De-naming British Columbia
The province owes its alias to a colonial power and a murderous American sea captain. It’s time for a conversation about the name British Columbia.
Canada’s westernmost province owes its alias to a colonial power and a murderous American fur trader. It’s time for a conversation about the name British Columbia.
THAT BRITISH COLUMBIA’S COLONIAL origins are apparent and embedded within the very names of this place is not a shocking revelation. Princess Louisa Inlet, Chatham Islands, Prince Rupert, and the provincial capital of Victoria are but a few of the echoes of colonial imposition of name and title upon these lands.
The existence of these names today is a reflection of the principle of terra nullius — a European legal fiction which held that land not occupied by Christians was vacant — and the Doctrine of Discovery — a set of principles decreed by fifteenth-century Roman Catholic popes which empowered European rulers to claim such land for themselves.
Since the earliest days of European voyages to the lands known as the Americas, conceptions of political, religious, cultural, and legal superiority of colonial powers were deeply intermeshed with highly racist and demeaning presumptions about Indigenous peoples the world over.
But what about the very name of this province itself? Although the colonial origins of the first part of the name — British — are obvious, how many of us know that we owe the second part of the name — Columbia — to a ship captained by an American fur trader, whose brief visit to our shores brought about the destruction of an entire Nuuchah-nulth community and wrought murder up and down the coast of present-day B.C.?
How many of us who live in the province are reflecting on what is wrapped up in the words that identify both the territory that we inhabit and the name that we call ourselves — British Columbians — as a collective?
As we reflect on the past one hundred and fifty years of B.C.’s history as part of Canadian Confederation, it is equally important to reflect on what the next one hundred and fifty years might look like. What are the consequences of failing to look hard at our collective identity in this time of truth telling and reconciliation?
To answer this question, we need to unpack what is layered within the name British Columbia.
Long before the place now called British Columbia was claimed by a foreign power and named after a murderer’s ship (more on this later), these territories were known by countless different and overlapping Indigenous names. These names, preserved and cherished by Elders and Knowledge Keepers but suppressed through assimilative systems like the residential schools, are now resurfacing.
In 2009, the Queen Charlotte Islands were officially stripped of their colonial moniker and given the name Haida Gwaii as part of a historic reconciliation agreement between the province and the Haida Nation. The name means “islands of the people” in the Haida language.
An agreement struck between the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation and the B.C. government prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., saw Skwxwú7mesh place names added to road signs along the province’s famed Sea-to-Sky Highway. Other efforts such as the 2001 Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas, which documents fifteen thousand years of natural, cultural, and spiritual history of the Coast Salish People, and the important work documenting WSÁNEĆ (Saanich) place names on the lands surrounding greater Victoria are but a few of the countless examples of community-led efforts to accurately depict the names of these territories.
Despite these efforts to enable Indigenous place names to resurface, we have yet to engage in a broad public conversation about the origins of the name of the province itself.
In early May 1792, the 213-tonne, three-masted sailing ship Columbia Rediviva, under the command of American Captain Robert Gray, navigated treacherous sandbars to enter the mouth of a great, wide river located at a northern latitude of approximately forty-six degrees on the Pacific coast of North America.
Spending eight days navigating up the river, the crew of the Columbia Rediviva met hundreds of Indigenous people along its lower stretches and traded goods with them for furs. Understanding the potential the waterway held for future exploitation, Gray named the river after his vessel and sent word of it to other sea captains trading along the Pacific coast, as he continued his travels around the world. The name of the Columbia River stands to this day as a testament both to his voyage and to the hallucination of discovery embedded in much of our collective history.
Digging into the history of the Columbia Rediviva reveals a highly problematic record — one filled not only with a lust for furs and wealth but with murder and violence wrought upon Indigenous peoples up and down the Pacific coast.
The journals of a young fifth mate named John Boit document the voyages of the Columbia Rediviva through the territories of many Indigenous nations, including the Nuuchah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tsimshian, and Chinook. Those same journals document a path of bloodshed up and down the coast, where the Columbia Rediviva and her sister ship, the Lady Washington, captained by John Kendrick, travelled.
Boit recounts Gray’s orders of January 1792 for three heavily armed boats launched from the Columbia Rediviva to destroy two hundred houses in Opitsaht — a community of Tla-o-qui-aht people (part of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation) on the west side of Vancouver Island. The crew members also kidnapped the son of Tla-o-qui-aht Chief Wickaninnish. The attack was ordered not in retaliation for aggression by the Tla-o-qui-aht people but merely out of fear of a possible attack.
“This fine village, the work of Ages, was in a short time totally destroy’d,” reads the journal, depicting not only the destruction of homes but of memories, cultural property, Indigenous archives, and sacred objects. Other chilling passages document incidents where entire canoes of twenty to thirty people were blown out of the water by cannon fire — incidents in which the crew of the Columbia Rediviva “no doubt kill’d every soul.” Further passages record the indiscriminate killing of “upwards of fifty” of “the Natives at Barrells Sound in Queen Charlotte Isles.”
While acts of resistance by Indigenous peoples were noted throughout the journals — including the killing of some members of trade vessels plying the waters of the coast — the clear and unambiguous pattern is one where resistance by Indigenous peoples was met with force,
attack, and murder at an overwhelmingly disproportionate scale. The death of a single crew member would result in the death of fifty Indigenous people. The journals depict a chilling disregard for Indigenous life: Lives were casually and frequently wiped out in the absence of a rigorous code of conduct, beyond the fraught relations between Indigenous nations attempting to protect their lands and Western nations pursing their colonial aspirations and intentions.
During the time of Gray’s voyage up the river that he named Columbia, the boundaries of territories claimed by the newly independent United States of America and rival European powers were still very much in flux. In fact, despite being named by an American captain, the Columbia River — flowing two thousand kilometres from its source in the Kootenay region of the Rocky Mountains to its mouth on the Pacific coast — emerged as an integral part of British commercial and colonial aspirations in the ensuing decades.
British Captain George Vancouver sailed into the river’s estuary just a few months after Gray departed in 1792. In 1825, the Hudson’s Bay Company constructed Fort Vancouver on the north bank of the river, one hundred and fifty kilometres inland from the Pacific Ocean. It became the company’s regional headquarters, the centre of all trading and shipping operations west of the Rocky Mountains.
At that time, Britain and the United States had not agreed on the boundary between what they considered British versus American territory west of the Rocky Mountains. Few non-Indigenous people lived in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the nineteenth century, but that was beginning to change with American settlers pouring over the Rockies into the territory they called Oregon. Proponents of America’s manifest destiny — a belief that white American settlers were destined by God to expand across the entire North American continent — wanted to extend American territory as far north as the fifty-fourth parallel and beyond. Meanwhile, the British government wanted to secure the area north of the forty-ninth parallel for British commerce and settlement. This involved both halting American expansion and deal
ing with the continuing impediment posed by Indigenous peoples in the eyes of the colonial powers.
Negotiations between the British and American governments resulted in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, by which the two colonial powers agreed that the border along the forty-ninth parallel, which had already been established east of the Rockies, would extend westward to the Pacific coast. Hence, the area of land crossed by the mighty Columbia River, west of the spine of the Rockies and north of the forty-ninth parallel, became “British Columbia.”
In September 1858, the legal regime that applied to these territories was formalized through letters of instruction sent by the colonial offices in London to HBC Governor James Douglas, authorizing him to “declare that English Law is in force in British Columbia.” In 1866 the British colony of Vancouver Island united with the mainland, and in 1871 British Columbia joined Canadian Confederation. The imposition of English law in these territories gave rise to waves of legislation and law-making that systematically and intentionally displaced Indigenous legal traditions while also being used as a mechanism to attack the human rights of Indigenous peoples of the coast. The instructions to Douglas thus marked the official birth of the colony of British Columbia and the corresponding formalization of its entry into the history of human rights violations.
On July 18, 2005, more than two hundred years after the destruction of the village of Opitsaht by the Columbia Rediviva, a tall wooden ship sailed into the waters off Tla-o-qui-aht Sound. On board were the descendants of Captain Robert Gray. Tla-o-qui-aht Keeper of the Beach and Chief Counsellor Barney Williams stood on shore to welcome them to land. Hundreds of Nuu-chah-nulth youth, Elders, and community members were present. In the ceremony that followed, Gray’s descendants apologized for “the abduction and insult to your Chief and his great family and for the burning of Opitsaht.” This marked an important recognition of the harms inflicted upon that community so many years prior — harms that remained in the community’s collective memory.
For Williams, this event was the first of two important apologies within the span of three short years. The second apology took place in the distant halls of Ottawa, where officials gathered in a solemn event in the House of Commons on June 11, 2008, to offer a national apology for the terrible abuse, harm, and pain inflicted on generations of children in residential schools. For Williams, this apology struck close to home. As a child, he, like so many others from Nuu-chah-nulth lands, had found himself locked as a student inside the Christie Indian Residential School (also known as the Kakawis Residential School) on Meares Island, B.C., only a few kilometres away from Opitsaht. Through no choice of his own, he was later shuffled to the Kamloops residential school — the very same school where the bodies of 215 children were found in an unmarked grave a short time ago.
These two apologies, issued just a few years apart, helped to reveal the buried events and tragedies that lay within the history of British Columbia and Canada.
Thirsty for control over the land, and driven by a desire to remove the power of Indigenous peoples, those who asserted first British, then Canadian, legal authority used that author
ity as a weapon against Indigenous peoples through layers upon layers of statutes and legislation. The 1876 Indian Act
— the very act that went on to mandate the attendance of young children like Barney Williams in residential schools and that threatened parents with fines or jail for resisting — laid a legal foundation that persists to the present.
The Indian Act remains law in Canada today, although it has been amended several times between 1951 and 2017 to remove some of the most egregious and outwardly racist elements, such as the ban on cultural and religious ceremonies; the prohibition of voting rights; prohibitions against assembling in a group of three or larger; provisions under which Indigenous women and their children lost their “Indian” status if they married non-Indigenous men; the power to force children into residential schools; and various other provisions that violated human rights and that were made possible through the assertion of colonial legal orders, coupled with the displacement of Indigenous legal orders.
The attacks on Opitsaht by the Columbia Rediviva continued the pattern established by the fifteenth-century explorer Christopher Columbus himself — the constant, looming, and ever-present threat of violence, should Indigenous peoples assert their inherent rights in a manner displeasing to the occupying powers who desired their lands and resources.
In 2008, responding to its national mandate, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada commenced its complex and painstaking journey of uncovering not only what occurred in the residential schools but also the origins of the system and the legacy left in its wake. Central in this was the recognition that the concept of terra nullius, the Doctrine of Discovery, and the imposition of colonial law formed a mutually reinforcing web that permitted the destructive violence perpetuated through the residential schools. The path of healing, the commission stated, led forward through an embrace of human rights by upholding the articles of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Yet we continue to live in a province where every child’s birth certificate is inscribed with the name British Columbia. Each and every vehicle licence plate is marked with the words. Our legislature proclaims the histories of both Britain and the Columbia Rediviva in its name and its laws. Each and every one of us in British Columbia carries the histories of the Columbia Rediviva and the destruction of Opitsaht in our identity. So, too, do we carry the displacement of Indigenous nations, law, practice, and custom in our maintenance and ongoing acceptance of Britain’s place within the name and laws of these territories.
It is time to look hard at the words spoken in those apologies and to reconsider the names by which we choose to identify the populace of these lands. At the very least, these names direct us to a history of bloodshed and violence that is deeply enmeshed in our collective history — one that is shared, one that remains submerged, but one that has already required repentance, apology, and contrition.
If this indeed is the history we bear within the name of our province, then must we not ask, what actions must follow these apologies? It is not enough simply to acknowledge the violence without making the necessary changes. We must discuss — with the benefit of the histories of Indigenous peoples present — whether this history of the extension of British law and the violence inflicted by the Columbia Rediviva is how we want to identify ourselves. If we are serious about reconciliation, it’s time to have the conversation about how we choose to identify ourselves as a collective moving forward.
If a change of the name of this province is indeed in order, what process might be adopted, and what might a name be? Would a province-wide referendum be an option, for example? Unfortunately, a referendum may, by its very nature, provide power to an entrenched majority while sidelining other communities that deserve equity as they seek to redress historic injustices.
As a case in point, in 2002 the B.C. government conducted a province-wide referendum under the guise of giving “the people of British Columbia” what B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant called “a direct voice in the principles that should guide the province’s treaty negotiations” with First Nations. Disturbingly, that referendum, with only one third of voters casting ballots, resulted in eighty-percent support for the B.C. government’s position. At the time, that position was out of step with certain federal laws, with recommendations issued by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and with the broad trajectory towards recognizing and affirming Indigenous human rights at the United Nations.
In exploring what a future name of this province might be, we must be aware of, and on guard against, a majority colonial-rule situation wherein the voices of Indigenous peoples and other historically silenced peoples are once again minimized. Herein, the province’s newly emerging legal landscape may provide direction. In 2019, B.C. became the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass legislation upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The declaration enshrines the right of Indigenous peoples to “designate and retain their own names for communities, places, and persons” while also affirming the positive responsibility of states to “combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among
B.C. is beautiful, without a doubt. But it’s not British; it never was.
Indigenous Peoples and all other segments of society.”
Together these articles provide direction to ensure both that Indigenous peoples are empowered to have traditional place names reflected in maps, museums, and textbooks and that the province upholds their right to do so.
Determining a new collective identity — one that encompasses multiple nations and territories — is a tall order. The process here is what counts; the dialogue is central. Who’s at the table and whose voices are heard is of critical importance.
If we are to retain the territorial boundaries of B.C. as we know it, we must ensure that multiple Indigenous nations are included in this discussion. Choosing to live together in a good way means that the discussions must also include not only the mainstream majority but also other groups, such as the countless migrants to these shores who were historically excluded from our legislatures, textbooks, and policy-making structures.
I do not have a perfect idea of what the new name of British Columbia should be — and, frankly, it could never and should never be up to a single person to decide.
But this conversation isn’t just about a name — it’s about how we choose to live together collectively, whose histories we listen to, and whose human rights we respect. Questioning the name of British Columbia is about how we choose to identify ourselves and whether we have the courage to continue to examine our human rights history on the coast.
B.C. is beautiful, without a doubt. But it’s not British; it never was. In maintaining that myth we continue in the erasure, not only of the complex histories of multiple Indigenous nations but also of the lives and histories of the countless migrants from around the world who have played an instrumental role in the foundation of this place.
I, for one, am not interested in celebrating the history of the Columbia Rediviva any longer.
Let’s open a dialogue about how we want to build a society worthy of celebration — not apology — one hundred and fifty years from now.