The Burden of History: Colonialism and the Frontier Myth in a Rural Canadian Community

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Furniss, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999, xii + 237 pages, ISBN 0-7748-0710-5.

Reviewer: M.J. Whittles

University College of the Cariboo

Popular images of contemporary Canada paint a picture that is often naively presumed to be one of a modern postcolonial nation-state: a territory previously optimized as a settler colony, yet granted dominion status 135 years ago, henceforth politically independent, with few, if weak ties to the European "mother state(s)," and long having abandoned a colonial mentality of indigenous domination in favour of liberal pluralism. In reality however, Canada persists as a colonial society in which settler populations continue to exert considerable authority over subordinate minority indigenous populations. Status and non-status Indians, Metis and the Inuit have neither witnessed nor benefited from the retreat or relaxation of non-aboriginal colonial political and cultural domination in the nearly five centuries since European contact. Indeed, the culture of ethnic dominance in Canada often exceeds the ongoing practices and legacies of conventional models of colonialism that span political, military and economic exercises to include the production of dominant cultural ideologies and practices, the fabrication of hegemonic narratives, metaphors and symbols, as well as the imposed adoption of the shared perspectives and experiences of the colonizers. It is from the standpoint of this contemporary colonial culture that Elizabeth Furniss addresses her examination of popular culture, ethnicity and racism, and historiography in the central interior of British Columbia. Drawing from sources as diverse as regional historical records, archival research, popular text, public imagery and art, community school curricula, and some first-hand ethnographic inquiry, Furniss has crafted sophisticated and compelling scholarship that leaves the reader considerably better informed, but somewhat uneasy about the state of ethnic relations in Canada. Drawing from the ideas of Edward Said, Scott James and Richard Slotkin, The Burden of History weaves fresh data and interpretations to create a revealing commentary that is as demanding of the reader's attention in reaching conclusions as it is critical of the current Canadian scene.

A broad, dry interior plateau northwest of Vancouver, the Cariboo-Chilcotin region is a territory of mixed forests, punctuated by vast rich grasslands. The Secwepemc, Tsilhqot'in, and Carrier first nations, who currently number about 6,000--about 9% of the total regional population--live largely in fifteen reserve communities and have always occupied the region. Newcomers, most of whom inhabit the communities of Williams Lake and Quesnel, form the current majority, consisting of residents of British, German, French and Dutch ancestry, but also including a significant first- and second-generation East Indian population. The region is dominated by a reliance on resource industries, and as such, it demonstrates a distinctly working-class ethos. Colonial ideology holds that the region prospered through the entrepreneurialism, competitiveness, rugged individualism and frontier spirit of "cowboy country," and little attention is popularly paid to the original inhabitants. Furniss delivers conclusive evidence to support her arguments, but one example persuasive and gripping enough to be reproduced here is that of ex-New York real estate salesman Rich Hobson, who following the 1929 stock market crash, decided to forgo city life for the adventure of the northern Chilcotin plateau: "Yeah," he was reportedly told by an acquaintance in Wyoming, "That's my gold mine. Grass! Free grass reachin' north into unknown country. Land--lots of it--untouched--just waitin' for hungry cows, and some buckaroos that can ride and have guts enough to put her over" (p. 68). Hobson left for British Columbia without delay.

In a tale dissonantly familiar of students of culture contact history, Furniss opens The Burden of History with an outline of the record of European colonisation in the Cariboo-Chilcotin. …