Reconfiguring Power in BC
- Cole Harris (Author)
The Resettlement of British Columbia. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Joel Martineau
Cole Harris specifies that the nine essays collected in The Resettlement of British Columbia deal with the uneven intersection of colonialism and modernity with aboriginal lifeworlds. The essays explicate strategies and tactics by which Coyote, Raven and their kind were decentred and marginalized in their own land. Harris argues that the "settlement" of what became British Columbia can be better appreciated as the "resettlement" of the area: the space was not empty, awaiting discovery; rather, sophisticated cultures thrived in the region, and the so-called settlement in truth appropriated the land and displaced its former inhabitants. He points out that resettlement introduced a new form of order, a new way of understanding space, whereby a British conception of private property imposed surveys, grids and maps as a way to parcel, appropriate and manage land. The new regime of control centred on private property, the law, and government administration. It was a powerful disciplinary regime that determined where people could and could not go. The reserve system, an integral component of this new regime, limited Natives to reserves, thus disciplining their mobility and restricting their access to resources. Harris theorizes this arrangement of space as a technique of dis ciplinary power that possesses the utmost subtlety yet is murderous in its effects: "carcéral" society erects enclosures in the open air and leads to a culture obsessed with divisions and boundaries; it becomes a system that confines and excludes.
The first essay establishes the important premise that sophisticated aboriginal cultures thrived in the region when the first Eurasians arrived. Harris considers a wide range of evidence—including Native stories, explorers’ journals, Hudson Bay Company accounts, the census of 1830, and accounts of the smallpox epidemic of 1782-83. He determines that the population of the region on the eve of the first epidemics was "well over 200,000 people," and that Native populations declined by some 90 to 95 per cent as a result of introduced infectious diseases. The breadth and acuity of Harris’s archival research combine with his lucid prose and deft application of contemporary social theory to create a persuasive foundation for the ensuing pieces.
The second essay discusses strategies and tactics employed in the cordilleran (as opposed to maritime) fur trade. Harris illustrates how traders applied European strategies of power (such as hierarchies, monopolies, spectacles of punishment, and a politics of fear) to create a discourse of the fur trade through which they could control their employees and to some extent the surrounding Native populations. The third essay details how British concepts of town and countryside, surveys and grids, private property, civil and criminal law, and industrial work camps were all brought to bear on the Fraser Valley, so that by 1881 a "new place, the Lower Mainland, had come into existence." Subsequent chapters deal with changing relations between Natives and Eurasians in the Fraser Canyon, the 1881 census, the vicissitudes of distance and power as transportation changed, farming and rural life, and immigration.
Michel Foucault, Hayden White and others have shown that historical events find their place in stories that reflect the historians’ decisions to configure them according to the imperatives of one plot-structure or mythos rather than another. Cole Harris shows that colonial ideologies have long determined the historical geography of British Columbia. He illustrates, for example, how the new regime assumed a rhetoric of progress and development against which lands for Native people, a population thought doomed to dwindle and disappear, appeared as distractions to be minimized as much as possible, and how this notion of progress took for granted the superiority of white ways. Similarly, he argues that the colonial system arranged populations of the region into vastly unequal relationships: officials of the British Empire became upper management; officials of the new entities Canada and British Columbia became middle management; and white "settlers" became full citizens of those new entities, while Native people were denied elementary rights of citizenship and became wards of the federal nation-state; Asian immigrants were also denied fundamental rights of citizenship, their labor exploited. Harris’s claim that this colonial expansion brought together unequal forces does not suggest that the Natives were or are powerless. He carefully shows ways that Native peoples resisted and continue to resist the imposed regime.
Of course, the carceral system that dispossessed the Native peoples of their lands and imprisoned them on reserves remains in place. Harris may describe his work as historical geography, but the present always shimmers near the surface of his writing. By emplotting the Eurasian occupation of the region as a series of ruptures and displacements rather than the triumphant settling of an untamed wilderness, Harris décentres, diffuses and complicates the geographical history of British Columbia in ways that will tend to make many readers reconsider their privileged ties to the province. "Immigrant British Columbians’ luck has been built on others’ misfortunes," Harris soberingly states, "There are no simple solutions, least of all to try to maintain the politics of colonialism." The Resettlement of British Columbia presents a brilliant and timely thesis, often in poetic prose. The essays are well illustrated, with Eric Leinberger’s cartography especially noteworthy.
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- Reappraisals by Linda M. Morra
Books reviewed: The Seven Journeys of Emily Carr by Doris Shadbolt and Tom Thomson by Dennis Reid
- Re-Presenting Johnson by Linda M. Morra
Books reviewed: Flint & Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake by Charlotte Gray
- Feminist Critics on Feminist Writers by Lothar Honnighausen
Books reviewed: Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction by Edward Eden and Dee Goertz and Narrative Deconstruction of Gender in Works by Audrey Thomas, Daphne Marlatt, and Louise Erdrich by Caroline Rosenthal
MLA: Martineau, Joel. Reconfiguring Power in BC. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 123 - 124)
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