Glossary: Racism; prejudice, African descent, Chinese, Chinese Canadian
Given that First Nations have lived on the Coast for thousands of years, non-indigenous peoples were, and are, newcomers to these territories. In the era of the fur trade, early arrivers included Quebecers, Métis, inland First Nations, Hawaiians (Kānaka Maoli), and European peoples.1
By 1858 James Douglas, governor of the Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, was worried about the onslaught of thousands of US citizens heading north for the gold rush. To help stabilize the British colonies and to keep this area from American hands, Douglas invited people of African descent living in California to settle in the colony.2
Colonial Despatches | bcgenesis.uvic.ca
The Black community in San Francisco was well organized, holding regular meetings at the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to discuss how they could overcome the civil, business, labour, and legal injustices they faced daily. These discussions also included the possibility of emigrating to Panama, Sonora, or Canada.
At the Zion Church on the evening of April 14, 1858, the community was celebrating the release of a fugitive slave. In the midst of these celebrations, Jeremiah Nagle, captain of the steamship Commodore, which sailed regularly between San Francisco and Victoria, arrived at the meeting. Nagle came well-prepared with maps of Vancouver Island and a letter from “a gentleman in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company of undoubted veracity” giving details about the colony and welcoming the Black people.3 The letter has not survived but it is believed that, given the nature of the information provided by Nagle, the letter could only have come from Governor James Douglas.
BC Black History Awareness Society | bcblackhistory.ca | “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots” – Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr.
Another meeting was held to form a committee of 65 people who were to embark the next day on the Commodore for Victoria. Only 35 were able to make the sailing in time. The next day they were seen off at the wharves by almost the entire Black community. Committee members arrived in Victoria on April 25 and subsequently a delegation met with Governor Douglas. Based on the meetings with Jeremiah Nagle on behalf of Douglas, they understood that they could:
Over the next several months, Black people began settling in the Colony of Vancouver Island. The majority came from the western states where they faced restrictive government legislation, ambivalence towards slave laws, beatings, insults, and legalized injustice; even free Black people were denied citizenship. Over the next decade, nearly one thousand would come to the colony of whom at least 140 were women.5 Soon Douglas’s involvement and support diminished, leaving these pioneers to rely on their own industry, character, and ingenuity to make a life for themselves and their families.
A San Francisco clergyman, Reverend Moore, explained: “The writer having had the honor and pleasure of being one of the conductors of the educational, moral and religious interests of the colored community for the last 6 to 7 years, that the Black newcomers came … (1) to better their political condition; in California they were disenfranchised; (2) to enjoy those common social rights that civilized, enlightened and well-regulated communities guarantee; (3) to make it the land of our adoption for ourselves and our children.”7
According to Reverend Moore, the Black newcomers purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of real estate on this island and up the river. They purchased urban property within the boundaries of the areas that is known today as Victoria and Saanich; others purchased or pre-empted farmland. In the Victoria City Real Estate Assessment Roll for the year commencing July 1, 1864, Peter Lester is listed as owning nine properties in addition to his Vancouver Street residence.
In this era, anti-slavery sentiments to some extent remained part of colonial culture and the Alien Act of 1861 enabled Black people to become naturalized British subjects. Having met the property requirements, 52 Black newcomers were added to the voter’s list.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was the de facto leader of the Black community in Victoria beginning in 1858. Prior to his arrival, Gibbs was a successful businessman, community leader, and a staunch supporter and ally of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Gibbs’s achievements and accomplishments in BC include partnership in the Lester & Gibbs emporium, which was considered a competitor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in gold-rush Victoria; builder of the first railway in Haida Gwaii (formerly ‘Queen Charlotte Islands); Victoria city councillor in 1867, 1868, and 1869; chair of the finance committee and acting mayor; and delegate representing Salt Spring Island at the Yale Convention in September 1868 that helped to frame the terms of BC’s entry into Confederation. Gibbs returned to the United States in 1870, where he pursued a career in law, eventually becoming the first elected Black municipal judge in the United States. In 1897, he was appointed by President McKinley as US consul to Madagascar. In 1902, he published Shadow and Light: An Autobiography, with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century.
As historian Jean Barman suggests, “Victoria’s black community, made up of several hundred largely middle-class men and women”8 were educated and skilled, became community leaders, business leaders, ministers, school board trustees, and teachers. Others pre-empted land and built thriving farms. The Stark family, among others, settled on Salt Spring Island. Some, including Charles and Nancy Alexander, settled in Saanich, 18 kilometres north of Victoria and helped construct the Shady Creek Methodist Church, now the Central Saanich United Church. Charles Alexander was one of the first preachers. Today, more than one hundred descendants of the Alexander and Stark families live in British Columbia.
However, the newcomers to the colonies also encountered “intense discrimination” and, over the next few years, everyday racism took its toll.
The Reverend M. MacFie resisted the Black community’s desire to worship with existing congregations: “We have received a circular addressed to all Impartial Men and Lovers of Right. It is issued by the Rev. W.F. Clarke. It appears a serious difference of opinion exists between him and his religious colleague the Rev. M. MacFie, respecting the propriety of mixing, promiscuously, colored with white Christians in church during Divine service. Both gentlemen were sent here as missionaries by the English Congregational Missionary Society. Mr. Clark holds that Christianity knows no difference between the white and colored man; and therefore he will not suit the prejudices of anyone by creating a ‘negro’s corner’ in his church. As a matter of ‘taste’ Mr. MacFie prefers separating them.”11
In the fall of 1859, a Select School was opened by the Sisters of St. Ann. “Some parents of African American children wanted to send their children to the Select School but were turned down due to a fear of integration and the students of the Select School being uncomfortable. Bishop Demers overrode Mother Providence’s decision and opened the school for all. However, parents of the white children who made up the population of the Select school threatened to remove their children from the school. This forced Bishop Demers to remove his decree and allow the schools to be set up as originally planned with the Select School being made up of mostly white children.”12
Emil Sutro, a performer who refused to go on stage because “coloureds” were seated in the front row complained: “let one part of the house be reserved for their particular use. They are not desired, and are furthermore offensive to a majority of the residents of Victoria.”13
A Black resident, John Dunlop reported that even though he had been asked to buy a ticket to a performance, “I went to the door, presented my ticket, and was refused admission on the ground of my colour.”14
Everyday racism and the end of the US Civil War, beginning the end of slavery, made a return to the United States attractive to many of the one thousand or so people of African descent who came to the colony of Vancouver Island in this early period.15 Despite the success and perseverance of those early newcomers and Black communities in BC and Canada, in 1911 the federal government imposed new regulations (PC 1911-1324) under the Immigration Act prohibiting the landing in Canada “of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” Although only half of the original one thousand Black newcomers remained in the province they succeeded in numerous walks of life. However, the 1911 immigration restrictions limited further community expansion, making Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver an important centre of Black life in the province.
Emily Stark was born in California on February 17, 1856; the eldest daughter of Sylvia and Louis Stark; she was four years old when her family arrived on Salt Spring Island, BC, in 1860. In 1873, Emma attained her high school certificate which was the qualification to teach at that time. On August 1, 1874, at the age of 18, Emma was hired to teach in a one-room school in the Cedar district near Nanaimo, becoming the first Black teacher on Vancouver Island.
Chinese migrants also arrived in large numbers during the 1858 Gold Rush, the first arriving from California followed by thousands more from southern China. Most headed into the Interior, to the Fraser Canyon, or later to points north such as Barkerville.16 Though frictions existed between some Chinese and Indigenous peoples, they also “formed great friendships.”17
As the gold ran out, so too did the luck of the Chinese miners, and they often relied on the support of First Nations to survive. Victoria’s Chinatown, the first in Canada, grew into an important centre for Chinese arriving on the Coast and for those returning from the Interior.19 There, a merchant elite came to prominence and, in 1864, Lee Chong, a Chinese merchant in Victoria, pleaded for equal treatment in a petition to Vancouver Island’s new governor, Arthur Kennedy.20
Victoria’s Chinatown: A Gateway to the Past and Present of Chinese Canadians | chinatown.library.uvic.ca
In 1866, the two colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia on the mainland merged, with New Westminster initially the capital, followed by Victoria in 1868. The politics of the era focused on the land – how to get First Nations off their territories and make it available for settlers, particularly British settlers, as spelled out in the land ordinance of 1870:
3. From and after the date of the proclamation in this Colony on her Majesty’s assent to this Ordinance, any Male person being a British subject, of the age of eighteen years or over, may acquire the right to pre-empt any tract of unoccupied, unsurveyed, and unreserved Crown Lands (not being an Indian settlement) not exceeding Three Hundred and Twenty Acres in extent in that portion of the Colony situated to the Northward and Eastward of the Cascade or Coast Range of Mountains, and One Hundred and Sixty Acres in extent in the rest of the Colony. Provided that such right of pre-emption shall not be held to extend to any of the Aborigines of this continent, except to such as shall have obtained the Governor’s special permission in writing to that effect.21
This ordinance reflected the consolidation of the Trutch perspective on Indigenous affairs – denying aboriginal title, refusing to negotiate treaties, forcing Indigenous peoples onto small reserves and then refusing to even allow them to apply as settlers on their own land. As one of the prime negotiators of the Terms of Union that brought BC into Canada, Trutch assured this approach would be embedded constitutionally.
1 For stories related to this era, see Jean Barman, On the Cusp of Contact: Gender, Space and Race in the West, edited by Margery Fee (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2020); French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015); Jean Barman and Bruce McIntyre Watson, Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest, 1787–1898 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).↩
2 Crawford Kilian, Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia, 2nd rev. ed. (Toronto: Commodore Books, 2008) , 26–27. Another important source for the early history of Blacks in BC is James William Pilton, “Negro Settlement in British Columbia, 1858–1871” (MA thesis, University of British Columbia, 1951), accessed October 31, 2020, bit.ly/3b09VBE↩