New Westminster Begbie statue could stymie sister city ties with First Nation

Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, whose indomitable, pipe-holding image stands cast in bronze beside the New Westminster Courthouse, has been a lightning rod of negative feeling for more than 150 years – even if those feelings have only recently started to push their way into mainstream thinking in the Royal City.

Among Tsilhqot’in people in the B.C. Interior, Begbie has been an infamous figure since 1864 when he sentenced six of their war chiefs to hang after they had come to the colonial authorities under a flag of truce to negotiate the end of hostilities in the Chilcotin War, which saw the killing of 20 whites in the territory.

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“I don’t think much of the hanging judge,” Tsideldel Chief Ervin Charleyboy told the Record when asked about the New West statue. “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.”

For Charleyboy, one of six chiefs who make up the Tsilhqot’in National Government, the subject is an emotional one.

“I don’t want the statue of Begbie down there,” he said. “It just makes me mad. …It just brings out the bitterness in me, and I just don’t like that.”

While not all of his fellow chiefs share his hardline stance, it’s clear Begbie (the statue, as well as the square and street named after him) will be an obstacle as the city looks to develop a sister city relationship with the Tsilhqot’in First Nation.

Such a relationship could be “limitless,” according to Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, who brought the idea to city council on March 6 and was given the green light to pursue preliminary talks.

“Local governments put a lot of energy into building international relations,” he said, “but we can build an international relationship right here at home. First Nations have their own autonomy to a really high degree.”

Puchmayr sees potential for both cultural and economic exchange – and a path toward reconciliation between two communities tied by an injustice committed a century-and-a-half ago, when the last of the six Tsilhqot’in war chiefs, Ahan, was brought to New Westminster, sentenced by Begbie to hang and buried in a criminal’s grave.

(Five chiefs had already been hanged in Quesnel the year before.)

The B.C. government cleared all six chiefs of wrongdoing in 2014 during an official apology given by Premier Christy Clark, who described them as warriors and leaders “engaged in a territorial dispute to defend their lands and their peoples.”

It’s unlikely New Westminster’s relationship with the Tsilhqot’in will move forward without some reckoning of Begbie’s history in the city and among the Tsilhqot’in, Puchmayr said – especially in light of a recent decision by the Law Society of B.C. to remove its statue of Begbie from its Vancouver offices.

“I think it was a really bold move,” Puchmayr said, “and I support what they did, and if there’s a decision to do the same with the statue in New Westminster, I would certainly support that.”

Yunesit’in Chief Russell Myers-Ross, the youngest of the current Tsilhqot’in chiefs, said there will need to be a lot more conversation about the statue and what it represents.

“It’s pretty offensive to us that people would support honouring somebody that killed people unjustly,” he said. “It’s hard for us to feel comfortable in those situations where people honour heroes that we think are not heroes at all, but we haven’t even gotten into conversations with New Westminster about it.”

Tl’etinqox Chief Joe Alphonse, the tribal chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, is no fan of Begbie either but believes ways could be found to set the historical record straight without getting rid of New West’s monument altogether.

Not without redress though.

“If you’re going to brag up Judge Begbie and endorse him and all of that, then we want our chiefs also to be mentioned and we want statues of our chiefs out there too,” Alphonse said.

The push for change around Begbie’s public image in New West isn’t all coming from the Tsilhqot’in leadership either.

The Truth and Reconciliation New Westminster working group, which presented a report to city council in April after hosting a series of community discussions inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, made a number of recommendations specific to Begbie.  

Among them was a call for a public art and history installation telling the story of the 1864 trial and hanging of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs “from a B.C. indigenous perspective,” accompanied by a family friendly community celebration to mark the unveiling of the new monument.

The group would also like to see the city organize a community event to foster more understanding of the legacy of colonization and the role Begbie played in the colonization of B.C. First Nations and their land.

When Begbie came up during their community discussions, getting rid of the statue wasn’t presented as the only solution, according to co-organizer Nadine Nakagawa, but there was consensus about the fact the Tsilhqot’in perspective of his legacy is currently nonexistent and that needs to change.

“It’s not for us to say what should be done,” Nakagawa told the Record. “It should be a community conversation, but the Tsilhqot’in Nation should be a part of that because it’s really their history that’s been made invisible up until this point by not acknowledging that Judge Begbie has that history as well.”

Whatever the fate of New West’s statue, the efforts of local residents to consult with First Nations are part of a positive change Qayqayt Chief Rhonda Larrabee has seen since she first started battling to resurrect her New Westminster First Nation.

“Twenty-five years ago, New Westminster stated there were no Indians in New Westminster ever ever ever, so I’ve had kind of a long road with the city,” she said.

“I realize that they do value their history, but there’s two sides to every story, and so if they want to keep (the Begbie statue) up, they have to do something to recognize some injustice that he did to some First Nations people.”

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