Victoria’s Secret: The Inconvenient History Behind BC’s Capital City

A singular vision of history

Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, is celebrating its 150th anniversary today. In the lead-up to this occasion, local organizations, artists and businesses have partnered with the City to create a whirlwind of events, promotional material and educational swag to draw people out to its August 2, 2012 celebrations.

Looking over the City’s website, including a video and list of “fun facts,” a widespread theme emerges: the complete denial of Victoria’s colonial history. A history fundamentally at odds with the ongoing presence of the Coast Salish peoples, upon whose lands the capital was imposed. Throwing around words like ‘cultural diversity’ and a ‘love of history,’ the City of Victoria’s vapid vocabulary glosses over the violent displacement of Indigenous peoples needed to build and sustain the capital.

In fact, looking over the information about the Victoria 150 celebrations, it is difficult to see any trace of Indigenous people whatsoever. After much searching, I did find an acknowledgement of the Lekwungen people, whose only apparent relevance is that they pre-existed the City’s ‘birth.’ According to its website, the

“Lekwungen People hunted and gathered here for thousands of years before European exploration, carefully managing the land through controlled burning and food cultivation.”

Presented with this ever-so-brief statement on Indigenous peoples’ past use of the lands in and around what is now Victoria, it is easy to forget that the Lekwungen peoples’ presence is an unbroken one in the region. They continue to live and thrive here, harvesting fish and sealife, cultivating kwetlal (camas), and otherwise relying on a wealth of local plants for food, medicine and ceremonial regalia. These land and sea-based relationships are entwined with ongoing cultural, political and spiritual practices — none of which have substantively ended despite government policies once declaring them illegal. Of course, these traditions continue to be adapted to contemporary life, as is evidenced in the Songhees nation’s construction of a cutting-edge wellness centre just a few minutes from downtown Victoria. And yet, the past, present and future of Coast Salish livelihoods like the Lekwungen’s are nowhere to be found in the Victoria 150 celebrations.

By contrast, the colonial history of Victoria is widely celebrated: “The City of Victoria is proud of its British heritage,” trumpets its website. The fact that this heritage is interwoven with violent colonial practices is conveniently forgotten. And so, one must ask: why can’t this proud British history be acknowledged alongside the truths of conquest? What is being gained by turning away from the individual and collective acts of violence that brought this city into being?

Totems in Victoria's Spirit Square

While I’m not necessarily surprised by this omission of Victoria’s colonial realities, I am surprised at the lack of promotion behind its recent collaborations with Indigenous people. For example, the City-commissioned totem poles (left) by Coast Salish carvers Butch Dick, Bradley Dick and Clarence Dick Jr., which stand as prominent public artworks in the central “Spirit Square” just outside City Hall. Victorians also recently declared Mohawk writer Janet Rogers as the city’s poet laureate, the first time an Indigenous person has served in this post. Why aren’t at least these more recent developments considered worthy of mention by the City’s sesquicentennial celebrations?

It seems that any acknowledgement of the ongoing presence of Coast Salish and visiting Indigenous peoples would disrupt the mythical story of a Victoria springing up out of the empty wilderness of pre-historical Canada. Is it so scary to ask what conditions actually ‘birthed’ this city into being? Why?

As an Indigenous person living in these Lekwungen territories, I will not be attending the Victoria 150 celebrations. Of course, it is unlikely that my absence will even register with those hosting the events, since I and my relations apparently do not exist in their minds, other than as prehistoric museum figures. However, to those non-Indigenous Victorians planning to celebrate the capital’s birthday this BC Day long weekend, I encourage you to consider the following challenge.

As you take a moment or two to remind yourselves of the imperialist erasure effected by these celebrations, take a long look around at exactly what (and whose) version of history is being celebrated and acknowledged here. When Indigenous peoples who have lived in these territories for thousands of years — literally millenia — can be rendered all-but-invisible by a history spanning a mere 15 decades, I think it’s clear we need to ask ourselves what kinds of conversations, and what versions of reality, we’re missing out on. Because it isn’t only a warped version of the past that is at stake: it is the kind of culture and society we inhabit today and the future we might create as neighbors living together.

6 thoughts on “Victoria’s Secret: The Inconvenient History Behind BC’s Capital City

  1. That is unreal! I rarely pay attention to these types of events, I think this is probably the reason.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I’m particularly struck by your question wondering if and why it’s so scary to “ask what conditions actually ‘birthed’ this city into being?” I’m not sure why I find this so provocative. I have a feeling that I’ll be mulling this over for a while. I won’t be attending the Victoria 150 events either, but I’ll definitely be taking time to think about the politics of history and imperialist erasure.

  3. The city of Victoria, as its imperial name screams out, is an entirely colonial creation. Celebrating the 150 year history of the city itself will naturally focus on that aspect and that period.  Much like the obligatory French signage on government buildings, the government’s occasional nod to the indigenous people from whom the land was pilfered is unfortunately is seldom noticed by the British descendants (or more recent newcomers) who largely inhabit the place today.  Perhaps the answer is for the resident communities of indigenous peoples to make their presence known in these celebrations.  (Goodness knows we can’t trust the self-serving City Council to make any sincere effort on their behalf!)  I suggest, get out there – build a big stand in the middle of spirit square, ring up Janet Rogers as a figurehead, rally up all the artists and community leaders and say to Victoria, “Here we are, and always have been!”

  4. You’ll see proof all over southern British Columbia, that this place was developed by conquest.   Especially in the main cities, and doubly especially in Victoria.  People who say there was no conquest are telling tales to confirm their fanciful views of history.   This is a double-edged sword.   The present-day descendants of Europeans shouldn’t pretend there was no conquest.   Neither should the present-day descendants of the First Nations.   Acknowledging what happened is an important step toward figuring out what can and can’t be done about it now.     

  5.  Thanks, Sherwin. I think it would be fantastic if we could have more people talking about questions like these, across our various histories and individual perspectives. I think it would certainly be much richer and more useful than many of the celebrations happening this weekend.

  6.  Thanks, Trevor. I have thought of staging an intervention during various local events, but usually choose instead to support local community initiatives within Indigenous communities. Like this weekend, there is a pow wow closeby and I’ll likely support that event, which is not publicized and is very small. I think all strategies can be useful in their own way!

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