In recent years the views of historical figures have come under scrutiny, including those of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. (submitted)

In recent years the views of historical figures have come under scrutiny, including those of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. (submitted)

T.W. Paterson column: We can’t change history, but we can learn from it

History is under the glass these days

“…I hope we see the dawn of better days [when] the Government have taken steps to permit the white people to grow up under a white standard…”—A.W. Neill, MPP, 1922.

History is under the glass these days as more and more of our founding fathers face criticism, some of it scathing, for what we increasingly and belatedly perceive to have been their insidious roles in the colonization of Canada.

Some — including our first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald — have been charged with nothing less than racial genocide. In his case, for his role in the founding of residential schools, now acknowledged as one of the blackest chapters in Canadian history.

There have been calls for the removal of his statute in Victoria, which was vandalized with red paint in November 2017. Retro-criticism has ranged from a Kingston, Ont. pub changing its name to, most recently, the Canadian Historical Society removing his name from its prize for Best Scholarly Book in Canadian history.

Also name-swiped in Victoria is Sir Joseph Trutch, B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor. His fall from grace at a University of Victoria residence hall occurred when a second-year English student took exception to his recorded prejudice against First Nations people. He’s also reviled for having used his position as chief commissioner of lands and works to substantially reduce the size of reserves throughout the province.

“We’re not erasing history, we’re confronting it,” Lisa Schnitzler told the Times-Colonist. Now Trutch Street is in the cross-hairs.

Previously, the capital city’s most prominent hilltop, Mount Douglas, was in the news because of demands that it revert to its original Salish name, PKOLS (pronounced p’cawls), meaning white rock. “This is something that our elders have been calling for for many, many years,” said Tsawout elder Eric Pelkey. “To bring back the names we have always used to where they belong.”

In this instance, despite widespread Indigenous opposition to the tribal land treaties that the mountain’s namesake, Sir James Douglas, concluded with local tribes, the object isn’t meant as a rebuke. Instead, it’s the first step in a program to reclaim original aboriginal place names. At last report, Mounts Tolmie and Newton were also on the hit list.

A UVic professor termed the movement a way of representing “respect from the people who came afterwards for the ancient history of this place…it should be about co-existence.”

Sir Mathew Baillie Begbie, our mis-named Hanging Judge, has lost his pre-eminence with B.C. lawyers for his judicial role in the conviction and execution of the alleged ringleaders of the Chilcotin War.

Also under fire is Stanley Park’s landmark Siwash Rock (the trade-jargon Chinook term for ‘Indian’) and Vancouver’s Trump Tower (you can figure that one out for yourselves).

Back East, British generals and Maritimes namesakes Jeffery Amherst and Edward Cornwallis, Ryerson University’s Egerton Ryerson, and Ottawa’s landmark namesake Hector-Louis Langevin are belatedly paying for their sins of the past with denunciations and deletions.

All of which brings me to the man I really want to tell you about today. Alan Webster Neill, 1868-1960, was the six-time Progressive and Independent MP for Comox-Alberni, 1921 until his retirement in 1945. He’s remembered by A.W. Neill Middle School and a street in Port Alberni, for his virulent career-long war against Asian immigrants, for his having strongly supported the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, and residential schools.

In 1922 he warned that Japanese immigrants would “absorb” British Columbia within 10 years unless citizens took a stand. In December 2016, Port Alberni city councillor Chris Alemany ignited a local firestorm when he proposed that Neill and Indian streets be renamed as they were “racist and offensive”.

Obviously stung by some citizens’s reaction, he explained that his intent was “for this to be a positive experience that we could have an opportunity for growth. Up until today it hasn’t been. But I do still believe that we can make this into a positive experience that we can grow from.”

Port Alberni council defeated Alemany’s motion, 5-2, after being presented with a petition bearing 855 signatures in favour of the status quo. As one citizen put it, “Bad history is still history. No amount of retribution will ever compare to the horror and mentality of people like A.W. Neill. It is my very belief that reconciliation creates more division than it does good.”

So let’s hear from the man himself. There’ll be no crying that he was misquoted or taken out of context as we’re going to use Neill’s speeches in the House of Commons. On March 29, 1922, he spoke against Japanese Canadians being given the right to vote; he even opposed the exception which had been made to those who’d served Canada overseas during the First World War. Think of it, he said, “some Asiatic [who] may have been peeling potatoes at an internment camp…if he could produce a discharge from the military forces he would be enfranchised under this provision”.

Two weeks earlier, he’d addressed the issue of unemployment and the government’s immigration policy. He urged that those headed for British Columbia be advised, “they will have to compete with Asiatics; that if they are going in for fruit farming, Asiatics have a hold on that; if they are going in for strawberries, whole sections are absolutely in the hands of the Japs [sic], who will take steps to see that no White Man intrudes upon them.

“If they are going in for small fruits, they will find the same situation there; if they go in for market gardening around any of our big cities, they will find the same situation there.

“There is what is known as a ring in connection with market gardening, at least around the city of Vancouver. A friend of [mine] was out at a farm and admired the potatoes on the table, and his farmer friend gave him a few pounds to take home with him. As you know, the great majority of domestic servants in Vancouver are Asiatics, and next day when this gentleman tried these potatoes his Chinese servant had cooked, he found them very poor, wet, watery, very unsatisfactory things.

“He thought there had been some accident with them until the same thing happened again the next day, so he asked his Chinese servant about it, and the Chinaman said, ‘Those potatoes are bad; they are no good. Let me get you potatoes that will be all right.’ There is a ring among these Chinese servants, and they will never buy produce from white market gardens. If their employer insists upon it, they will find the stuff unsuitable or it will be made to appear so, and eventually he will have to buy from the Chinese. That is an absolute fact that anybody in Vancouver can verify for himself.

“Let these people who are to come in be told that this is the competition they will be up against in British Columbia. Tell them also — and I wonder what British people will think of this — that their children will have to go to the same school as Asiatics. One of these the other day lost his temper at school, and instead of hitting his playmate on the nose he drew a knife and stabbed him in the back. Tell them that if conditions get bad their daughters will have to work in Chinese restaurants under conditions which I will leave to your imagination rather than describe.

“Tell them these things, and say that they must live according to the same standard as the others, which means that everyone down to a six-year-old child must be ready in fruit picking time to work 16 hours a day. That is the only way to compete successfully with the Chinese and Japanese in British Columbia.

“But I hope we see the dawn of better days with this Government, and that we will be able to tell these people that the Government have taken steps to permit the white people to grow up under a white standard…”

So said A.W. Neill, six times elected as member of parliament for Comox-Alberni and who’s immortalized by a Port Alberni street and school. It’s just a taste of his vitriol but it’s enough.

Some of the criticisms of our founders have been, in my mind, unjustified and/or extreme — subjects for another day. As for A.W. Neill, let the record speak for itself.

www.twpaterson.com

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