On a cloudy day last summer, ropes were tied around a statue in front of a provincial courthouse in New Westminster. As the metal figure of Sir Matthew Begbie was carried away, one woman let out a war cry.
Her voice pierced the rumble of construction equipment, further amplified by people cheering.
From there, Judge Begbie was taken into storage until its fate was decided.
The statue wasn’t the only monument to the former colonial judge. There’s an elementary school in Vancouver, a street in New Westminster and the highest point on the Caribou Highway, which is called Begbie Summit.
Yet, the largest concentration of ‘Begbies’ is in Revelstoke. There’s Begbie Creek, Begbie Falls, Begbie Lake, Mt. Begbie Road, Begbie Road, Begbie View Elementary School, and the soon-to-be Begbie Falls campground. Not to mention the numerous businesses with the moniker. And of course Mt. Begbie itself.
|Judge Sir Matthew Begbie circa 1870. (Photo from Provincial Archives of British Columbia)|
Who was Sir Matthew Begbie?
In 1858, Begbie moved from London, England to Victoria, B.C. He was appointed as a judge and travelled the new colony by horse, holding court. In 1868 alone, it’s estimated he rode more than 5,500 kilometres. Begbie gained the reputation as a hanging judge after 27 of 52 murder cases he presided over ended in hangings.
The majority of people he sentenced to death were Indigenous men. However, Begbie did introduce legislation giving rights to Indigenous women and called for the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ land rights.
According to historian David Williams, the size of Begbie’s funeral procession was unprecedented, even by today’s standards. Begbie is regarded as one of the province’s first citizens.
He visited Revelstoke at least once in 1885 for court. His cases consisted mostly of appeals of convictions for selling liquor as well as one murder trial. William Brown was found guilty of manslaughter of a woman he lived with. He was sentenced to two years of hard labour.
Why was his statue removed?
In 1864, six Tsilhqot’in chiefs were invited by colonial officials for peacekeeping talks during the Chilcotin War. Instead, the chiefs were arrested, tried and hung. Judge Begbie presided over the trials.
|Early shot of Mt. Begbie overlooking Revelstoke. (Photo supplied by Revelstoke Museum and Archives. Number: 4568)|
The conflict started when white construction workers began building a road west of Williams Lake in Tsilhqot’in territory without permission. Excluding the chiefs, 19 people died in the incident, most of whom were road workers.
In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to the Tsilhqot’in community for the hangings.
“Those are mistakes that our government profoundly regrets and are determined to set right. The treatment of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs represents a betrayal of trust, an injustice that you have carried for more than 150 years,” said Trudeau at the time.
Last spring, New Westminster councillors passed a motion to remove Judge Begbie’s statue from the front of the provincial courthouse.
“From the Tsilhqot’in perspective, Judge Begbie represents a legacy of betrayal, pain and tragedy for our people,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tsilhqot’in, after the council vote.
|“Lofty the mountains and grand, –
But Begbie, all thine is the charm,
Snow-crowned, as a monarch doth stand
To guard our fair city from harm.” – A poem to Mount Begbie, written by “Starlight” and published 1915 in the local paper.(Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
The name was officially adopted in 1900.
“This mount is the chief pride of the City of Revelstoke. For years, her citizens have felt in a peculiar sense Mt. Begbie is her own,” wrote Rev. James Robertson, who took part in the first recorded ascent party in 1907.
This sentiment has continued more than a hundred years later. Last September, a packed room listened to a proposal for a 16 person hut and 16 person chalet to be built near the mountain’s glacier.
“This is a sacred site. It should never be developed,” said one of the attendees. The room erupted in applause.
Today little is known about the mountain before it became Mt. Begbie.
Last fall, Marilyn James, a spokesperson for the Sinixt nation, said she didn’t know the Indigenous name of the mountain. However, after speaking with other elders, she said the mountain shared the name of a former nearby Indigenous village in Revelstoke called Skixik-n. She noted this was probably only one of the names of the mountain as each nation had its own.
|Today’s Begbie Road is near the former Indigenous village Skxikn in the Big Eddy, Revelstoke. (Liam Harrap)|
Revelstoke sits on the traditional lands of four nations: the Sinixt, the Ktunaxa, the Secwepmec and the Syilx.
Laura Stovel’s book Swift River, which provides some history on the Indigenous people around Revelstoke, spelled the name of the village slightly different as Skxikn (sku-hee-kin-tin). The book says the area was especially important for the Sinixt.
Shelly Boyd, the Sinixt facilitator for the Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said translated in English, the village’s name meant place of the fast water.
What is in a name?
When settlers first arrived in the Revelstoke, new names were given to the landscape. Most of them to honour someone somewhere else.
Revelstoke Mountain Resort sits on Mt. Mackenzie, which is named after the second Prime Minister of Canada Alexander Mackenzie. The Revelstoke museum has no record of him ever visiting Revelstoke.
According to John Lutz, professor of Indigenous settler relations at the University of Victoria, Indigenous peoples’ naming practices were vastly different from those of colonial settlers.
For example, the B.C. government might have one name for a creek, while Indigenous people might name five different parts of the creek where there were different reeds and fish, or where the water was fresher.
Before the settlers arrived in Revelstoke, Lutz said everything would have had an Indigenous name.
|Before settlers arrived and started logging, building dams and renaming, most topographical features would have already had an Indigenous name. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)|
Place names serve two functions said Lutz. One being that they mark a place that more than one person can identify and find.
Secondly, they are meant to remind us of a story. When the Europeans arrived they rewrote that story.
“They edited, erased and rewrote names. Mt. Begbie was meant to remind us of the Chief Justice of British Columbia and the stories about him,” said Lutz.
Shelly Boyd, from the Sinixt nation, said colonial renaming was meant to change the landscape compared to an Indigenous name that mirrored it.
“Our names and languages are tied to the land, instead of a person,” said Boyd.
One of the few Indigenous place names to survive near Revelstoke is the fast-flowing Illecillewaet River, which means big water.
Since most Indigenous peoples’ culture in B.C. is oral, the loss of Indigenous names was detrimental.
“When you take away those mnemonic devices, you take their history and you take away those cues for telling that history,” Lutz said.
He said while renaming would be significant to any nation, it’s far more damaging to an oral culture than a text one.
Lutz said it’s likely some Indigenous topographical names could have been thousands of years old.
One difficulty with naming a place after a person said Lutz, is it doesn’t specify what story should be told.
Yes, Begbie introduced legislation giving rights to Indigenous women and called for the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ land rights, but in the case of hanging the six Tsilhqot’in chiefs he failed.
“Begbie let history down as he had the opportunity to recommend mercy and didn’t,” said Lutz.
|Climbing Mt. Begbie in 1948. (Photo from the Revelstoke Museum. Number: 6894)|
The removal of Begbie statues
The taking down of the statue in New Westminster wasn’t the first time a Begbie statue was removed.
In 2017, the Law Society of B.C. removed a statue of Begbie from its lobby as a step towards reconciliation as the Indigenous community said the statue was a painful reminder of the province’s colonial past.
In 2007, a mural depicting Chief Justice Matthew Begbie presiding over a shackled Indigenous chief was taken down from the B.C. Legislature.
“We want this place to be inclusive,” said B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell at the time.
Judge Begbie hasn’t left quietly.
An article printed by the Vancouver Sun compared the mural removal to “the old Soviet Communist Party airbrushing Leon Trotsky from photographs of Joseph Stalin.”
Comments on social media about the removal of Begbie’s statue in New Westminster claim it’s erasing history; others ask where to draw the line.
While taking down the statue is a step forward said Chief Jimmy Lulua of Xeni Gwet’in, part of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, there’s still a long march to go when it comes to reconciliation.
“Taking down little things, these are minor. This shouldn’t be a problem at all. But it almost feels like we’ve shot them when we’ve taken down a simple statue. People feel so offended.”
He continued people should view it through an Indigenous lens.
“We want to rewrite the wrongs all across the world. Anyone who symbolizes oppression, take them down. Put back the original name.”
Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tsilhqot’in shared a different perspective.
“Removing Judge Begbie’s statue from public spaces does not remove him from history, but rather recognizes our history and our experiences as Indigenous peoples.”
How are topographical features named?
The Geographical Names Office within the Ministry of Forests is responsible for naming. However, they do not initiate naming proposals and instead rely on submissions.
According to the ministry’s website, names that are considered include names associated with local historical events, a natural feature, a native language, an early resident or someone who died during war.
Even if a feature is renamed, the provincial toponymist notes the previous name becomes a part of the official name record to ensure it lasts forever.
“It reminds us of how we came to be where we are today,” said the ministry in a written response.
Naming practices have changed extensively in the last 100 years. Previously, names were given by a few individuals whereas today the process includes the entire community to ensure the name reflects the heritage values of the area.
According to the province, no one has requested Mt. Begbie to be renamed.
|Mount Begbie View Elementary School in Revelstoke. Mt. Begbie is behind. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)|
Since Begbie’s statue was removed last summer, there’s been little mention of the incident in Revelstoke.
Mayor Gary Sulz said it has yet to come up in city council and probably won’t.
While Sir Matthew Begbie Elementary School in Vancouver has been asked to change its name, Superintendent Mike Hooker said Begbie View Elementary hasn’t. The Revelstoke school was built in 2012; the name was chosen after a contest. It combined Mt. Begbie Elementary and Mountain Elementary, the two former schools that the new one replaced.
Regardless, Hooker said the school board would be open to a discussion if a proposal to rename the school was ever brought forward.
“We aren’t married to names. We want one that best represents the community.”
Revelstoke: An Indigenous history
Archaeologists have found evidence of humans in the Columbia River area dating back more than 6,000 years. It’s likely the Sinixt have been here for thousands of years. Their northernmost village was Skxikn, which was located where Revelstoke now sits.
The settlement didn’t disappear all at once, but slowly.
First came the fur traders, then the miners and surveyors, followed by railway and road builders, government officials and settlers. They brought smallpox and sickness.
|In Vallican, B.C. (Photo by Derrick LaMere)|
The ancient trees were cut for farmland and railway ties. The Columbia River that had flowed for millennia was damned and its flow halted. Indigenous burial sites drowned. Even the very soil under Skxikn was dug up for agriculture.
The newspapers didn’t help either, calling the Sinixts dangerous.
“The savages were cited before the commissioner and were told that they either had to behave themselves or get out,” wrote the Kootenay Mail Newspaper in 1895.
Bit by bit, the Indigenous people were driven away.
“This is how a people disappeared, a nation vanished. Here. In Canada. Almost,” writes Laura Stovel in her book Swift River.
In 1956, the Canadian government declared the Sinixts extinct. However, Marilyn James, spokesperson for the Sinixt, estimates they number more than 6,000 today, which is similar in size to Revelstoke.
“It’s not a coincidence. We’re the people of the upper Columbia River and the river is so important. It was important then. It’s important now,” said Shelly Boyd, the Sinixt facilitator for the Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
When it comes to the loss of Indigenous names in the Revelstoke area, James said people are hungry for landscape stories. Names that go beyond a person and are tied to the land.
“Who is Begbie and what does he represent except for colonial thuggery?” she asked.
“How about a real story behind a real mountain that really means something to people. Not just the Sinixts, but everyone. People want to know what their landscape represents.”