthinkable occurred, with children being stolen from their homes, and subjected to abuse, neglect and miseducation? Has the provincial government come to terms with its role in what some consider little less than genocidal policies?

Is it not time the B.C. government recognized its fundamental role, through its legislation and unremitting pressure, that led to extraordinary measures passed in 1913/1914 to prevent South Asians from coming to Canada?

These are things that must be remembered, and taught for future generations.

Twenty-five years ago, after a long struggle by the Japanese-Canadian community, the federal government began to address its part in this sorry past, passing the first redress settlement in 1988. This was later followed by further measures, for the head tax on Chinese in 2006, and for Indian residential schools in 2008.

Redress settlements are necessary, but not enough. As the Idle No More movement so well illustrates, the problems associated with a century or more of white supremacy are hardly over. The murder and disappearance of hundreds of indigenous women is tragic testimony to that fact. Without mainstream society taking responsibility for the past, do we have a future?

For its part, the provincial government has done even less than the federal government. In our classes, students are often stunned and at times end up in tears when they learn the truth about the province’s past. They deserve better.

The next government can make a difference, but only if it repudiates token resolutions and quick fixes. A serious approach to this difficult past means moving forward the treaty process on the basis of respect for indigenous peoples as self-determining nations with responsibilities to their homelands, cultures and communities.

It also means setting the record straight by creating an independent commission to document the government’s history of oppressing indigenous peoples and excluding Asian-Canadians. This would imply a thorough reform of education curricula to ensure teachers and students at all levels have access to up-to-date materials and research.

Establishing a consultative roundtable with Asian-Canadian communities and others who suffered from racist provincial measures would also go some way to determining appropriate measures to address historical injustices.

Adopting a comprehensive and ethical approach to these issues will not be easy. But we have an opportunity to break with the past, not by forgetting but by remembering, and by honouring those who fought for justice. That is a legacy that future generations may come to cherish.

John Price teaches in the history department at the University of Victoria and is the author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific. Christine O’Bonsawin is director of the indigenous studies program.

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