“Nuxalk people chose to dig their own graves and hope the next person who had to do the same covered them up before digging their own.” - Peter T. on usqalits’, which means “the time of smallpox” in the Nuxalk language
Reconciliation is the most popular word in Canada where its Indigenous population is concerned. However, the word is met with caution and cynicism in most Indigenous communities.
Can anyone blame us?
Every time the government creates anything supposedly for our benefit, it seems to either cost too much to implement or only fulfil the words portion of the thought-words-action troika.
The latest announcement comes today in the form of a federal exoneration from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian government in Ottawa.
Five Tsilhqot’in chiefs who were hanged on March 26, 1864, are finally being cleared of wrongdoing for defending their people after Victoria’s colonial government deliberately spread smallpox, forcing the Tsilhqot’in to close its borders. These events were very well understood at the time and bear considerably on the realities of ongoing colonialism, and yet it took 154 years for Canada to face up to its own history.
The length of time may have something to do with the brutal and wilfully malicious nature of this episode in Canada’s murderous past — the colonial authorities’ deliberate genocide via smallpox in what is now British Columbia in the early 1860s.
Before we dive into the story, it needs to be understood that the government, the medical profession, missionaries, and law enforcement were all complicit and acted with the most vile colonial intent: to kill Indigenous people and take the land.
Nearly every person involved in these murders is celebrated, none more so than James Douglas, dubbed “the father of British Columbia” among other things.
Douglas was tasked with obtaining all the land west of the Rocky Mountains for fur trading and the gold rush. One significant problem stood in his way — Indigenous peoples.
In what is now Victoria, there was a strong Indigenous presence in the early 1850s and '60s. The most prominent presence was members of the Haida nation, who had essentially taken control of Esquimalt. A man known as “Captain John,” who worked on an American trading ship for a year and a half and became fluent in spoken and written English, led them.
Among the several strategies to clear the land of northern Indigenous people, who numbered more than 6,000 in the early 1860s, was to lie and say an outbreak of measles was occurring in the Victoria colony and was sure to infect the many camps of Indigenous people should they choose to stay.
Through figures like Captain John, Indigenous peoples knew vaccines were available and collectively decided to ignore the government’s advice to return to their northern villages.
This did not sit well with Governor Douglas, but a solution was soon found.
Colonial fever and smallpox
Douglas employed a Hudson’s Bay Company physician, John Helmcken, also a member of the colonial government, who decided to ignore non-violent approaches after being thwarted by Captain John on several occasions — most notably having the concocted measles scare go unheeded. Helmcken had even requested the use of smallpox in the legislature building in the interest of clearing the land; that request was denied, but it didn’t prevent what eventually happened.
March 12, 1862, was the beginning of the smallpox outbreaks in the various Indigenous outposts in the Victoria colony area. It is unknown how many Indigenous people died as a result of the deliberate outbreak, but at minimum 14,000 are recorded as having perished from the disease.
By the end of April 1862, Indigenous peoples were not allowed into the Victoria area settlement unless they had a certificate. The lone person hired to check this certificate upon entry was a carpenter who carried the smallpox disease.
Innoculations distributed by Dr. Helmcken were viewed with skepticism as very few of those who were vaccinated survived, with the exception of the Songhees who resided on the land the colony sought to claim.
Colonialism meets resistance
Early colonization was met with challenges from each Indigenous group in what is now British Columbia.
By the time smallpox was nearly wiping out entire Indigenous nations, all of those dying knew where the disease was coming from and that it could have been prevented, as there had only been minimal outbreaks in the 1840s and leaders like Captain John had spread the medical knowledge they gained working in the world.
In several areas, missionaries of the time would not provide inoculations unless Indigenous people converted to Christianity. Following the papal bulls of the 15th century that informed the Doctrine of Discovery, it was believed Indigenous people were less than human and could legally be subjected or killed.
Tracts of land near the Victoria colony and what is now Bella Coola were parceled out to settlers, as colonial expansion was deemed a go due to a lie told in the legislature that there were no people on the land — the doctrine of terra nullius in practice.
Highly sought resources like gold and furs spurred colonial expansion, as companies wanted access to both the interior and north coast. Plans were made for a colony named New Aberdeen in Nuxalk territory with Bella Coola as its hub.
To make this expansion a reality smallpox was the weapon of choice to help clear the land, and this was the context in which the Tsilhqot’in decided to close their borders to all settlers.
Ignoring this decree, colonial workers were instructed to continue a road from near present-day Williams Lake to Bella Coola.
The Tsilhqoti’in saw this as an act of war that would bring more disease. They killed 14 workers, under Indigenous protocols in practice for millennia, and their leaders were subsequently hanged by the colonial government atop a mass smallpox grave in front of Indigenous children, women, and men.
No matter what Prime Minister Trudeau says today by way of an apology, it will fall short if it doesn’t mention these atrocities that ultimately allowed his office and Canada to claim jurisdiction in B.C. over Indigenous peoples.
Apologies and exoneration are appreciated, but they need to come with an accurate telling of history. In B.C. this most certainly means recognizing jurisdiction and sovereignty lies with its Indigenous peoples. Any efforts at reconciliation, or attempts to establish a new framework for relationships with Indigenous peoples, needs to recognize these realities or Canada’s next 150 years will suffer for it.
Information for this piece has been drawn from the presentation Usqualits’: Canada’s Pacific Genocide, by Tom Swanky, and the books "The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific," "The Tsilhquot’in and other First Nation Resistance," and "The Smallpox War on Nuxalk Territory."