Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Historical Ethics

In 2017 the Law Society of British Columbia removed all the honours and distinctions it had previously given to Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, appointed in 1858 as the first and for a long time only judge in the new colony of British Columbia. Statues were taken down, etc. The Society was acting on a report that condemned Begbie for disregarding indigenous law, putting to death warriors of the Chilcotin war of 1864, and having "negative" and racist views.  

A group of B.C. lawyers, many of them long active in indigenous legal matters and legal history, put it to the Society that, while it was appropriate that Begbie no longer be considered the symbol of justice in British Columbia, the report was inaccurate and misleading and unworthy of the Society. They presented evidence that Begbie, among other things, threw out the anti-potlatch law as unenforceable, denounced British Columbia's racially-based anti-Chinese legislation, encouraged First Nations in the exercise of "customary jurisdiction" over their own societies, and was singled out by the great B.C. First Nations leader George Manuel as one colonist who had actually advanced the cause of First Nations.  He did not even put anyone to death. (As lawyers should know, Begbie conducted the trial and gave the sentence, but the Chilcoten warriors were indicted by the Crown, convicted of a capital crime by a jury, and denied clemency and executed by the government.)  

The group got no response from the Law Society. I hear, however, that last week they took their case to the (virtual) annual general meeting of the Law Society, put forward their case as a motion -- and got it passed.  It may have been an odd coalition of highly woke indigenous-law specialists and hidebound old traditionalists, but still....  Again, the point was not to re-sanctify Justice Begbie but to argue in favour of nuanced history, even in difficult cases.  Actual consequences? Doubtful.

But, on the vexed questions of memory, commemoration and statuary, where few seem ready to stand up for any challenged historical reputation, I think these west coast scholars and lawyers have done exemplary service.

In Ontario, I think, Egerton Ryerson is one entitled to a similar defence. Not the perfect symbol of what we want Canada, or education, to be in the twenty-first century, perhaps, but hardly the monster he has lately been made out to be.

T'other hand, a Toronto Star story today on how Library and Archive Canada's website and Parks Canada plaque handle John A., Wilfrid Laurier, and others.

Update, October 18:  Jared Milne comments:

This is an example of a bigger problem in historical debate today, where it seems like a figure like Begbie can only be seen as entirely good or entirely bad. It doesn't matter what else the figure's legacy might include-one thing is enough to permanently mark them as irredeemable. That's why discussions like those in Canada's History about John A. Macdonald are so valuable-they show the need for nuanced history, as you point out.

Thanks. Just to be clear, nuanced history is precisely what the lawyers and legal historians in B.C. were advocating,  Sometimes these debates can be an opportunity instead of a problem. 


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