A history of violence: Colonial violence a prerequisite to Indigenous atrocities carried out by Canada

A history of violence: Colonial violence a prerequisite to Indigenous atrocities carried out by Canada
WatchThis is part two of CHEK's series in the lead-up to Canada's first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

This is part two of CHEK’s series in the lead-up to Canada’s first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. Part one can be read here.

Creating the colony of Vancouver Island, required violence.

“They burnt homes with children in there, with women in there. They had no regard for our lives,” said Ahousaht First Nation elder Dave Frank to CHEK News, remembering the stories his family told about the 1864 attack on an Ahousaht village.

Just one year prior, in 1863 the British Royal Navy waged full-on war on the Indigenous populations in the Gulf Islands. In 1864, the British Empire began carrying out what they called ‘gunboat diplomacy’ across Vancouver island.

But there was nothing ‘diplomatic’, about it.

“In 1864 there’s an attack on the Ahousaht communities. And several villages are destroyed. 64 canoes in one account, 15 people killed, 11 taken prisoner including a woman and child and a small girl was taken away and was named after the ship responsible for the attack,” said Coll Thrush, a history professor at UBC.

Ahousaht elder Dave Frank’s great uncle was taken away by settlers in the attack, something that still hurts to this day.

“It separated our family,” said Frank.

“They also burned up all our canoes. Our form of economy is our canoes. We went out fishing for halibut, we went out whaling, we went out fishing. That was our economy.”

The British Empire’s scorched earth policy on Vancouver Island was designed to show who was now in charge.

“Hesquiaht experienced this as well. Two of their people were hung in front of the entire community in 1869 on a trumped-up charge that they had killed the crew and passengers of a shipwreck even though there was no really no evidence for that. The editor for the colonist was one of those who manufactured that,” said Thrush.

“The gallows they were hung on, stayed there for five years after they were hung as a reminder from the colonial government of what’s possible.”

The colonial violence, driven by underlying racism and settler colonialism.

“One of the newspaper articles describes this as a wholesome lesson to the Indigenous people and that this is the first step to improving their condition,” said Thrush.

In 1871, British Columbia joined Canada, but the use of force against Indigenous people didn’t end.

“There’s a through-line between these forms of violence and that notion of people not being good enough on their own and needing to be improved by settler societies. And that leads us right into the schools,” said Thrush.

“They were a prerequisite to the Indian Act, to the residential school systems, to the day school systems, of continuing to take our kids away from our community,” agreed Ahousaht Chief Greg Louie.

But for many Canadians, this is part of our history that is not well remembered.

“These were not hidden histories. These accounts were in the newspapers. This is a deliberately forgotten history. One of my questions as a historian is who does forgetting, serve?” asked Thrush.

Today, for many of Vancouver Island’s Indigenous residents, the scars of colonial and Canadian violence, remain.

“Some of the settlers that came were hurt themselves. Maybe they were hurt back in their homelands, and they came into the Ahousaht territory and thought, well I’m going to hurt the Ahousaht people too. And ever since then people, like myself, have been hurt in these systems, whether it’s residential school or day school,” said Chief Louie.

“They were hurt, by hurt people. And that’s learned. And hurt people, hurt people.”

For many, the healing from the generations of violence is ongoing.

The British Embassy in Ottawa didn’t respond to CHEK’s multiple requests for comment.

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Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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