Notes on 50th Text for Reading Field: Woodcock

Canadian History, Week 8

“Potlatch 1,” posted to You Tube by AuroraKismet, 14 December 2007.

George Woodcock. British Columbia: A History of a Province. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.

George Woodcock, self-professed pacifist-anarchist and admired B.C. writer, served as the founding editor of Canadian Literature, the country’s first publication exclusively devoted to coverage of Canadian writing. He observes that history is an “art.”[1] His is a popular history of British Columbia, in which scholarly apparatus, such as footnotes, are absent. Woodcock’s assertions must therefore be taken on faith. Overall, his selection of topics and shifts in focus reflect an attitude towards a province indicative of a personal fondness. The history he recounts proceeds in broad epochs — roughly corresponding to Aboriginal and fur trade predominance in the first half of the book, and political and industrial development in the second.

“Potlatch 2,” posted to You Tube by AuroraKismet, 14 December 2007.

Woodcock obviously respects the First Nations of B.C., and has sympathy for their claims and causes, as he takes pains to make their presence in the provinces’ territory and history known. He is critical of other historians who have neglected to do so. The narrative organization of his book takes the form of an arc – from ‘equilibrium’ for Aboriginal peoples, to decline, to virtual disappearance as a socially effective group in the first section, then back to equilibrium at the book’s close – thus the trajectory of their history is important to the text’s form. However, in the first section, Woodcock’s description of Aboriginal culture and prospects for survival in the face of Western European incursion adheres to an older historiographical standard. On the one hand he points to: the fragility of their societies; self-directed moves towards material dependency on European goods and instruction; and the tragic proportions of depopulation. On the other he notes their tenacity in terms of: maintaining traditions such as the potlatch (even when outlawed); rejecting (sometimes violently) trader advances; and successfully achieving population regeneration. His description of Aboriginal peoples thus remains an outsider, paternalistic perspective — for comparison, take the works of such writers as Cole Harris, Julie Cruikshank, and Tina Loo, in which forces other than interacting with ‘the white man’ (to an extent that they appear to have done nothing else), are shown to have had an impact on Aboriginal decision making in the past.[2] A final chapter of Woodcock’s book brings him full circle. He acknowledges the survival of Aboriginal culture and the revival of a socio-political presence. His presentation implies a discontinuity that underscores the outsider perspective. In particular, his assertion of decline (and fall), and statement that the politicization of Aboriginal peoples did not manifest until the twentieth century sits uneasily with contradictory evidence that he supplies.[3] It seems reasonable to expect that during the period of marginalization in British Columbian socio-political representation — which in Woodcock’s text extends from the 1880s to the 1960s (page 141 to page 252) — Aboriginal individuals were not invisible to themselves and Woodcock’s silence on the scope of their activities is not fully reflective of their experience.

Women are conspicuously absent from Woodcock’s description of fur trader activity (and from his history as a whole). The notable men he enumerates (and unaccountably attributes a predominantly ‘loyalist’ heritage to), appear to cross mountains, navigate water courses, and begin to establish the rudimentary institutions of Western-European development without the encumbrances, benefits, or assistance of wives or offspring (although he mentions Jane Work and Susette Legace as having contributed ‘Indian blood’ to politician Simon Fraser Tolmie who became premier in 1929).[4] This lends his historiography a dated air, given that it has been well established by other historians (whose work was published not long after Woodcock’s text), that not only did traders have families, they married into native families with extensive connections to a variety of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. In my opinion, Woodcock’s account implies that a much greater Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal divide existed in the pre-provincial status period than other historiography supports. It also implies that to Woodcock’s way of thinking women had next to no role in shaping Canadian history. The gender-conscious works of such writers as Sylvia Van Kirk, Elizabeth Vibert, Frieda E. Klippenstein, Angus McLaren, and Adele Perry point to the possibility of counter interpretations, based on adopting more nuanced perspectives for analysis of a presumed more complex past.[5]

women of BC

Female participant in British Columbia’s history: “ Unidentified signalers of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (W.R.C.N.S.) and Royal Canadian Navy (R.C.N.) comparing bellbottom trousers, Esquimalt, British Columbia, Canada, 22 February 1944.” Source: PO Leslie F. Sheraton / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-189730.

Woodcock’s description of British Columbia, as he turns to the advent of Confederation and its aftermath, focuses on the political and economic development in the province. His description of trade union activity adds a dimensionality that sets this history apart from Jean Barman’s general survey.[6] He presents the British Columbian past as not only marked by an exploitative view of resources – a standard interpretation – but of people as well. He also makes it clear that the people most at risk of being exploited objected. There is therefore a ‘class struggle’ aspect to his history. He describes the vagaries of fortune that working people faced, showing that competition for jobs (and security during war years), underlay periods of heightened racialization. A particularly acute class division appeared between unemployed vagrant men and employed but financially stressed heads of households in Vancouver during the Depression. He weaves a description of this struggle into the description of unfolding political patterns as British Columbians gradually rejected patterns prescribed by Central Canadian politicians to form a polity with a distinct sense of identity and ability to be self-determining. He charts, with attention to detail, protest movements that gave rise to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the ‘surprising’ Social Credit win in 1952. His political/protest history ends with the installation of the New Democratic Party in 1972. In terms of historiographical usefulness Woodcock’s work in these chapters stands out – it is therefore regrettable that information on sources is not supplied.


“Undercutting a Douglas fir / Abattage d’un sapin de Douglas,” dated c. 1910, British Columbia, with note that “ The Douglas fir is one of the most impressive and important species of tree in the world, supplying the Canadian logging industry with a steady supply of wood for construction and export. At the time this photograph was taken, mechanical clear-cutting vast areas of forest did not exist. These workers along with their dog are shown hand-cutting the tree.” Source: Canada. Dept. of the Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-047736.

[1] George Woodcock, British Columbia: A History of a Province (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990), 265.

[2] See Cole R. Harris, “Voices of Disaster: Smallpox Around the Straight of Georgia in 1782,” in Out of the Background: Readings in Canadian Native History, ed. Ken S. Coates and Robin Fisher (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1996); Cole R. Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism & Geographical Change (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997); Cole R. Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002); Julie Cruikshank, “Images of Society in Klondike Gold Rush Narratives: Skookum Jim and the Discovery of Gold,” Ethnohistory 39, no. 1: 20-41; Julie Cruikshank,, “Oral Traditions and Oral History: Reviewing Some Issues,” Canadian Historical Review 75, no. 3 (1994): 403-418; Tina Loo, “Tonto’s Due: Law, Culture, and Colonization in British Columbia,” in Making Western Canada: Essays on European Colonization and Settlement, ed. Catherin Cavanaugh and Jeremy Mouat (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1996), 62-103.

[3] See Woodcock, British Columbia, 255-256. I find it difficult to reconcile the statement that First Nations “first developed in the twentieth century a political dimension to their cultures,” with such statements as, “the struggle for the retention of native lands began as early as 1887.”

[4] Woodcock, British Columbia, 210.

[5] See Sylvia Van Kirk, “A Vital Presence: Women in the Cariboo Gold Rush, 1862-1865,” in British Columbia Reconsidered: Essays on Women, ed. Gillian Creese and Veronica Strong-Boag (Vancouver: Press Gang, 1992); Sylvia Van Kirk, “Tracing the Fortunes of Five Founding Families of Victoria,” BC Studies: Native Peoples and Colonialism, Special Double Issue, 115/116 (Autumn/Winter, 1997/98): 148-179; Elizabeth Vibert, Traders’ Tales: Narratives of Cultural Encounters in the Columbia Plateau, 1807-1846 (Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 1997); Frieda E. Klippenstein, “The Challenge of James Douglas and Carrier Chief Kwah,” in Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History, ed. Jennifer S.H. Brown and Elizabeth Vibert (Peterborough ON.: Broadview Press, 1996); Angus McLaren, “Males, Migrants and Murder in British Columbia, 1900-1923,” in On the Case: Explorations in Social History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998); Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[6] Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 8 and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s