Feature image: Garry Oaks at Fairfield House, the Victoria residence of Joseph Trutch. Image provided by Charles Campbell.
Sixteen years ago I arrived as an uninvited guest on Lekwungen territory. Not that I would have used those words at the time. My motivation was not to be a settler on the traditional territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt nations but to reunite with my family. After spending the previous ten-plus years as a far flung and somewhat nomadic brood, Charlottetown, Halifax, Montreal, Kingston Jamaica, London UK, Courtenay, Campbell River we would all be together in the same country, same province, same city, Canada, BC, Victoria.
The family home in Victoria was on Trutch Street. It was where my parents and sister’s family lived in upstairs/downstairs suites in a converted heritage home and where we would gather for family occasions. A pull out couch on Trutch was where I spent my first night in Victoria. Fall on Trutch was marked by carved pumpkins and in the spring a ruff of pink cherry blossoms would wrap the street. In the summer roses bloomed in my mother’s garden.
I’m still in the habit of referring to my mother’s house as “Trutch” although now the name sticks in my throat, not as a street lined with heritage homes and cherry trees, but as the name of the notoriously racist Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, Joseph Trutch, a man who cut “Indian” reserve lands by ninety-one percent, denied Aboriginal title and compared Canada’s Indigenous populations to dogs.
Trutch casts a long shadow over British Columbia. He is perhaps to thank for the word “unceded” in the term “unceded territory” that is included as a matter of course when settler’s such as myself stand and acknowledge the traditional Indigenous territories where we “live, work and play”. First as Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works and then as Lieutenant Governor, Trutch worked to reverse the former Hudson Bay Factor and previous Governor, James Douglas’ policy of recognizing Indigenous land rights. Douglas followed a treaty template first established in New Zealand to justify British acquisition to Maori lands, and gave blankets and the promise of a portion of land safe from the molestation of white settlers in exchange for X’s on a page from the chiefs of fourteen First Nations in and around Southern Vancouver Island. Whether the chiefs believed they were signing away their rights to the land or simply committing to live in peace with the new settlers and renting them land for an annual fee is still contested. What is clear however is that Douglas understood that First Nations had a right to the land and that even British law demanded there be some sort of “legal” acquisition before being settled.
Trutch did away with such niceties. Under his regime First Nations were herded into ever smaller, more marginal tracts of land to allow for European settlement. No compensation was given for the land that was taken, no treaties signed, the land never ceded. Ten acres, the minimum land allocation for an Indigenous family under Douglas, became the maximum allocation under Trutch. Markers that laid out the reserves set up by Douglas in Kamloops, Bonaparte River, the Okanagan, and Fraser Valley were pulled up, reserves relocated to less desirable land and shrunk to about a tenth of their size.1 These policies deviated not only from those of James Douglas but also from those pursued east of the Rockies and in other English colonies where aboriginal title was recognized.
Trutch’s policies towards the rights of Indigenous people were rooted in racist beliefs that asserted the superiority of the English and saw Indigenous people as inferior, undeserving of their lands and incapable of the reason that differentiated the “savage” from civilized. For Trutch they had no rights because they weren’t fully human. It doesn’t take much digging into his and his family’s history to discover the roots of his racism and propensity to degrade and dehumanize. Before Trutch was connected to the extermination of Indigenous rights and the expropriation of their lands in British Columbia his family ran slave plantations in the Caribbean. Trutch spent his early childhood in Jamaica where his grandparents had slave holdings. They were compensated the equivalent of about $34,600 for their “loss of property” when slavery was abolished. Trutch’s family returned to England in 1834, the year slavery ended in Jamaica.2
Of course Trutch is not the only British Columbian colonial administrator with strong connections to the Caribbean. Sir James Douglas was born in Guyana to another slave owning family. When slavery was abolished his father made successful claims for compensation for 373 slaves.3 His successor, Frederick Seymour was a Special Magistrate in Antigua and later President of Nevis before taking up the Governorship of British Columbia. Trutch began his reduction and redistribution of Indian reserves as Seymour’s Commissioner of Lands and Works. Anthony Musgrave, who followed Seymour and brought British Columbia into the Canadian confederation was born in Antigua and after his service in British Columbia would go on to become governor of Jamaica.
Generally I avoid Douglas Street. Heading north out of town traffic crawls past car lots and ever expanding malls. It’s the architectural equivalent of a supermarket aisle with each building designed to grab your attention and entice you to spend your dollars inside with faux village squares, glass fronted facades and oversized square arches. The view is a bit kinder going south. The red brick of City Hall and of the Masonic Temple, the bottom of which is now an upscale yarn shop, greet you on your right as you near the city center. But I’m usually on my bike and busses weave in and out of the narrow white lines that demarcate the bike lane with little regard for my safety.
For Victoria’s black and Caribbean community Douglas is often claimed as our own. His mother was a “free woman of colour” from Barbados, likely his father’s servant, and it is easy to imagine that his mixed race predisposed him to a more enlightened attitude towards race. He is particularly lauded for the hand he extended to the community of black people from San Francisco looking to flee racial discrimination in the wake of the Dred Scott decision that denied blacks the right to US citizenship and to petition the Supreme court. In 1858 some six hundred blacks emigrated to Victoria. A year later, though not yet British subjects, Douglas’ political party encouraged the black community to register to vote, granting them a highly prized, if short lived, suffrage. Douglas also sanctioned the all black Victoria Pioneer Rifles Corp, also known as the African Rifles, as Victoria’s first civilian militia and saw the armed brigade as an important defence against the threat of US aggression and an “Indian war”.4
Douglas’s policies towards black and Indigenous communities have to be seen in the light of Douglas’s own political interests and the interest of colonial expansion. The dubious registration of American blacks to vote for Victoria’s first legislative representatives swung the vote in the favour of Douglas’ political party and against his main rival, Amor De Cosmos. This polarized racial politics in the city and turned De Cosmos into an avowed enemy of the black community. As founder and editor of the Daily British Colonist he used his station to incite racial hatred calling the city’s black community “Aliens of the lowest type of humanity” and complaining that “Englishmen are slaves to slaves”.5 And although Douglas’ treatment of Indigenous communities shines in comparison to his successors, his paternal carrot and stick approach to Indigenous relations cast the colonial authority as enforcer and punisher as well as protector and benefactor. The extermination of First Nations rights to the land through the exchange of blankets and promises became more difficult as Indigenous people became savvy to the true intent of white settlers, and as Indigenous communities resisted settlement, Douglas used the threat of force to make them more pliable to the colonies needs. Douglas’ Attorney, General Cary, promised settlers in the Cowichan Valley that “they would be amply protected in their rights to the land by the employment of a little moral force backed up by a little physical force.” And indeed a gunship accompanied settlers as the traveled up the coast from Victoria.6
My four month old son falls asleep as we pass through the gates of Government House. The gardens are our prefered destination for an afternoon walk and near the front of the house we encounter a plaque commemorating Musgrave’s role in bringing British Columbia into confederation. A brief walk through a series of showcase gardens takes us to our real destination; a twenty-two acre Garry Oak woodland lies to the back of the imposing stone building. The stroller rocks as we move along the rough path and soothes Remy, giving me time to reflect on the irony of rare native ecosystem preserve located at Government House, the Lieutenant Governor's residence. But this is how colonization works. Having unleashed the forces of destruction on the land it then sets itself up as it’s preserver. In this case the dirty work is done by a volunteer force of white haired ladies that tirelessly pull ivy, thistle and blackberry from the camus fields.
It’s unlikely that any of the early Governors and Lieutenant Governor would claim their Caribbean heritage to any significant degree. Even Douglas and Musgrave, born on Caribbean soil would doubtless see themselves as British subjects first. The life of most colonial administrators was a nomadic one, moving from post to post, territory to territory as they climbed the colonial ladder. They don’t seem rooted to any soil. So do we claim of disavow their legacies? Douglas’ black ancestry, more palatable public record and position as “father of the colony” makes an association with him somewhat enticing for the contemporary black and Caribbean communities. Seymour less so, and there is an echo of his attitude in current Canadian politics with his desire to be seen as a friend of First Nations while allowing the rollback of their rights and acquisition of their lands to accelerate. Musgrave helped unite Canada and championed the arts and sciences in Jamaica, casting an ethnographic gaze on the Islands inhabitants and asserting European cultural values. Most of our cultural institutions are still cast in this mold. Lady Musgrave Road was one of several routes I would take to try to avoid the perpetual snarl of traffic between home and work in Kingston. Local lore has it that Lady Musgrave, the wife of Sir Anthony, had the road built to avoid the affront of driving past the home of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, James Stiebel. Racial politics in Jamaica have changed in that extent. Social standing is still measured by your proximity to whiteness but other markers can trump the colour of your skin, your accent, education, address and wealth play a much larger roll.
But I can’t avoid Trutch. A name, a street, a family home, Trutch could be the poster boy for the normalization of even the most egregious aspects of the colonial project. And like it or not I’m both a benefactor and victim of that project. In Jamaica I see Trutch’s attitude to Indigenous people reflected in the everyday politics of race and class, in the language that’s used to justify the gentrification of Kingston and the near total privatization of our beaches. It’s there in the assumed superiority of the brown skinned middle class who see terra nullius when looking at a city centre bustling with markets and vendors, rum shops and food stalls. It’s there when even the small section of the beach reserved for fishing boats is made smaller still or eliminated all together to allow for another hotel.
So I claim Trutch too, for what he teaches me about myself and for the responsibility that admitting that I benefit from his legacy imparts on me. Just look around at the plan of our cities, architecture of our homes, names of our streets, the language we speak, structures of our institutions, our systems of governance, the history we’re taught; Trutch would be comfortable here. We operate as if North America is somehow contiguous with Europe, that it’s natural that a Brit can disembark from a ten hour plane journey having crossed an ocean and a continent and feel more at home here than they would if they crossed the English channel. It seems normal that cultures that made their first incursions into this vast territory a few hundred years ago are visibly more present than those that have been here for thousands of years.
There is of course a glimmer of hope that Trutch will be his own undoing. The term unceded is a powerful one: no territory conquered, no treaties signed, no payment given. A string of court decisions now assert that the crown has been delinquent in its obligations to First Nations, that Aboriginal title still exists. The decisions give leverage for growing movement to reinstate mechanisms of Indigenous governance. The movement requires us to know the land we live on, know it’s history and understand how the past is still present in our daily lives. I’m only just beginning.
1 Fisher, R. (1971) Joseph Trutch and Indian Land Policy. B.C. Studies Issue 12. Retrieved from: https://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/bcstudies/article/view/719/761
2 £157 in 1834 is worth approximately £20,260 in 2019 or CAD $34,644.
3John Douglas’ compensation would be worth $3,562,000 today. The amount of money borrowed to compensate slave owners was so large that is wasn’t paid off until 2015.
4 Pilton, J. W. (1951). Negro settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1871 (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0106943
6 Arnett, C. (1999). The Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. P. 102 Talonbooks.
Charles Campbell is a Jamaican-born multidisciplinary artist, writer and curator. His work investigates non-linear concepts of time and the future imaginaries of colonized peoples using performance, sculpture and installation. Upcoming exhibitions include The Other Side of Now at the Perez Art Museum Miami and Cradle at the University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries.