As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is especially true of this place we call B.C. And if you need proof, you need only watch the new series British Columbia: An Untold History on Knowledge Network.
The first episode, Change + Resistance, airs tonight at 9 p.m. PDT, with subsequent chapters Labour + Persistence, Migration + Resilience and Nature + Co-Existence rolling out in coming weeks. It also streams on the Knowledge Network website.
More gentle Canadian nostalgia and quirkiness, you say? Prepare to have your expectations blown to smithereens. This stuff is big-time drama, with bloodshed, larger-than-life characters, chin-dropping tales and a painfully honest approach to provincial history.
I come from three generations of B.C. folk, and some of these stories I’d never heard before.
Writer and director Kevin Eastwood was also floored by what was revealed in the process of making the series. A long-time Vancouver documentarian, Eastwood has produced many feature films and TV series that focus on B.C. stories, like Haida Modern, Vancouver: No Fixed Address and Emergency Room: Life + Death at VGH.
An Untold History is expansive in the best sense of the word. Many of the events contained within its four episodes could easily be feature documentaries all on their own.
And then there are the people.
Grace MacPherson, one of the first female ambulance drivers in the First World War. Slim Evans, a brilliant and tough labour activist. Sir James Douglas, the first governor of the province, and his wife Amelia, an equally remarkable figure. Chief Kw’eh, a legendary leader of the Dakelh (Carrier) people.
The length and breadth of the series is impressive enough, but more critical is hearing stories from people outside of the dominant narrative. If history is something that gets told by the powerful, the experience of BIPOC, women, immigrants, the disenfranchised and impoverished are usually excised. Lost not only to time but to purposeful and careful erasure.
An Untold History unearths these buried parts, and in so doing resurrects all of the astounding people who helped forge this place with blood, sweat, heartbreak and courage.
From the very beginning, the Colony of British Columbia had something of a violent birth, as demonstrated by the story of the Fraser Canyon War of 1858.
This incident takes up the bulk of the first episode, detailing what happened when American gold miners arrived in the region en masse. Gold had been discovered in the Fraser River, and miners flooded north in search of the new El Dorado.
The influx quickly became a source of considerable tension, especially after a group of miners raped three young Indigenous women near the tiny community of Spuzzum. Warriors from the nearby village descended on the rapists, slaughtered them, ate their hearts and threw their dismembered bodies in the river. A certain bend in the Fraser Canyon became known as Deadman's Eddy for all of the dead white men whirling around.
As miners and Indigenous people clashed, hanging in balance was the fear that the U.S. would attempt to annex more territory. Given that the U.S. was actively trying to push the 49th-parallel border north, and British colonial authorities weren’t paying much attention to the bit of backwater on the edge of Canada, there was a real possibility that B.C. might become part of the States.
With the threat of American military intervention hanging in the balance, it was a peace treaty, advocated mostly by Indigenous women, that forestalled an invasion. Douglas, then governor of the colony of Vancouver Island, declared B.C. a Crown colony without consulting Indigenous people, and lo, B.C. was born. As Nlaka’pamux playwright Kevin Loring drily notes in an interview, from the very outset the province was “kind of a fraud.”
There is so much material in the series, one story bleeding into another, that it’s tempting to go back and start all over again, picking apart the skeins of different events, like a macramé rope of the personal and the political.
How to wrangle order out of such a morass? The head of the film’s research team, Jennifer Chiu, did much of the heavy lifting, says Eastwood. When he received the first version of the project, it was a 98-page document in 10-point font. “It was so dense!”
Eastwood, with an unerring instinct for story, got it down to four pages and built from there. The production team, including Screen Siren’s Trish Dolman and Leena Minifie from Gitxaala Nation, were part of an inclusive approach to everything from the people interviewed to the makeup of the film crew.
The show’s introduction, voiced by spoken word poet Shane Koyczan, explains that although B.C. has been the promised land for many people, it’s still a pretty recent invention at only 150 years old. Much of what lingers is the product of events that happened a century ago.
This became terribly apparent to the production team after they finished filming an interview with Marianne Ignace, Secwépemc linguist, author and anthropologist in Kamloops. The discovery of the unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School happened just after the editing was wrapped.
The twinning of past and present kept occurring throughout production, whether it was the forcible removal of homeless encampments in Vancouver with its parallels to what were once termed “hobo jungles” in the 1930s, or the recent rise in anti-Asian violence that echoed the 1907 anti-Asian riots.
Another section in Untold History that details the rise and fall of Hogan’s Alley, a historically black community in Vancouver, found a contemporary equivalent in the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada and the U.S. “These stories that were happening 100 years ago, were also on the front page [today],” notes Eastwood.
While it’s tempting to think the province has progressed, as many people interviewed point out, the worst stuff was simply unacknowledged or actively hidden. This is especially true in the case of atrocities committed against Indigenous people in B.C.
A case in point is the smallpox epidemic of 1862 that killed almost one-third of the Indigenous population over the course of one winter. As author John Belshaw notes in the series, there is no monument to this cataclysmic event anywhere in the province.
And some people interviewed for the series are blunt about the fact that these stories were not, in fact, “untold,” as the series title suggests.
In the series first episode, Tl’etinqox Chief Joe Alphonse tells the story of a road-building crew threatening the Tsilhqot’in people with the return of smallpox. In retaliation, a party of warriors killed 19 white men. The six Indigenous Chiefs who were held responsible were convicted by jury and hanged. The incident known as the Chilcotin War is “still lingering,” says Alphonse. “The first the first thing we learn, as Tsilhqot’in kids growing up, is the trial that happened.”
Oral histories handed down over decades figure large in the series. Many direct descendants of legendary figures in Indigenous history are still alive today, like Lillian Sam, the great, great-granddaughter of Indigenous leader Chief Kw’eh. Kw’eh is mostly known for sparing the life of Douglas during a confrontation at Fort St. James when Douglas was still working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. But as Eastwood says, “Kw’eh was a fascinating figure. He was kind of a super Chief.”
Every story in the series made me go in search of additional information, especially the episode dedicated to the labour movement. As journalist Rod Mickleburgh notes, at one time B.C. had the most militant labour movement in the country: “They were fighters, they stood their ground.”
The history of resource extraction industries in B.C., like fishing and logging, feels timely given the current struggles over old-growth forests. But one industry that set the tone for activist movements to follow was actually coal mining.
The first coal miners in B.C. were Indigenous people, explains Mickleburgh. Later, the government brought in miners from the U.K., but they immediately went on strike when faced with the poor working conditions. Labour organizers were sent to jail, but the miners formed unions and fought back.
The 1918 murder of union leader Ginger Goodwin in Cumberland by special constable Dan Campbell proved a galvanizing point, leading to a general strike in Vancouver, the first of its kind in Canada.
As Mickleburgh thoughtfully notes, it is curious who gets remembered and who gets forgotten. Someone like coal developer Robert Dunsmuir, who deserted his fellow workers and became a notorious robber baron, had streets named after him, while the hundreds of anonymous men who worked and died in the mines are forgotten.
One of the most fascinating things about Untold History is that for all of the cruelty, intolerance and violence documented, these forces of darkness are met and matched by active resistance, raw courage and strength of compassion.
Eastwood says there are many stories he would have liked to include, leaving the door for future episodes. “There are plenty of other areas to be explored, the LGBQT+ community,” he says.
So much of what happened back then is still very much with us, in the memories of people who lived through it and have an intimate understanding of why this place is the way it is.
Watching the series, I thought about my own family’s history here. My grandmother working through the war efforts, my grandfather coming of age during the Great Depression, my mother discovering hippie culture, and so on. It’s hard to disentangle your own sense of personal history with the larger events and movements that happened here and are still unfolding.
But as Eastwood says, “Nothing is past, and it’s all interconnected.”
The series debuts Oct. 12 on the Knowledge Network and is available to stream on the Knowledge website.