Vancouver BC: Joseph Trutch street signs vandalized + colonial backlash

Seattle mural

Vancouver Sun. Aug 16:

Vancouver vandals air feelings on ‘racist bigot’ Trutch St. namesake
Stickers call B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor a racist, but change of street name never pitched

A sticker placed on a Trutch St. sign in Vancouver proclaims its namesake, B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor Joseph Trutch, as a racist.

Signs on a Vancouver street named after Joseph Trutch, B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor, have been defaced with stickers noting his racist policies toward first nations.

On Wednesday, city engineering staff found every street sign and some stop signs between Point Grey Road and 16th Ave. had been plastered with stickers reading, “Joseph Trutch was a racist bigot,” a reference to anti-Indian views he espoused in the 1860s and 1870s when he was colonial B.C.’s chief commissioner of land and works.

There is no indication of who is behind the campaign, or whether it is part of an effort to get the street renamed. Works crews have removed the stickers and the city says it has not received any application to rename the street.

A prominent B.C. historian and a city councillor both say that while Trutch’s views would not be acceptable to society today, the city should not try to revise history by changing the street name.

Colonist Trutch

“Some past leaders may have been great contributors in some respects and held deplorable views in others, and I think that was often the case in B.C.’s history,” said Coun. Geoff Meggs.

“I would rather debate what the consequences are today of Trutch’s actions than to spend too much time trying to erase his name from a street sign.”

Historian Jean Barman said Canada has eradicated some of the most offensive and racist names given by early settlers, such as landmarks named after Asians or blacks.

But Barman said that view is trickier when it comes to places named after pioneers who reflected the views of the time, even though those views might be considered inappropriate today.

“I disagree with unnaming streets on principle just because it would take just about anything [to offend people],” she said.

“To my mind, the important thing is to put what happened in the past into the context of what happened in the past. You can’t undo it and you can’t change it.”

Trutch was born in England and moved to B.C. in 1859, the year after the Fraser River gold rush began. He built part of the Cariboo Road through the Fraser Canyon, and became wealthy from tolls collected on the Alexandra suspension bridge near Spuzzum.

He later became colonial land and works commissioner, and in the 1870s worked with colonial governor Anthony Musgrave to negotiate B.C.’s entry into Canadian Confederation.

Throughout his political life, he espoused harsh views about first nations, and in 1867 as land commissioner, he rejected the legitimacy of reserves established by James Douglas, B.C.’s first colonial governor. Trutch redrew the boundaries of many, reducing them in some cases to a 10th of their size.

“The thing about Trutch is his views were more visible because he did have authority and was making decisions, but he was making those decisions that, for the most part, reflected what other people thought,” Barman said. “He wasn’t a racist in the sense he was extraordinarily different from what other people were thinking, I think Trutch was in positions of authority and he exercised that authority in ways we would find are very racist today, but I don’t know who there was who would have acted that differently from him. In B.C., the really unfortunate thing is that his actions and mostly the gold rush resulted in this situation we are still trying to deal with, where there was no acknowledgment of indigenous people.”

Meggs said it is dangerous to start changing names just because the society of the day dislikes the views espoused by a predecessor.

He cited the periodic lobbying efforts to change Dunsmuir Street, named after Robert Dunsmuir, a coal baron with strident anti-labour views, to “Ginger Goodwin Street” after a Vancouver Island coal miner and B.C. Federation of Labour official who was shot in 1918 while allegedly evading conscription during the First World War.

“My concern is that if you change some of these signs, these reminders will be gone,” he said.

“I think it is better to emphasize the lessons you want to draw as opposed to wipe out what happened before.”

There’s a movie about it –

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