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. First described glowingly by Alexander Mackenzie in 1793, the interior plateau was soon opened to European trade so that by the first decade of the nineteenth century, the North West Company had expanded operations into the region, only to be followed by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1812, when it established Fort Kamloops. Initially welcomed, later tolerated by regional aboriginal peoples, the fur trade brought not only opportunities for exchange of furs, dried salmon and fresh meat, but introduced successive waves of devastating disease: smallpox arrived in 1802 (claiming victim almost half the aboriginal population), again in 1855 and 1862 (reducing native populations by an additional 62%); 1845 brought whooping cough; and, 1850 witnessed an outbreak of measles. By 1860, and the time of the famed Cariboo gold rush, the relationship between aboriginal peoples and colonists had tipped markedly and irrevocably in favour of the latter--two years earlier mainland British Columbia was made a British colony, and in the following decades (and with British Columbia's entry into Canadian confederation in 1871), successive governors and a series of commissioners encouraged rapid, wholesale European settlement in addition to the gradual assimilation and extending of "civilisation" to aboriginal nations. Initially ignored in the nearly century and a half since the formal extension of colonial control and the arrival of settlers by the thousands into the Cariboo-Chilcotin, claims by the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot'in, and Carrier first nations to aboriginal title over their traditional territories were later denied outright by colonial administrators, government officials, and, until recently, the provincial and federal courts. Early experiments with a reserve system and the infamous preemption programme (whereby settlers merely laid formal claim to parcels of "unoccupied land up to 320 acres," whereupon "Indian squatters" were subject to eviction), left only undesirable tracts for lawful aboriginal occupation, and further have alienated native people from their territory and their heritage ever since. Effectively prevented from participation in the contemporary primary (resource-based), secondary, and tertiary economies, aboriginals in the Cariboo-Chilcotin have been pushed to the margins of welfare dependency.

In a chapter entitled The Landscape of Public History: Pioneers, Progress, and the Myth of the Frontier, Furniss introduces the reader to a colonial mentality with a distinctive difference. Although there may be a shared occupancy of public spaces in Williams Lake and Quesnel, there is little mixing, and non-aboriginal perceptions of absolute difference persist amid an idealized and colonialist separation, all underlined by a popular myth of the Cariboo-Chilcotin as a frontier. Images of European expansion, settlement, and industry and "a frontier rich in traditions and where the seemingly empty wilderness remains 'untamed' and 'untouched' " abound in local popular culture, saturating the landscape with "truths"--even restaurant placemats in Williams Lake praise "settlers who came to Canada's West [and] made this magnificent land their own" (p. 53). Popular literature on pioneer life including such titles as Outlaws and Lawmen of Western Canada and March of the Mounties, reify a dominant colonial theme in Canadian history of "conquest through benevolence," whereby "we have treated our Aboriginal people well"--here pioneer heroes "do not inflict violence; instead they impose peace, order, and good government on Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike" (p. 63). Furniss describes a series of public museum displays in Williams Lake, identifying the past lives of "ordinary people" through selective accounts of colonial settlement in the Cariboo-Chilcotin. Aboriginal people, selectively invisible, are presented as part of the historical background to European settlers in some displays, omitted entirely in others. Public school curricula throughout the region often ignore (or "systematically forget" as Furniss identifies) issues of cultural diversity in favour of a narrow nationalist ideology. Aboriginal cultures, when mentioned in history textbooks, are often presented as passive, static civilisations at the time of contact, who lived quietly in the forests and streams of the wilderness, only to become "dependent on the brandy or rum forced upon them by traders," for which they traded "valuable buffalo robes, furs, horses, food, and some even their wives and daughters" (p. 58-59). Causes are sacrificed in favour of symptoms of aboriginal decline, and territorial dispossession and economic disruption as the result of colonial expansion are excluded from explanation. In sum, pervasive and influential historical epistemologies have become understood as "truths" crystallizing public consciousness. Yet it is through the medium of the Williams Lake Stampede, an annual four-day rodeo and festival of the frontier, that the city "transforms itself into a mythological Wild West town, with storefronts and interiors decorated with motifs of cowboys, Indians, and cattle" (p. 8). As hegemonic theatre, the Stampede elevates pioneers and cowboys to the level of culture heroes, while typecasting and relegating aboriginal people to the level of historical curiosities, otherwise invisible in the public domain.

Who is to blame? Furniss not only identifies local working-class myth, "common sense racism," and "truth" and the fashion in which they "are communicated intuitively and indirectly, appealing to imagination, fantasy, and emotion" (p. 187), but presents local attitudes and behaviours as not so much false consciousness, rather as one of a number of possible frameworks for understanding within a colonial culture. Here some readers may require further discussion--how can one explain racist, exclusionary beliefs and the practice of widespread status domination in a liberal plural state? What too, of aboriginal responses to decades of ignorance and maltreatment? Here Furniss offers partial answers: redirecting the "colonial gaze," attempts to construct "cultural bridges," embracing the politics of embarrassment, the use of what Sivak identifies as "strategic essentialism," and various forms of counter-hegemonic resistance.

The Burden of History attempts much, and achieves most of what it sets out to accomplish. One real strength Furniss brings to the topic is her appreciation for the depth and range of relevant topics: chapters variously tackle issues of right-wing politics, the lengthy and complex history of treaties and the land claim process in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, and institutional racism in the administration of aboriginal justice. Combining methods and models from anthropology, culture studies, media analysis, and a fair degree of textual exegesis, the present volume offers a sound and expansive overview of a devilishly complex phenomenon. Critics may find it to be rather too finely spread, perhaps better concentrating on one or two of the many topics presented. Yet in a time when many Canadians will continue to contemplate their collective national identity (or lack thereof), including the history of so-called benevolent paternalism, and in the months and years that will follow British Columbia's failed and shamefully notorious experiment in popular politics--in the guise of the recent province-wide referendum on aboriginal treaty rights, land claims, and public policy--Furniss is to be congratulated for her efforts here. Many, if not all readers will be most glad they gave this book a read.