In 1871, this province joined the Canadian federation and, ever since, communities of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized peoples have waged protracted struggles against the dispossession of Indigenous lands, institutionalized discrimination, and the politics of exclusion. They have won many victories yet, 150 years later, we are witnessing yet another uprising against systemic racism.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the smoke-filled skies of a climate emergency reflect a deepening crisis out of which has arisen an anti-racist uprising that is both local and global. The Black Lives Matter movement that erupted after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Chantel Moore and many others reflects increasing frustration with and renewed determination to stamp out systemic racism, including the police violence that is a perennial part of it. The movement against COVID-19-related racisms has brought to the fore young activists organizing to stop Sinophobic attacks and hate crimes targeting Indigenous or Asian peoples who appear “Chinese”. No longer are they willing to tolerate the treatment of non-whites as perpetual foreigners. Failure to address Indigenous concerns regarding COVID-19, or to consider and address the disproportionate and intersectional effects on racialized communities, are also forms of racism. The Wet’suwet’en actions to assert title over their traditional territories and stop the Coastal Gaslink (CGL) pipeline and the pan-Canadian outrage at widespread police violence that ensued represent a central point in the uprising against racism. It is only the latest chapter in a long history of Indigenous resistance to the continuing, violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the environmental racism that has accompanied dispossession in this province.
This upsurge, involving so many young people, is not an accident. It reflects a new generation’s changing values in a province where systemic racism remains widespread. How did this situation arise? We believe part of the answer lies in the failure of the province to fully recognize or appropriately address its history – the racisms associated with settler colonialism and white supremacy. In this resource we approach that history critically, with a special focus on how racialized groups, each in their own way, fought for justice and continue to do so in a province that, it turns out, is like no other.
This province’s origins as a separate British colony located on the Pacific resulted in a white minority negotiating unique Terms of Union with Canada in 1871. This often led to jurisdictional disputes with the federal government but, in the end, Ottawa capitulated, allowing a white minority here to impose what we call the Pacific politics of white supremacy. This resulted in:
This assessment goes to the heart of the province’s history of racism and is based on the lived experiences of racialized peoples and their ongoing struggles to survive and surmount systemic racism, past and present. In telling stories from diverse communities, with full references and supplementary community links, this resource strives to fulfill the call of the United Nations to get at the “deep roots of the history, culture and mentality of racism and discrimination”1 in “British Columbia.” We put that name in quotation marks and ask you to join us in questioning its origins and probing its past – does the term “British Columbia,” named after a colonizing empire and Christopher Columbus, not embody and project the history of racism in this province?
A Caution: In describing the historical dynamics of the past 150 years, we use racial categories that may mask the huge diversity within groups or communities. In following the seam of resistance to racism we are being selective in the stories we choose. Not every story can be told, nor every group represented. We hope this publication will facilitate the telling of a broader group of stories and will be a step in the development of inclusive, intersectional analyses to support decolonization.
Just days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck, hundreds of thousands of protestors in both the US and Canada took to the streets to demand an end to a long history of racial profiling, brutality, and killing of racialized individuals by police in both countries. The murder of Floyd on May 25, 2020 and frequent instances of police violence towards Black and Indigenous individuals over subsequent weeks in the US and around the world, including Canada, re-emboldened an ongoing social movement, Black Lives Matter.
The Black Lives Matter movement is symbolic of the inextricable links between the colonial histories of white supremacy in Canada and the US, the endurance of systemic anti-Black racism today, and the struggles of Indigenous peoples across the continent. One central demand of the movement is for the “defundment,” disarmament, and demilitarization of police forces that continue to enact violence against racialized individuals and communities and criminalize their systemic poverty. The movement advocates that the millions poured into police forces daily be reallocated towards measures that will heal and support racialized and oppressed communities, such as for housing, employment, social programs, and emergency mental health care. Moreover, the movement reinforces the longstanding struggles of local organizations such as the BC Black History Awareness Society and the Hogan’s Alley Society to influence the BC government to ensure the narratives of Black people, their contributions and achievements, and their fight against racism and discrimination as an integral part of the collective history of this province, are included in the K-12 curriculum.
As the number of countries reporting cases of COVID-19 increased in the spring of 2020, anti-Asian racism around the world became increasingly overt, prompting a global and local anti-racist movement against COVID-19–related anti-Asian racism. This included in BC, where there was a surge in violent incidents and hate crimes directed towards individuals who appeared to be of Asian descent. Of course, reported cases barely scratch the surface of the microaggressions, hostile attitudes, and overtly racist comments that Asian communities have been subjected to during an already frightening and stressful time.
Again, with young activists taking the lead, organizations such as Vancouver’s Project 1907, Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF), Hua Foundation, Bảo Vệ Collective, Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC, and Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association, working with their allies across Canada and globally, developed an intensive campaign taking aim at anti-Black racism as well as the racism directed at Asian Canadian communities. Activists organized their own online reporting system, called Fight COVID Racism. They have since recorded hundreds of incidents. The movement for race-related data collection, including for disaggregated health data on which groups have been most affected by the COVID-19 virus, has prompted the BC Human Rights Commission to recommend reform of data collection processes.2 A “colour-blind” approach is no longer acceptable.
Earlier in the year, the hereditary chiefs of all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en nation continued their prolonged fight for control of the yintah (homelands) and opposition to CGL’s efforts to build a pipeline for fracked gas over their territory. Heavily armed with rifles, police dogs, and helicopters, the RCMP assaulted Wet’suwet’en checkpoints, arresting many Wet’suwet’en land defenders, as well as journalists attempting to document the raids. A repeat of a raid in 2019, this time the incursion sparked a provincial and countrywide campaign for Indigenous rights and against state violence. Allies organized massive protests, sit-ins, and blockades of critical rail lines and bridges that politicians could not ignore. The movement shut down the railway system of the country for two weeks, an unprecedented example of solidarity. The Wet’suwet’en campaign derailed the provincial and federal governments’ ongoing rush to exploit fossil fuels on Indigenous territories.
Coercion ramped up a year earlier, in 2018 when CGL applied for and received an injunction prohibiting Wet’suwet’en checkpoints and encampments erected to hinder the construction of the pipeline along the company’s desired route, which the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) enforced. The corporation and governments failed to respect the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that affirmed the authority that hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation held over their traditional territory as articulated in the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa ruling.3 In ignoring the hereditary chiefs and reaching out solely to elected band chief and councils, the corporations and government sowed further division among First Nations.
This nationwide solidarity movement is about more than just a pipeline – it is only the latest in longstanding attempts by Indigenous Nations to assert sovereignty over their traditional territories. As we explain, the ongoing Indigenous quest for land justice lays bare the racist foundations upon which this province has been built.
The intent is to provide a more accurate representation of First Nations in British Columbia. Boundaries shown are language areas and not an authoritative depiction of tribal territories. Terms and spellings do not reflect all dialects or names used by First Nations living within the illustrated regions. For spelling of territories and places in Indigenous languages see First Peoples’ Cultural Council maps at https://maps.fpcc.ca.
©1994 UBC Museum of Anthropology.
1 The Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights called for this in their report on Canada in 2004. See Report by Mr. Doudou Diène, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, “Addendum: Mission to Canada, 2004,” accessed October 2, 2020, bit.ly/3pwDDT0 ↩
2 British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, Disaggregated Demographic Data Collection in British Columbia: The Grandmother Perspective (Vancouver: BCOHRC, 2020), accessed December 14, 2020, bit.ly/2WS2rbV ↩