Stories in stone – confronting colonial monuments

On February 20, I gave a City Talks lecture on Stories in Stone. If you’d prefer to read rather than watch (and miss me spilling water everywhere at the end), you can see my written speech below. Please note, these were my written notes and not a transcript. There was also an interesting discussion after I finished that I’d recommend watching.

I have the very great pleasure of being an elected city councillor in New Westminster. I am the first millennial ever elected to New West City Council (#eldermillennial) which also means I am currently the youngest member and I am the only renter currently on council in New West. And along with my colleague Chinu Das, I was the first person of colour elected to serve on New West City Council. This was in 2018. The reason why I tell you this is because perspectives matter. I am an intersectional feminist which means that I believe in situated knowledge. Situated knowledge means what one knows or experiences reflects their social, cultural, and historical location. So it’s important to tell you who I am and what experiences and perspectives I bring. I’m going to return to this idea later. 

Let’s talk about where New West is situated: New Westminster has the somewhat unique placement of being at the intersection of a number of nations. This is probably because of our location along the Fraser River. In the Halkomelem language, New Westminster was known as the resting place.  And I don’t have the least hesitation to say that we are far behind on our reconciliation efforts. New Westminster was the provincial capital before Victoria – a strange fact and something that many folks in New Westminster won’t let go of. As the historical capital, a lot of the racist actions against Indigenous and racialized peoples originated from New West. 

Additionally, the land where New Westminster is based is claimed by a number of different nations – the Qayqayt (a small landless nation that was declared extinct before Chief Rhonda Larabee reclaimed her heritage), the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, the Katzie, the Kwantlen, the Sto:lo, the Kwikwetlem. And potentially other nations for whom colonialism has attempted to erase their history from the land. But there aren’t any reserves in New West. I name these nations to highlight the complexity of Indigenous relationship to land, the difficulties that a colonial worldview has imposed – being that only one person can own a square of land and that tenure is fixed – and to also highlight that if we acknowledge that land is unceded, then that means it’s stolen. Wait – that’s a cop out. Stolen by whom? Stolen by the colonizers, by settlers, by the government.  And that means we have to have a real conversation about giving land back. 

But this isn’t about giving land back, though perhaps it should be. This is about public spaces and places. It’s about monuments. 

New Westminster is built on a hill. The provincial courthouse is built at the bottom of the hill and is flanked by a grand concrete staircase. And standing guard in front of the court house was a statue of Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie. Judge Begbie became the first Chief Justice of the Crown Colony of British Columbia and served from 1858-1866. After his death, he became known as the Hanging Judge and we have a pub in New West named after him – their tagline is “let’s hang”. Not even kidding.

If you look up Begbie on Wikipedia, you will see mentioned that he rode around the province on horseback and that he sang opera. Interesting.

You’ll also find significant space given to his convicting a white man, William Marshall, for assaulting a First Nations man (unnamed) based solely on the testimony of First Nations People (also unnamed). He’s also credited with speaking several languages and “conducted trials in several aboriginal languages without the use of an interpreter”, which as it turns out is Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trade language spoken throughout the Pacifc Northwest. What I’m suggesting here is an aggrandizing of Begbie’s legacy.

There’s also two lines on the fact that in 1864, he presided over the murder trial of five Tsilquot’in men. They were found guilty and sentenced to hang. There’s two lines on the British Columbian government exonerating what they referred to as six Tsilquot’in chiefs. So in other words, his singing opera and riding around the province was as notable as an act that deeply impacted the Tsilhqot’in Nation and in fact changed the trajectory of colonization. Here’s what my motion said about this history:

WHEREAS in 1864, at Quesnelle, in the Colony of British Columbia, Judge Matthew Begbie presided over the trial that resulted in the wrongful hanging of Chief Lhats’asin, Chief Biyil, Chief Tilaghed, Chief Taqed, and Chief Chayses of the Tsilhqot’in Nation; and 

WHEREAS in 1865 Chief Ahan was also wrongfully hanged in New Westminster; and 

WHEREAS the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs, who were at war with the Colony of British Columbia, were deceived into meeting with the Colonial Government, for the purpose of peace talks; and  

WHEREAS in 2014, the British Columbia government apologized to the Tsilhqot’in Nation for hanging the Chiefs; and 

WHEREAS in 2018, the Government of Canada exonerated the Chiefs; and 

WHEREAS the Judge Begbie statue is a symbol of the colonial era and this grave injustice; and

WHEREAS the execution of the 6 Tsilhqot’in Chiefs changed the relationship and was used as a threat to all indigenous peoples attempting to defend their lands  

I took this language from the government of Canada exoneration of the six war chiefs. 

In May of 2019, I co-sponsored a motion to remove the Begbie statue. Some people were taken aback as I had previously said that I did not have an opinion on what happened with the statue and that my views on the statue didn’t matter. This is still true. This action was in response to the Tsilhqot’in National Government calling for the statue to be removed. They made this call in 2016 after the Law Society removed their statue. It took us three years to respond. As many people likely know, the UVIC law school also took actions to remove Begbie from their organization. In a 4-2 vote, council supported the motion and the statue was removed in July.  

This is a quote from the Tŝilhqot’in National Government’s press release following the removal. 

From the Tŝilhqot’in perspective, Judge Begbie represents a legacy of betrayal, pain and tragedy for our people,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government. “Removing Judge Begbie’s statue from public spaces does not remove him from history, but rather recognizes our history and our experience as Indigenous peoples. We are grateful for the leadership shown by the New Westminster city council and for the understanding and compassion for our people that this decision reflects.”

I could stop now, because this is really what matters. The Tŝilhqot’in people as well as urban Indigenous people said they were harmed by the statue. So we removed it. 

But this is when settlers began to care about the Begbie statue. 

Of all the names I was called after this story was covered across the country, the most creative may be an “intimidating arbiter of moral fashion”. But the clear winner for choice insult was “you’re an idiot”. I received a lot of those. 

A couple of days before the motion was made public, the Mayor suggested that I prepare some speaking points for the media, and in my naivete, I believed that media interest would be limited to our local paper. In fact, all the major outlets covered that there was a motion to remove, that we did vote to remove the statue, then the removal itself. It was a story that just wouldn’t go away. What the media didn’t cover was the full motion which included an aspect of consultation to better tell the full story of the Chilcotin War. And yet, in each media interview I was asked about whether this motion is erasing history. 

It strikes me as incredibly ironic that thousands and thousands of years of Indigenous history have been erased. That the government tried to erase the history residential schools – until quite recently, many people including Indigenous people did not know the violence the government had inflicted on their ancestors. Where were the history-defenders’ demands to preserve that history? Where’s the outrage that the Indigenous histories have been erased from the lands of New West? In fact, I suspect, based on the blatant racism in many of the emails I received, that it’s those same people telling Indigenous people to “get over it”. 

“This is revisionist history!” the detractors yell. And to that, I say “Canadian history IS revisionist history!”

So whose history matters? Whose stories are worth preserving? And is there really only one true telling of history that we all need to agree upon? Remember, perspectives matter.

Some people have commented to me that it would have been better to keep the statue and contextualize it. We could have put up a plaque, we could have added something to the statue to nuance the history.

And perhaps we could have. But who would have decided that language? Who would have decided what would have been appropriate in that space? Again, the question – whether we removed the statue or added to the statue – is about decision-making and whose voices matter in this debate.

I want to linger on this point for a moment. 

Prior to being elected to council, I did not see any work on reconciliation happening in New West. It’s one of the reasons I ran for council. But before that, in 2017, I co-organized a series of events to try to prompt conversation on reconciliation in the community. Along with Hayley Sinclair and Babs Kelly, organized a public dialogue at our conference centre that platformed four Indigenous people who spoke about what reconciliation meant to them – Harlan Pruden, Josh Dahling, Tuy’t’tanat Caese Wyss, and Natasha Webb and it was moderated by Dave Seaweed from Douglas College, and music was provided by Eden FineDay. It was attended by the council of the time, the MLA, and around 300 members of the community. And it really did start the conversation. We followed that up with a series of kitchen table dialogues using the toolkit from Reconciliation Canada. After gathering reflections from all the events, we presented a report to council with a series of recommendations. 

For me, this was really about dialogue and listening. And there’s two things that stand out for me: urban Indigenous people said that the presence of the statue hurt them. It symbolized the legacy of colonization and residential schools. It didn’t just symbolize it – it celebrated it. Its presence reinforced that the city did not care about them or their well-being. As my friend Rhiannon Bennet who is Musqueam said just after the removal, “why would anyone support celebrating the perpetrators of genocide”?

The other thing that stood out to me was that anytime I talked about reconciliation or the process of organizing these dialogues, white men would come up to me and tell me that they wanted a seat at any table working on reconciliation in New West. I was never the decision-maker about these tables and who would sit at them. But on several occasions, settlers felt it was necessary to let me know that they wanted their voice and opinions centred in whatever process the city developed. 

So I’ll linger for a little longer on this point about whose voices matter in this discussion.

If you can’t tell by my last name, I’m Japanese Canadian – hapa which means mixed race. The BC government is currently undertaking consultation about what would be an appropriate apology for Japanese internment during the second world war. My grandmother Kuniko Nakagawa was interned at Popoff which is in the Kootenays. She was separated from my grandfather who was sent to work on roads. She’s still alive, in her mid-90s. I will unequivocally say that what she thinks is an adequate apology for internment is more important than what any non-Japanese Canadian person thinks. I would go so far to say that if you are white and your family does not have a history of internment, that I don’t think your opinion matters at all. 

Does that hurt? Is it offensive to be told that your opinion on an issue isn’t needed? Maybe it does, and I invite us to consider both explicit and implicit ways that we communicate that to members of our communityi. The ways in which we prioritize and centre certain types of people and marginalize others. Can you see it? If you can’t see it, it might be because you’re in the centre. And maybe one of the ways we do this, that we tell people they don’t matter, is ignoring them when they tell us they are harmed by something in a public space, like a statue. 

Have you ever been in a public place and felt not welcome by the built environment? Have you ever looked around your city or community and thought that this does not reflect my experience, my history, or my life? The stories we tell about our community – are these your stories? Do they reflect your understanding of our shared story? And on the other side, have you ever considered the ways in which the city IS built for you, does reflect you, and who that might exclude?

The fact is, history is not objective. But too often we treat it like it is. But look at the way that Begbie’s Wikipedia page is written (and yes I know that Wikipedia is not academic history, but for people in my community and across the province who heard about the statue removal and decided to look up Begbie, what do you think their source was? Wikipedia or academic journals?) How they prioritized some so-called facts, like singing opera, over others shows a bias in the way the writers of that article wanted him portrayed. These types of biases exist within academia too. But beyond that, it is clear that settlers and Indigenous people have a very different historical telling of Judge Begbie. 

For the traditional writers of British Columbian history, the settlers, Begbie was the first Chief Justice. He was rugged and quirky. His personality is more interesting than his record because he was just doing his job for which he has been memorialized.

For the Tŝilhqot’in, he is the person who helped lure their war chiefs into what they thought were peace talks, then tried then, then hung them, thus sending their community into disarray and threatening their connection to their land. (If you don’t know Delgamuukw, look it up – spoiler alert, it’s about the Gixsan and the Wet’suwet’en. And look up Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia while you’re at it.)

Which telling has received more prominence? Which is “true”? Which is important? Are either of these histories incorrect?

To add another layer onto this, Begbie has been heralded for his tolerance towards the Chinese community. He said that the “four prominent qualities” of the Chinese were “industry, economy, sobriety, and law abidingness” and he also set aside challenges to Chinese laundry and pawnshops. So there’s a story to be told there too. But does it centre Chinese voices? 

For me, this is about continued control over public spaces and control over future narratives. If we are recontextualizing historical figures, who is next? By contesting narratives, we contest the mythology that we have been taught about Canada. And if we do that, if we recognize that we are on stolen land, what does that mean?

I want to talk a bit more about the placement of the Begbie statue. I mentioned that it was placed in front of the law courts. We know that Indigenous people are overrepresented in all the negative stats. Homelessness, overdose deaths, and yes incarceration rates. 

The courthouse at New West is also home to the first Indigenous court in the province which opened in 2006. That’s only 10 years after the last residential school closed.

The Indigenous court does not conduct trials, but instead aims to provide support and healing to assist in rehabilitation and to reduce recidivism while also acknowledging and repairing the harm done to victims and the community. Their focus is collaborative and holistic, recognizing the unique circumstances of Indigenous offenders within the framework of existing laws. In other words, it’s a form of restorative justice and diverts people out of the criminal justice system. So we have a restorative justice court that involves elders and the people attending the court had to walk by the Begbie statue on their way in. 

Are places neutral? 

I would argue that the Begbie statue was in a place of power in front of the courthouse. It was a flex. It was not simply a reflection of the past, but a reflection of our current state and of the future. That’s what public spaces are.

So back to the question of adding a plaque that could contextualize the monument. That’s one idea. Another idea is adding huge monuments of the six war chiefs encircling Begbie. Would that have been the right move? I’ll go back to the place – this is in front of the court house. People, and again – disproportionately Indigenous people – go to the courthouse at their most vulnerable moments, either as victims or accused of crimes. Is this the right place to explore the complexity of colonization and the Chilcotin War? I’m not against having the Begbie statue with context – whether in the form of art or description elsewhere – but I do not think that’s appropriate in front of the court house. Perhaps we could find another place, like the museum. 

Remember that list of Nations from the beginning of my talk? The Qayqayt, Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Sto:lo, Kwantlen, Kwikwetlem. If this is their territory, should we be adding monuments of non-Coast Salish Chiefs to this territory? What do their chiefs and band councils have to say about this?

And isn’t the idea of memorializing one person, almost always a man, colonial in itself? Which Indigenous culture across Turtle Island – and yes there are many, there’s no such thing as pan-Indigenous culture – put up statues? 

Reconciliation isn’t easy. In trying to do right by the Tsilhqot’in, we can’t perpetuate harm upon the local First Nations. Their desires for the land must be considered and centred. I see removing colonial monuments very differently than I see adding statuary, even in an attempt to reconcile. 

No, this isn’t sideways. This is a replica of the Edward VII equestrian statue that has been standing in Queen’s Park in Toronto since 1969. This is a life-size replica version of the bronze statue and it’s made of styrofoam and wood. The artists, Amy Lam and Jon McCurley from the performance art group Life of a Craphead, sent the replica floating down the Don River. 

This image is from the University of North Carolina, where students are protesting a statue of Silent Sam. This statue was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. When the statue was unveiled, a Confederate veteran and University of North Carolina trustee Julian Carr gave what has now been described as a white supremicist speech. The statue was later pulled down by the protesters. The governor, who had previously called for removal of monuments, criticized the action and saying, “The Governor understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.” The harm of racist systems and policies are less concerning I guess. 

This might strike a little close to home. This is from Regina, where Patrick Johnson, a settler, painted the John A MacDonald statue. He was charged with mischief. Johnson said this wasn’t mischief, it was a statement. “I wanted to correct the history of the moment and of also the space,” he said. 

“I wanted to create a safe space for which people of all races could come to without seeing a symbol of their oppression.”

This is again from the Edward VII in Queen’s Park. This is called “Where Once Stood a Bandstand for Cruising & Shelter” from 2017. It was performed by Hazel Meyer and collaborators for Nuit Blanche Toronto. 

It was originally supposed to be placed over the King Edward VII statue, but for logistical reasons they had to move it. But it’s interesting to consider highlighting different histories on a space. 

This is by artist Jason Wing, Captain James Crook.

This is performance art from Kingston. It’s called “Dear John; Louis David Riel”. This is Metis artist David Garneau as part of curator Erin Sutherland’s Talkin’ Back to Johnny Mac performance series. It was intended to intervene in the official celebration of Sir John A’s 200th birthday. 

This is from Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa. Cape Town University. 2015. This is a Cecil Rhodes statue. The campaign started when Chumani Maxwele threw human excrement onto the statue of Rhodes because he saw it as a “Symbol of the colonial history that South Africa is still dealing with”. Sound familiar? 

The protesters were criticized for their tactics. Sound familiar? Once the statue was removed, there was a play written about Rhodes Must Fall. So art about the process of removing the statue.
Maxwele also said “There is no collective history here – where are our heroes and ancestors?” 

This is called “We Come to Witness: Sonny Assu in Dialogue with Emily Carr” , April 23.

This is from Acuncion, Paraguay. It’s a statue of their former dictator Alfred Stroessner which was given to Carlos Colombino to reimagine and he used bits of the original statue and sandwiched it between two big concrete blocks. 

So this one is a bit weird to me. This is a performance on the Whitman statue at Whitman College in Walla Walla Oregon. The performance took place from November 11-15 and was meant to parody the act of cleaning. The intention was to engage the Whitman community in a discussion about the ongoing legacy of settler colonialism and genocide on campus. It was coordinated by the students in the Art and the Anthropocene class, taught by Associate Professor of Art M. Acuff. The performance piece included a manifesto, authored by the class as a collective which outlines an open framework through which to engage with the piece both ideologically and physically. Rather than being a restrictive set of guidelines, it was meant to be a means by which people could engage in conversation. 

This one prompts a couple of questions for me:

  1. Were there Indigenous people in this class? And how were their perspectives and safety taken into account?
  2. Did the class consider the harm that discussions about colonization could have on Indigenous students and members of the community? I’m thinking about when the report on the MMIWG was released and how Canada engaged in a discussion about the word genocide. I saw very clearly the harm that had on Indigenous women. Many of my friends just sort of collapsed in dismay. It was very very harmful.
  3. What impact is this meant to have? How does it make spaces comfortable or safer for Indigenous and marginalized people in the future?

I’m a campaigner – I’ve organized a number of political and issue-based campaigns and I’m always interested in outcomes – what are you hoping these actions will achieve? It’s not always necessary to know – I support iterative processes. But it’s always worth considering.

This one is particularly interesting not only because it’s in New West. That’s the Simon Fraser bust. And the red line around it is an intervention by artist Maddie Leach. Her proposal was to actually cut that piece out and float it down the Fraser River. She received consent from New West city council, but it was contingent on getting support from local First Nations. They didn’t oppose her doing it, they just weren’t interested in engaging with her on it. Perhaps because it wasn’t important to them.

Part of this project, called Lowering Simon Fraser, highlighted the fact that this bust had been moved multiple times. And each time it was moved, the plinth it was upon was shortened, and it was moved to a lower place in the city – remember New West is basically a giant hill. So it really highlights that monuments aren’t fixed in the way we currently imagine them to be.

I attended a dialogue session presented by the artist on this project. She talked about how, when she was painting that red line on the pedestal, multiple people challenged her on it. And eventually the police were called. She had permission so it was fine. I’d also mention that Maddie Leach is a white woman from New Zealand.

I’ve led several public art projects that have begun with me and an artist, late at night, drawing outlines on public spaces in the city – a wall in downtown New West, almost right across from the police station, a public washroom building in a well-used park. It was dark out, but each time people saw us. We were never challenged. People just seemed to assume that we had the right to do it, or they just didn’t care that we were doing what we were doing. Very interesting that when you touch a piece of a statue, then the police are called. 

I wanted to highlight these various statues and art interventions to show that there are definitely ways in which artists and activists have confronted colonial monuments. I believe that art is an entry point to difficult conversations, and opens us up to different ways of knowing and understanding. It presents opportunities. It eases us in, but can also smack us in the face with realization. So yes, more art. But we have to be careful about it.

Look, the fact is that Begbie probably wasn’t the worst person for the job of Chief Justice. He’s quoted as saying “seems horrible to hang five men at once — especially under the circumstances of the capitulation.” The death penalty was automatic. But again, which parts of his history are most important? 

By accounts, Begbie wouldn’t even have wanted to have been memorialized in this way. Apparently he wanted “no other monument than a wooden cross be erected on my grave, that there be no flowers and no inscription but my name, dates of birth and death and ‘Lord be Merciful to Me a Sinner.

And if Begbie didn’t want a monument, who else is hurt by removing the statue? Were settlers harmed by this? I have to say that I very sincerely doubt it. 

Are people missing out on learning history because they can’t come down to the courthouse in New West and read this plaque? 

Colonialism isn’t just in the past. We are living in a colonial country and the impacts are alive and well. Racism against Indigenous people isn’t something of a long forgotten day, we live in a world of systems that continue to disadvantage and harm Indigenous people. 

The story of the Begbie statue isn’t over. We still need to talk about where it should go, how it should be presented. But even before that, we need to decide who gets to decide, whose voices matter. I hope we’re able to agree that those affected should be the ones whose voices are centred. And I hope we can learn together.

Statues aren’t how we learn our history. History books, Wikipedia articles, and stories are how we learn our history. 

There’s a wonderful quote that I’m going to interweave here from a CBC panel on the John A. McDonald statue removal. This is a quote from Dawnis Kennedy who is from Rosehill River, Anishinaabe First Nation, located in Manitoba, Treaty 1 territory. She works at the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre in Winnipeg, has a bachelor of law from the University of Toronto, and a Masters of Law and Society from the University of Victoria, focused on Aboriginal rights and Indigenous laws. She is currently working on a Ph.D. of Law through the University of Toronto, focused on Ojibwe laws. When I read her bio, I thought “whoa.” This is what she said about this issue:

“We need to raise the consciousness of our country, to move beyond reconciliation as something that’s appeasing Indigenous peoples. We need to take responsibility for the fact that our narrative about Canada isn’t true. It’s based on racism and dehumanization of Indigenous people. We tell a story that John A. McDonald is the founder of Canada. That confederation is the moment of Canada’s birth. Our treaties are the moment of Canada’s birth.” 

She talks a bit about how there are treaties between Indigenous people and settlers, but also treaties between First Nations, and even non-human treaties – treaties of the earth.

I agree with Dawnis. There are more stories that we need to hear, older stories. 

And as Dawnis’s co-pannelist Chanicbal Penakis said: “This is not the erasure of history. The erasure of history is forcing 200,000 Indigenous kids to go to school and forcing them to not learn their history their language.”

The time of moving through our cities without noticing is over. Streets named after colonizers, monuments, heritage homes with plaques that are notable because of the statesmen who lived there, public facilities sponsored by philanthropists without wondering the provenance of their wealth. The entire city of New Westminster, the Royal City, is one great big monument of colonization.

This city around us did not spring like Athena from Zeus’ head. It was and is built from historical factors, ones which privileged some and invisibilized, marginalized, and harmed others. 

This isn’t about what is frankly a rather lacklustre statue in a place that most people in New West rarely see it. It’s about control. Control of the past, yes, but also control of the future. Again, that’s what our public places symbolizes. And that’s what this whole debate is really about. Continued colonial control.