On July 8, news broke that the statue of Judge Matthew Begbie, also the first Chief Justice of the then Crown colony of B.C. in 1858, was removed from the front of the courthouse in New Westminster.
It’s hardly surprising, as the decision to remove it or not has been in the press for a while now. And it’s not like it hasn’t been a hot topic in the Cariboo. After all, the decision for the statue’s removal is based on an event that happened in the region.
Begbie presided over the trail of five Tsilhqot’in men for their part in a conflict in 1864 known as the Chilcotin War, the Chilcotin Uprising or the Bute Inlet Massacre.
Fourteen men employed by Alfred Waddington, a Victoria-based politician and businessman, were killed while working on a wagon road connecting Bute Inlet to Fort Alexandria that would also connect to the Cariboo Road and onto the goldfields of Barkerville.
The construction crews entered the unceded lands of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation without permission. The construction crew employed their people but were underpaying them. Lhats’as?in (Klattasine), a chief of the Chilcotin people, declared war on the road crew, leading to the aforementioned deaths and prior to that, a ferry-keeper. The small war band also attacked a pack-train, killing three more people.
Under false pretences of peace talks, Lhats’as?in and four other Tsilhqot’in Chiefs were arrested. All five were hanged near Quesnel, with one more Chief arrested and then hanged in New Westminster after a murder trial presided by Begbie. The trial and execution were contested by the Tsilhqot’in, as it was a conflict between two sovereign nations.
In 2014, Premier Christy Clark exonerated the hanged men of all wrongdoing and was reciprocated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on behalf of the Government on March 26, 2018.
However, this column isn’t meant to be a historical analysis or justification of either side. It’s supposed to be about the statue, which has been described as a “symbol of the colonial era and grave injustice,” which is accurate. It’s one chapter in a story that started in 1534 when Jacques Cartier entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and is still unfinished. A lot of those chapters are dark, from smallpox, seizing land, residential school and the Highway of Tears.
Removing the statue is not erasing history. Lhats’as?in, the other chiefs and Begbie will still be in history books. The removal of Begbie’s statue is an acknowledgement of history, a shared history. It’s not a personal affront to Begbie or white Canadians and their ancestors. Canada is just adding another point of view to the history books.