Hanging Judge executed six Tsilhqot’in chiefs in the 1860s
By Jake Wray, News Editor and Colten Kamlade, Staff Reporter
As debate rages in the United States about the removal of statues of Confederate General Robert Lee, a conversation is brewing in New Westminster about a different controversial statue.
The likeness of Matthew Begbie, who in 1858 was appointed as the first colonial judge in BC according to a report in the Vancouver Sun, stands outside the New Westminster provincial courthouse. Begbie is colloquially known as the Hanging Judge because he ordered the execution of six Tsilhqot’in chiefs for their role in the Chilcotin War, a battle in 1864 between Tsilhqot’in warriors and white road workers that resulted in the death of approximately 20 whites.
BC Premier Christy Clark posthumously exonerated the six executed chiefs in 2014, according to a report by CBC News. In April, the Law Society of British Columbia decided to remove a statue of Begbie from their lobby “as a step toward reconciliation,” according to a press release issued by the law society. Now, some people are calling for removal of the statue from New Westminster altogether.
“I don’t think much of the Hanging Judge,” said Ervin Charleyboy, one of six current Tsilhqot’in chiefs, in an interview with the New Westminster Record. “It would give me great pleasure to get a big excavator or something and lower him with a rope. That would be the end of that hanging judge.”
Charleyboy said the statue makes him angry.
“I don’t want the statue of Begbie down there,” he told the New Westminster Record. “It just makes me mad. …It just brings out the bitterness in me, and I just don’t like that.”
Sally Mennill, chair of the history department at Douglas College, said Begbie had a complicated relationship with Indigenous people.
“Begbie was certainly a controversial character in the early colonial period in BC. While he was known to speak a few Indigenous languages and maintain ongoing relationships with the Indigenous peoples he encountered in his many travels, his rates of conviction also show his tendency to convict and sentence Indigenous defendants more heavily,” she wrote in an e-mail interview with the Other Press.
The City of New Westminster, which is in charge of the Begbie statue, has already received some direct feedback about the statue. On April 10, a community delegation, Truth and Reconciliation New West, presented a report to New Westminster city council recommending that the City make a “commitment” to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and that the City support a community reconciliation process in New Westminster. Part of that report to council included reconciliation suggestions made by members of the public at a number of community discussions hosted by Truth and Reconciliation New West—including a panel discussion on January 19 moderated by Dave Seaweed, an aboriginal co-ordinator for Douglas College—and some of the public comments included in the report suggested changing the Begbie statue.
The New Westminster city council accepted Truth and Reconciliation New West’s recommendations, and directed City staff to form a taskforce that will investigate how exactly New Westminster can implement the calls to action.
Rob McCullough, manager of museums and heritage services for the City, is leading that task force. In a phone interview with the Other Press, McCullough said the calls to action are vague directives, and his taskforce must determine how those directives could be specifically applied in New Westminster. That might include changing or removing the Begbie statue, he said, but the process has just begun and it’s too early to say for certain.
“The Begbie statue may come up. Now, we haven’t entered into the process saying ‘we’re going to tackle the Begbie statue.’ We’ve basically entered into it with an open mind,” he said.
McCullough said the City has received some public feedback about the Begbie statue, in the Truth and Reconciliation New West report and, more recently, in e-mails from the public, so it’s likely his taskforce will explore options for the statue, but much more community consultation is necessary before the taskforce makes any recommendations about the fate of the statue to city council.
“We have had people reaching out to us around the Judge Begbie statue, some in defence and some against it, so there would need to be a fairly open and free conversation about what the potentials for it could be,” he said.
Any action the City might take in regards to the Begbie statue must be supported by one of the Calls to Action, according to McCullough, who added that he has only begun detailed study of the “Calls to Action” document. He gave the 47th Call to Action as an example of one that might support changing or removing the Begbie statue, but he said that was only hypothetical and the taskforce has yet to make a final decision. The 47th Call to Action asks all levels of government in Canada to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands.”
McCullough said some of the feedback the City has received by email about the Begbie statue doesn’t call for removal of the statue.
“It’s been along the lines of wanting to present a more open and balanced perspective on the Judge Begbie legacy, like maybe installing something with the statue that comprehensively interprets the situation and the environment Judge Begbie was working within, and maybe having another piece that goes alongside it, that is just as significant as the statue, to balance out the story,” he said. “That was an idea that was put forward by a community member, and by no means is it something that [the taskforce is] acting on but it was just a thought that came forward.”
Minnell doesn’t believe that removing the statue is the solution, but agrees that work towards reconciliation needs to be done in other ways.
“[Removing the Begbie statue] does not erase his role in colonizing British Columbia, nor does the removal of any statue erase any racist, colonial, or otherwise oppressive acts. Silencing the past does not reconcile the subjugation that Indigenous and otherwise racialized peoples have endured in our complicated history,” she said. “We need to elevate the truths of these encounters and work towards commemorating and celebrating Indigenous peoples in our efforts at Truth and Reconciliation. I would like to see statues celebrating Indigenous justice and activism alongside the one of Judge Begbie.”
The taskforce has a rough deadline to present recommendations to city council by the end of 2017, according to McCullough.