The Sins of Our Fathers

While Canada cranks up to celebrate its 150th birthday, it might behoove residents of British Columbia to remember that our forebears did not cover themselves with glory in the years of transition from colony to country. In fact, some of the decisions made by our first provincial governments still rattle like skeletons in a closet we strive mightily to close.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, BC elected its first provincial Legislature in 1871 when 3,804 voters elected 25 MLAs to serve for four years. The “estimated” population of BC at the time was “about 11,000,” mostly English immigrants with a sprinkling of European and Americans left over from the gold rush days – plus a native population, decimated by small pox epidemics, estimated at about 23,000.

It didn’t take long for the new government to get to work on thorny issues. During its first session (February to March 1872) it had its first go-round with women seeking the right to vote and indignantly rebuked the ladies with a 23-2 vote rejecting their petition. A little later in the same session, the Legislature gave reluctant approval to An Act To Extend The Rights of Property of Married Women. In today’s context the new rights seem condescending – a couple of chocolates to keep the women happy, but not the full box they were seeking.

Women got the right to vote, but only in municipal elections – and only if they were property owners. The new law “provided that real estate owned by a married woman could be enjoyed by her for her separate use and that a married woman’s wages and earnings would be deemed her own property, free from her husband’s control or debts.”

That was one small step for women’s suffrage which led to the big one in 1917 when women “who qualified as British subjects” were awarded the right to vote – and the right to stand as candidates in future provincial elections. For the record, let it be noted that between 1891 and 1914 some 18 women’s suffrage bills were introduced and defeated in the BC Legislature, but in the end truth and justice prevailed although the battle for equality continues.

So, unfortunately, does at least one other controversial human rights struggle created by super righteous governments. In that first session of the BC Legislature the law makers moved quickly to make sure their right to govern could never be upset by the native population which outnumbered white settlers by more than two to one.

In 1874, before the Legislature adjourned for summer, a new law was placed on the books stating “any person of Indian origin and any immigrant of Chinese origin” was disenfranchised – denied the right to vote. It is true that, in that same piece of legislation, school teachers, public servants, judges, clerics and others were disenfranchised. However, they didn’t stay disenfranchised long. Over the ensuring months, amendments to elections law were introduced to open up the polls and one by one racist and religious disqualifications were ended.

In 1947, Chinese and Hindus were removed from the prohibition list; a year later Mennonites and Hutterites followed.

Last on the list were BC’s First Nations and citizens of Japanese descent. First Nations, never welcomed at the first election polls (1871), were officially disenfranchised in 1874 to make sure they didn’t come even close to a ballot box in the second (1875), then officially cleared to vote for the first time 75 years later in 1949.

The Japanese, who had lost their right to vote in 1895 when “yellow peril” fears swept the province, had their rights restored in 1949 in concert with First Nations. Until 1945 Japan had been a military enemy of Canada and the rest of the western world. Settled Japanese immigrants and their Canadian born children were harshly treated after Pearl Harbour when fear and racism again overwhelmed common sense and decency.
First citizens? Ah, yes, they were here long before the whites came crowding in to claim their land first for the Crown and then for sale to anyone with money. In 1874, some 3,804 British-Canadian residents had voted to elect their first Legislative Assembly. In 1949, with First Nation members tentatively voting for the first time, a grand total of 698,823 registered voters cast ballots. Of that total, in a far northern corner of the province, 746 voters split their Atlin riding votes between two candidates with 370 for W.D. Smith (Coalition), and 376 for Frank Calder, a Nisga’a native chief representing the CCF – now the NDP.
Not a landslide victory but another “small step” leading to a giant stride in May 1998, when the Nisga’a land claim treaty was signed and the Nisga’a had their rights to govern their own destiny restored in 2000. It had taken 111 years since their first claim in 1887 to regain their stolen land. And, it may well take another hundred or so before we finally find a solution to decisions made so long ago in the prevailing racist patriotic feelings of the times.

There’s an old Biblical saying that “the iniquities of the fathers are to be laid on the children.” In BC in 2017, that is an uncomfortable thought leading to two even more uncomfortable ones: (1) Are we as a people, or as individuals, making decisions today that could place our children or future societies in untenable positions decades from now? (2) How do we solve legitimate native lands claims when today’s ownership claims are buried beneath modern ownership rights which are legal but deny ancient rights of inheritance?

The Biblical quote does say the children will be expected to make things right “unto the third or fourth generation” which gives my generation a little more procrastination time. And, the next generation? Well, good luck.

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