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Rewriting history: How Sir Matthew Begbie, who stood up for native rights, went from revered to reviled

Peter Shawn TaylorIn March 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for another in the apparently endless list of wrongs perpetrated by previous governments of Canada. This time the aggrieved party was the Tsilhqot’in Nation of British Columbia; their grievance was the pre-Confederation hanging of six chiefs for their role in what is now known as the Chilcotin War.

Accused and convicted of mass murder at the time, today they are officially considered to have been warriors bravely defending their land against invaders.

If the Canada of 2018 was prepared to fully exonerate six war chiefs for horrific actions we consider to have been honourable and reasoned, then we surely owe the same to the presiding judge in this affair – the once-renowned and much-celebrated Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie. He was, by colonial standards, the most liberal, open-minded, and minority-positive jurist of his day. Even by modern standards, Begbie remains arguably the most impressive figure ever to wield a gavel in Canada.

Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie

Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie

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The exact reason for the uprising remains unclear to this day. Some historians ascribe the violence to sexual interference with native women by the road crew. Others suggest desperation and starvation on the part of the Tsilhqot’in, in part because of a devastating recent smallpox epidemic. Plunder is another possibility. The explanation currently favoured by apologists for the killers is that the Tsilhqot’in saw the new road as a deliberate attempt to wipe them out via another bout of smallpox.

Whatever the motive, what we today call the Chilcotin War was once known as the “Waddington Massacre,” where, over a period of a few days, 18 men were killed. That included many in a road-building crew, a nearby settler, a ferry operator and wranglers from a pack train supplying the area. Such violence could not go unrebuked by the colonial government, and an armed party of 70 volunteers was promptly organized to bring the chiefs to justice.

While it eventually succeeded, the circumstances surrounding the capture of Klatsassin, one of the Chilcotin chiefs, and subsequent surrender have been the subject of much debate in the intervening century and a half. Begbie, as trial judge for Klatsassin and the others, was very much attuned to the significance of the surrender.

But let us consider Begbie in all this. As soon as he set foot on the West Coast, Begbie established a reputation as a hard-working and incorruptible purveyor of British common law tradition. He personally wrote the Gold Fields Act of 1859, legislation that was instrumental in establishing the crown’s authority over the British Columbia gold rush – keeping in check many lawless American miners who made their way north. Begbie travelled extensively throughout his precinct to ensure the law was as fairly administered and easily accessible in the hinterland of the Cariboo as it was in the relative comfort of a courthouse in the colony’s capital of New Westminster.

According to biographer David Williams, within a year of arriving in British Columbia, Begbie travelled nearly 6,000 km dispensing justice. During these trips, Begbie often lived off the land, establishing a reputation as a skilled frontiersman.

Begbie was not just an impeccably fair purveyor of law and order but also an early proponent of native rights. He learned several native dialects in order to adjudicate without the need for interpreters. He frequently refused to enforce culturally insensitive laws such as the infamous Potlatch ban, exhibited much sympathy for the damage done to natives by whisky sellers, and, in 1860, spoke in favour of the then-heretical notion of “Indian title” to the land.

And despite his unfortunate nickname of “the Hanging Judge” – a term never applied in his lifetime – he was no friend of vigilantism and displayed no prejudice when handing out sentences. Williams calculates that, between 1859 and 1872, Begbie presided over 52 individual murder charges. Of these, 38 resulted in guilty verdicts, of which he offered clemency to 11, including seven natives. “Interestingly,” Williams writes, “he did not recommend clemency for any of the white men sentenced to be hanged.”

Begbie was equally tolerant of the Chinese community, another group victimized by widespread prejudice in early British Columbia. He repeatedly struck down discriminatory bylaws aimed at Chinese laundries and pawn-shops, allowed elaborate oath-taking procedures for Chinese witnesses who refused to swear on a Bible, and openly spoke in their favour when surveyed by the federal government in advance of the now lamented (and dutifully apologized for) Chinese head tax.

In recognition of his work ethic, duty, and profound sense of morality, for most of British Columbia’s first 100 years Begbie was commonly paired with Governor Sir James Douglas as the province’s two most significant and revered forefathers.

But that was then. As a result of Begbie’s involvement in the execution of those now-exonerated Tsilhqot’in war chiefs, in 2001 the University of Victoria removed his name from the school’s law building, and a small statue of Begbie in front of that building later disappeared under mysterious circumstances. A mural featuring Begbie dispensing justice that once graced the walls of the British Columbia Legislature was hidden from public view in 2008.

The scales of justice have tilted decisively and unfairly against Begbie’s reputation. But British Columbia’s greatest judge deserves a fair trial of his own.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a senior features editor at C2C Journal. This chapter excerpt is from the Aristotle Foundation’s new book, The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should be Cherished—Not Cancelled, edited by Mark Milke.

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