Canadian Government and Academia: “Othering” Original Peoples

Tom Swanky, author of The Great Darkening: The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations Resistance1 has written a new short book — A Missing Genocide and the Demonization of its Heroes – that challenges information provided by academics about the Colonialist-Chilcotin War at the website canadianmysteries.ca. The webpage is called “We Do Not Know His Name: Klatsassin and the Chilcotin War.”

The website is sponsored by the federal government’s Department of Canadian Heritage and is based at three Canadian universities: the University of Victoria, the Université de Sherbrooke and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

MissingGenocide_Cover_Small2Klatsassin was a chief of the Tsilhqot’in people who have inhabited a plateau in the Coastal Mountain range for millenia. In the mid-19th century colonial authorities sought to push a road through the Tsilhqot’in nation to gold mines in the interior of what is now designated British Columbia. The Tsilhqot’in people feared such an undertaking because it would expose them to smallpox which was deliberately spread by colonists among First Nations. This led to war with colonists, and in one attack 14 colonists were killed. Later the colonial authorities deceitfully offered to negotiate at a peacepipe setting and instead arrested the unsuspecting Tsilhqot’in, tried them under colonial law, sentenced and hanged them. 2 The canadianmysteries.ca website examines this dark chapter in colonial history.

Swanky is nonplussed by the virtual archive: “… from across the invisible wall separating native and non-native experience in Canada, it appears uninformed, careless of basic facts, enamoured of discredited mythologies and plagued by shoddy craftsmanship.” (2) Canadian social studies textbooks reflect the settler perspective over the Tsilhqot’in perspective.3

Asks Swanky, “Nevertheless, when treating an alleged genocide, one surely has a duty not to trivialize the horror. Is it appropriate even to treat this genocide, with its accompanying dispossession and subjugation of a whole People, as just another entertaining ‘cold case’ of Canadian history?” (12)

Historical accuracy, an unprejudiced narrative, justice, and morality are at the core of Swanky’s analysis of canadianmysteries.ca’s “We Do Not Know His Name.” He reaches a critical conclusion about how the Tsilhqot’in are treated by the website: “othering.”

‘Othering’ dispossesses subjects of their common human essence, a touchstone for empathy. Once dehumanized, killing or treating them with the cruelty of depraved minds can be made to seem more like controlling a mere nuisance than mass murder. Othering is marked by an absence of the usual sense of reciprocal moral or political obligation flowing between citizens sharing the same geographic space. (12)

Swanky is puzzled that Canadian historians either support the disinformation or remain silent, but they don’t reveal the lie. (13)

The website ascribes certainty to settlers and uncertainty to Tsilhqot’in. The author sees it as an example of “othering” the Tsilhqot’in. “Saying that these ‘may have been Tsilhqot’in’ is like saying the Royal family may be British: it reveals ignorance where there is no excuse for it.” (14)

Swanky criticizes the website for “convey[ing] a subtle sense of completeness that has not been earned, cannot be justified and is humiliating through the lack of a similar care shown for presenting the Tsilhqot’in voice.” (16) Also for “creat[ing] fictions, … or conceal[ing] important evidence.” (17) Most scathingly, he charges, “The website never misses a chance to avoid discussing the genocide. And, thereby, to mislead the public even at the risk of its credibility.” (25)

A disappeared genocide seems a far greater mystery than the killings in the Colonialist-Chilcotin War. The morality of such a focus is questionable. Asks Swanky, “In what sort of calculus is the fate of 5000 innocent Tsilhqot’in killed in their homes, by the Elders’ continuous narrative, less worthy of focus than the fate of 19 European invaders arbitrarily noted? But for those prior Tsilhqot’in deaths, these settlers would not have died.” (27)

Othering cuts to the morality of the government-academia website:

It [canadianmysteries.ca] notes activities of concern to settlers, ‘road building, packing and farming.’ Yet it does not mention the concerns intrinsically higher for all human beings: a whole People’s ‘threatened’ subjugation and dispossession. The implicit message is that an alleged genocide of indigenous People is less worthy of our notice than are the death of ‘immigrants’ misled by their government into illegally dispossessing others for farming, hauling and building roads. (27)

“Even the designation ‘immigrant’ is inappropriate. These were not immigrants. Immigrants choose to live in good faith under the laws governing their new location. None of these men were immigrants to the territory in which they died: Tsilhqot’in territory, unceded and never even visited by colonial officials before they began providing for, and encouraging, settlers to claim land there. They were ‘pioneers’ in the original sense: foot soldiers in a colonization movement that had no such desire of acceptance and integration.” (27)

Canadianmysteries.ca states that its interpretations are drawn from primary documents, including “a written version of an oral history which has been passed down since the time of the event.” For some reason, “The Tsilhqot’in View” is a restricted area at the website.

“The [Tsilhqot'in's] supposed fear of writing is a canard. The website’s treatment is irresponsible. It should be debunking the implication, not lending its weight to something prejudicial, lacking corroboration and for which there is considerable contrary evidence.” (30)

Gunadeo (Douglas George-Kanentiio), a Mohawk of the Bear Clan, born and raised in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, defended the integrity of Indigenous peoples’ oral history.

When it comes to things that were essential to our collective well-being, like music, education was associated with being with the person who knew that song, and then learning that song simply by memory. We were always told that our oral traditions are collective memories that are passed down by certain people who have the gift of retention. These are people who can memorize things to a most amazing degree. This is an absolute truth in Iroquois society, because these people cannot misinterpret, they cannot lie, they cannot willfully tell us something that simply isn’t true.

This is why there is a complete reliance by the Iroquois on the stories, the experiences of our elders as passed on over generations…4

Written or oral evidence aside, the legal proceedings were illegally based and not about establishing justice.

“These proceedings were not real trials, a search for truth and the application for justice. Nor were [colonial officials] Seymour, Begbie or Crease confused about this: the Tsilhqot’in as a whole were to be punished on convenient pre-texts. These trials were about intimidation in the process of subjugation and as an aid in extending colonial jurisdiction for the occupation of Tsilhqot’in territory. To honour the Tsilhqot’in voice, the website needs to explain the function of show trials as political theatre and communication.” (32)

Swanky takes issue with University of Victoria historian John Lutz: “… by silence and without argument, Dr. Lutz denies the Tsilhqot’in genocide.” (35) He also accuses Lutz of “colonial mythology.” (37)

Swanky sets straight on what transpired during the Colonialist-Chilcotin War: “There was no uprising. No rebellion. No. insurrection. Not by the Tsilhqot’in. Only regular constitutional behaviour.” (39)

Why did the Tsilhqot’in go to war? “Klatsassin consistently would say that the fear of settlers re-introducing smallpox to kill them, as made evident first in the threat, was the war’s proximate cause.” (41)

If Swanky’s analytical narrative is factually accurate and sound, then the academics are culpable in some fashion for either misinformation or disinformation. Culpable of academic prejudice? Willful blindness? Ignorance? Racism?

I endeavored to get a response from both canadianmysteries.ca and professor Lutz to the disputing of the facts and narrative on “We Do Not Know His Name” in his book.

However, it is over two weeks later, and I have received no reply. I asked Swanky if he had received any response to his book?

The author told me that he had been in discussions with professor Lutz and he and Russell Samuel Myers Ross, the current chief for the Tsilhqot’in community at Yunesit’in and one of the six chiefs who make up the Tsilhqot’in National Government, were invited to submit additional Tsilhqot’in material. Wrote Swanky:

“Over the years I have suggested improvements but John [Lutz] has ignored these and I am not inclined to take a direct role until the website establishes a formal relationship or protocol with the Tsilhqot’in. Moreover, I think it is fair to say that most of the Tsilhqot’in with whom I have spoken want him to fix the problems I identify here on their behalf before they invest time and energy in what is seen as something broken from a lack of care and listening. In short, I have no sense what John now thinks might be the appropriate remedy.”

Swanky has made a recommendation on three ways to advance reconciliation in British Columbia: “Tell the truth. Hold conferences in good faith. Exonerate ‘The Chilcotin Chiefs.'”

  1. See review. []
  2. See Tom Swanky, The Great Darkening: The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations Resistance (Burnaby, BC: Dragon Heart Enterprises, 2012). []
  3. See, e.g., Michael Cranny, Graham Jarvis, Garvin Moles, and Bruce Seney, Horizons: Canada’s Emerging Identity (Don Mills, ON: Pearson, 2009). []
  4. Huston Smith, “In Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom” in A Seat at the Table (UC Press, 2007): 86-87. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.