Month: August 2018

Better To Build Than Break

Until a few days ago, Sir John A. Macdonald was fairly high on the list of achievers of Scottish descent who had carried inherited ideals to remote corners of the world.

But on August 21st, the ever-babbling Internet informed the world the Scottish National Party had ordered a purge of Sir John’s name from its honour rolls “following concerns raised by Canadian indigenous people about his legacy.” The story noted that the precipitous decision by the municipal council of Victoria, capital of British Columbia, to remove a statue of Sir John from City Hall, had encouraged the Scots to act.

How justified are the charges that Sir John was at the helm when grievous acts, unfair and unfounded, were taken against First Nations who had traditionally occupied the territories then coveted by waves of white settlers? How strong the suggestion that he was responsible for the incredible shame of the residential school system?

In our democracy, we have long held the captain of the ship responsible for the conduct of the crew. So, when today’s world blames Sir John for decisions to force natives to obey new government rules or lose their food supplies, we can join the lament against such faulty logic, such inconceivable thinking. But, we must remember whatever bad decisions were made, they were composite decisions … decisions made by cabinet, not by one man.

So, when we talk injustice, reconciliation or whatever we want to call modern cries against ancient sins, let us talk with measured and soft voices; let us talk without anger, always without hidden or obvious calls for revenge and, always, with balanced judgment.

It has become standard for Prime Minister Macdonald’s critics to list native residential schools among his greatest evils. That wise men could actually believe you could remove 150,000 children from their homes, lock them in schools barely a half-step better than prison and improve their minds and wellbeing, is certainly inconceivable today. It happened, but it wasn’t the worst of the things that happened in that shameful chapter of Canadian and Christian church history.

We don’t like to talk too much about the Christian contribution to the shame of residential schools, but we should keep it clearly in mind that many of the faults and sins in those infamous institutions were made by the people who staffed them. And, Sir John A. Macdonald should not be unfairly blamed.

One final thought to throw into the equation before we completely cover our founding father and ourselves in the sackcloth of repentance: Consider this February 2018 press release from the University of Victoria:

A new law program at the University of Victoria is the world’s first to combine the intensive study of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous law, enabling people to work fluently across the two realms.

Students will graduate with two professional degrees, one in Canadian Common Law (Juris Doctor or ‘JD’) and one in Indigenous Legal Orders (Juris Indigenarum Doctor or ‘JID’).  Their education will benefit areas such as environmental protection, Indigenous governance, economic development, housing, child protection and education – areas where currently there is an acute lack of legal expertise to create institutions that are grounded in Indigenous peoples’ law and to build productive partnerships across the two legal systems. 

“This program builds on UVic’s longstanding commitment to, and unique relationship with, the First Peoples of Canada. The foundational work for this program has been underway for several years, building on Indigenous scholarship for which UVic is known internationally,” says UVic President Jamie Cassels. 

“This joint-degree program is also a direct response to a call of action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish Indigenous law institutes for the development, use and understanding of Indigenous law.” 

Senator Murray Sinclair, former judge and Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said of the joint JD/JID program and Indigenous Legal Lodge: “They are precisely what we had hoped would follow from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they promise to form the very best of legacies: A set of initiatives that reject and reverse the pattern of denigration and neglect identified in our report, and that establish the conditions for effective action long into the future.”

Ii may be hard for some to accept in a province where the horrors of the residential school were so real; but lessons were learned and corrective action has, and is, being taken. There is still a long way to go and the road to reconciliation will always be a tough one to travel with such a heavy load of baggage from the past.

It will best be traveled if we have reminders of the past in clear view and never forget that cries for justice are best seasoned with mercy and delivered with an ambition to build rather than break.



When Alaska Was Ours For The taking

Little more than 150 years ago Vancouver Island came within a pen stroke of owning Alaska by right of conquest.

As noted in this spot a week ago, in mid-1850s England, owners of what was then a remote Pacific Island were at war with Russia on the other side of the world in Crimea. Vancouver Island, with an infant settlement tucked in a sheltered bay, was prospering under its new name Victoria, that had been bestowed on June 10, 1843, by the Hudson Bay Company’s (HBC) Council of Northern Development meeting in Fort Garry. Five months later on November 10, Queen Victoria gave her blessing and Camosack, the original name bestowed by the First Nation Lekwungen people, and the briefly named HBC’s Fort Albert became Victoria.

It was soon playing an unusual role in the Crimean war – at least the Hudson Bay Company was. The new settlement was prospering and producing far more in crops than it required. HBC marketed some surplus south to Washington and Oregon – but its most lucrative market was to the north, Russian Alaska. The Russian trade was approved by London with HBC and the Russian American Company signing a neutral non-aggression pact for the duration.

A weird situation. On the Black Sea in Europe, British troops were finding the supply of everything from munitions to rations difficult to maintain; Florence Nightingale and her nurses were beginning their fight to reform field hospital care and nutrition. Meanwhile, on the Pacific Coast, the HBC was making a tidy profit from officially approved trade with the enemy.

In addition to the dollar value he was providing his company, headman James Douglas was keeping a wary eye on his Russian trading partner and on May 16, 1854, penned a formal report and request to the Duke of Newcastle in the Colonial Office in London.

London’s decision makers, weeks away by even the fastest mails, probably spilled a few drinks when they eventually received Douglas’s shopping list.

He was asking for 400 muskets, 100 Minie rifles (a new super rifle), general gear, uniforms and boots for 500 men he was convinced he could raise locally. He would need one year’s supply of rations, four light guns (artillery) and some heavy guns to protect the entrance to Victoria Harbour. And, almost as a footnote, he said a squadron of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Fleet would help.

What did he intend to do with his instant army? In their book, British Columbia Chronicle 1847-1871, historians G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen B. Akrigg tell us what they found when they dug through British Public Records. Wrote Douglas: “A very serious injury might be inflicted on Russia by taking possession of all her settlements on the American coast north of Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii). They are all upon the seaboard and accessible to shipping. Their defences are on a scale merely calculated to cope with savages and could not be maintained against a regular force.”

The warriors of Whitehall were not impressed with the Douglas plan and launched instead a joint French-British land-sea attack on Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It was a brief and disastrous campaign with the British and French soon in full retreat. The British, with 26 dead and 79 wounded, retired to Victoria (Esquimalt); the French, with 26 dead and 78 wounded, to San Francisco.

Among the English dead was Rear Admiral David Price, overall commander of the operation. After his thwarted attack he attempted suicide by a shot to the heart, missed his target but hit a lung. In incredible pain he begged his second in command to finish the job but the officer refused to kill his commanding officer. Price died in agony a few days later.

The meticulous Akrigg historical researchers suggest Whitehall would have been better off accepting the Douglas offer: “Had the warships so ineffectually used at Petropavlovsk directed their guns against the weak Alaskan establishments, with landing parties made up of Douglas’s 500 Scots, French-Canadians and Indians, the campaign could hardly have failed.” They also noted that Russia had lost interest in its North American holdings and would probably have been open to offers to hand ownership to Britain as part of the treaty Russia signed in defeat to end the war in Crimea.

Whether the UK was slow to pick up on the offer or had enough with wild west acquisitions isn’t known, but all opportunity was lost in 1867 when Russia offered America its Alaska holdings for $7.2 million.

For those who love useless trivia it works out to two cents an acre.



From Camosack Peace To The Jaws of Hell

It looked promising from the start when James Douglas sailed into Camosack Harbour in 1842 on board the Hudson’s Bay Company Schooner Cadboro. He was looking for a site on which to build a replacement for Fort Vancouver, which was in the process of being evicted from its old location on the banks of the Columbia River in the USA. Douglas had been wandering the coast for weeks looking for a sheltered harbour with an essential fresh water supply and – equally essential – enough arable land to feed the anticipated population.

He had poked his head into Sooke Harbour, Pedder Bay and Esquimalt Harbour. They were impressive but didn’t quite fit HBC requirements. Then came the day when the Cadboro found its way past what we now call Ogden Point, across West Bay and around Laurel Point to the Inner Harbour. There he anchored and made his – for Victoria – momentous decision: “I made Choice of a Site for the proposed new establishment in the Port of Camosack (Camosun) which appears to me decidedly the most advantageous situation within the Straits of Juan de Fuca …”

He returned to Fort Vancouver but was back in Camosack on March 16, 1843 – this time with a work party. He reported the weather “clear and warm and wild gooseberry bushes in bud.” He had 12 workers with him – six to dig wells, six “to start squaring timbers.” He later wrote that he informed the local natives of his intent to build a fort and “they offered to provide the pickets” for the pay of “one two-and-a-half point Hudson’s Bay blanket for 40 pickets.” A “picket” for the outer wall of the fort was to be “22 feet in length by 36 inches in circumference.” One blanket for 40 “pickets” was hardly a Bay Day bargain.

Douglas and other senior HBC officials supervised construction and explored the surrounding countryside for that vital arable land required to feed the occupants of the new outpost and new settlers the HBC hoped would follow. The success of their exploration and the hard work that followed the first plough is recorded in a detailed study compiled by Douglas in 1854 and published a year later as The Census of Vancouver Island, 1855.

The stats didn’t claim to be 100 percent accurate but were close: around 300 (white) people in the Victoria-Sooke area, plus 125 at Nanaimo and maybe 25 at Fort Rupert (Port Hardy). So, about 450 people in 1853 and all, especially the “254 persons in the (now named) town of Victoria,” requiring farm produce.

The 111 men, 50 women, and 93 children were well supplied. Eleven years after Douglas landed with his 12 workers, there were four farms in the Esquimalt area – Constance Cove, Esquimalt Farm, Maple Point (better known as Craigflower) and Viewpoint Farm. All four were Puget Sound Company operations.

Douglas ruled over the rural acres known then and now as Fairfield. There were North Dairy Farm, McPhail’s Dairy, Uplands Farm, Beckley Farm, and “Mr. Cooper’s farm at Belmont.” In addition, all the landed gentry of the day ran their own farm operations of varying sizes to contribute to the well-being and economic growth of a once tiny fort now rushing headlong toward urban status.

In 1853, the Fairfield farm produced 530 bushels of wheat, 300 bushels of oats, 150 bushels of peas, eight bushels of barley and 400 bushels of potatoes. It was located on 90 acres of “improved land” and 328 acres “unimproved.” It was home for “10 horses, four cows, 12 working oxen, six “other cattle,” 44 swine and 26 poultry.

John Work, the Hudson’s Bay man, was up in the high production ranks with “40 acres of improved land and 543 acres unimproved” producing 500 bushels of wheat, 200 of oats, 100 of peas, 1,200 of potatoes plus 150 pounds of butter. He stabled 18 horses, milked seven cows, worked 12 oxen and had 20 “other cattle,” 59 swine and a modest four poultry.

In total, in 1853 Victoria area farms produced 4,715 bushels of wheat, 1,730 of oats, 1,567 of peas, 381 of barley, 900 pounds of wool, 6,125 bushels of potatoes, 690 pounds of cheese, 4,544 pounds of butter and 100 tons of turnips from 1,418 acres of improved land, 9005 unimproved with the aid of 284 horses, 240 cows, 216 working oxen, 560 “other cattle”, 6,214 sheep, 1,010 swine and 1121 chickens.

Production was more than needed to well feed the expanding population, so what happened to the surplus? Simple, they sold or traded it, some south to the States but most north to Russian Alaska. Trade ties between the HBC and its Russian counterpart were so strong that when the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and England broke out, the companies shook hands on their own “peace treaty” – or at least a free-trade non-aggression pact. There was “concern” in British Columbia and Russian Alaska that led to some “military defence preparations,” but not enough to seriously interfere with the trade which continued virtually uninterrupted with both governments turning a blind eye.

On Vancouver Island in the mid-1850s, life was good, the trade link with Russia firm – at least out in the far west. While businesslike farmers on Vancouver Island were counting their revenues from trade with Russia, England’s leading pacifist John Bright was pleading with Parliament to stop the war with Crimea.

“I shall not say one word here about the state of the army in Crimea, or one word about is numbers or its condition,” he told a subdued House of Commons. “Every member of this House, every inhabitant of this country, has been sufficiently harrowed with details regarding it. To my solemn belief thousands – nay, scores of thousands of persons – have retired to rest, night after night, whose slumbers have been disturbed, or whose dreams have been based upon the sufferings and agonies of our soldiers in the Crimea.”

It is said the silence was palpable when Bright, a Quaker by religion, launched his eloquent appeal to stop the bloodshed: “I am certain that many homes in England in which there now exists a fond hope that the distant one may yet return – many such homes may be rendered desolate when the next mail shall arrive. The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land you may almost hear the beating of his wings … He takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and the lowly, and it is on behalf of all these classes that I make this solemn appeal … to put an end to this war.”

They didn’t listen to John Bright in England and on Vancouver Island they didn’t even know he had made his eloquent appeal for peace. They did eventually learn about the Crimea War and 600 cavalrymen charging to certain death in the madness known as The Charge of the Light Brigade – one of the greatest blunders in British military history.

With Pride and Some Prejudice

When I wrapped up my few comments on Soccer’s World Cup contest in Russia a few weeks ago, my last line was one of regret that the nations sending teams to Moscow and beyond couldn’t use the same formula to settle more serious disputes.

How sweet it was, I thought, getting all on-field tussles settled instantly by a referee and two line judges backed by instant slow-motion playbacks if any particular incident had been too fast for the human eye to follow. 

How encouraging for future world peace to see teams from around the world paying respect to their opponents singing their homeland national anthem, and then bursting with pride to sing their own while their fans joined in their thousands from the stands. None was more inspirational than La Marseillaise, composed in 1792 by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle and the national anthem of France since 1795. It’s a spine-tingler when witnessed on TV and an emotional roller coaster if you’re ever lucky enough to be in a crowded stadium and hear 30,000 to 40,000 French fans lift their team as they rejoice in their country’s national song. But it isn’t what you would call a hymn for peace and brotherly love.

It’s better if you join in and enjoy the music but don’t pay attention to the words because they leave no doubt as to what the French are singing about. It isn’t the perfection of their passes, the precision of their set-plays from corners or free kicks. The first stanza sets the scene: “Let’s go children of the fatherland / The day of glory has arrived! / Against us tyranny’s / Bloody flag is raised! (repeat) / In the countryside, do you hear / The roaring of these fierce soldiers? / They come right to our arms / To slit the throats of our sons, our friends.” And then the triumphant chorus: “Grab your weapons, citizens! / Form your battalions! / Let us march! Let us march! May impure blood / Water our fields.”

Thankfully, the French usually excuse us from more than the first stanza and chorus at soccer and rugby games. The second stanza opens with “This horde of slaves, traitors, plotting kings, what do they want? For whom these vile shackles, these long prepared irons?” and sounds more like the threat of a New Zealand Maori Haka than a joyous rallying cry for a sporting team. But, I guess if it kept the mob together long enough to storm the Bastille and win the great revolution, it’s worth reminding today’s generation where their freedoms come from.

Not all World Cup national anthems carried a “remember the revolution theme” although most had at least a few lines reminding singers and listeners that, in the not too distant past, some of them were literally fighting for their lives as nations.

Mexicans sing “Mexicans, at the cry of war / Make ready the steel and the bridle/And let the earth shake to the core / At the roar of the cannon.” The second verse is a little softer calling its citizens to crown their heads with the olive wreath of peace because peace is Mexico’s eternal destiny as written in heaven then adds: “But should a foreign enemy / Profane your ground with their sole / Think, oh beloved country, that heaven has given you a soldier in every son.”

Scotland didn’t have a team in World Cup 2018 – and it doesn’t have an official national anthem – but anytime its team performs on a world stage it powers through Flower of Scotland, a solemn but moving dirge reminding today’s Scots of the time their forefathers “stood against Proud Edward’s army and sent him homewards, Tae, think again.” That would be the Battle of Bannockburn under the lead of Robert the Bruce. Solemnly, the Scots sing: “Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain, but we can still rise now, and be the nation again, that stood against him, Proud Edwards army, and sent him homeward, Tae, think again.”

And there are one or two nations with anthems of rare beauty. Wales, like Scotland, wasn’t at the World Cup of soccer. But, come this fall, it will be popping up at international rugby events and sweeping crowds of 75,000 or more to sing along in the Welsh language when that country’s anthem precedes every game it plays on the big stage. It is a fact that the Welsh national anthem is always sung in Welsh – but you can get an English version and join in your English unnoticed. A few scattered lines:

The land of my fathers is dear to me, / Old land where the minstrels are honoured and free; / Its warring defenders so gallant and brave, / For freedom their life’s blood they gave / Though foemen have trampled my land ‘neath their feet, / The language of Cambria still knows no retreat; / The muse is not vanquished by traitor’s fell hand, / Nor silenced the harp of my land.”

Then the final chorus: “Wales, Wales, true am I to Wales, While seas secure the land so pure, O may the old language endure.”

A favourite? I think so. One of the Cinderella teams in the World Cup contest was Iceland. It won admiration on the field for sportsmanship and the surprising quality of its on-field skills. Iceland’s anthem is titled Lofsongur (Song of Praise). There are several translations with some slightly longer than my choice, and YouTube has an array of choral versions. It’s worth a listen.

“O God of our land, O our land’s God,

We worship thy holy, holy name.

From the solar systems of the heavens

Bind for you a wreath

Your warriors, the assembly of the ages.

For thee is one day as a thousand years

And a thousand years a day and no more,

One small flower of eternity with a quivering tear,

That prays to God and dies.

Iceland’s thousand years, Iceland’s thousand years,

One small flower of eternity with a quivering tear,

That prays to its God and dies.”