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Rights + Justice

Oh No, My Street’s Named after a Racist!

From Trutch to Robson and Smithe, the dark history behind Vancouver’s tainted names.

Emma Renaerts 23 May

Emma Renaerts is completing a practicum at The Tyee while pursuing a master’s degree at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Imagine being Indigenous and finding out you live on a street named after someone who was responsible for the ongoing marginalization and struggle of other Indigenous people.

Jessie Loyer doesn’t have to.

Loyer, a member of the Michel First Nation in Treaty 6 territory (also known as central/northern Alberta), was “shocked” and “depressed” the day she found out about the racist legacy of the street she lived on.

Loyer lived on Trutch Street in Vancouver, British Columbia for two years while in graduate school at UBC’s iSchool for library and archival studies.

We’ll get into the nitty-gritty of Trutch’s problematic past shortly, but basically the CliffsNotes version is that he substantially reduced the size of Indigenous reserves in B.C., which deeply affected Indigenous people.

Loyer discovered information about Trutch’s past while working as an archival intern for the Tsawwassen First Nation in summer 2011.

“I was so surprised to learn who he was... I think it’s really depressing in so many ways to see that even as we’re trying to think about land acknowledgement, or thinking about our responsibilities to the [local Indigenous] community, there are so many reminders that there is such a legacy of genocide in Canada,” Loyer said.

Before learning of his past, Loyer and her housemates referred to their place as the “Trutch house,” she recalled.

That changed after Loyer’s revelation. “We were like, we’re not doing that anymore... we don’t need to refer to Trutch constantly. Every time we walk by it, we see [his name]. We don’t need to have it always on our lips.”

After that experience, she said that her concept of place names has completely changed.

“It really instilled in me a sense that the names we place on streets and towns, that are just some white dude’s name, are doing a ton of work to obscure actual Indigenous presence.”

Let’s look at some of those really bad “white dudes” whose names define Vancouver and downplay its rich multicultural past.

1. Joseph Trutch (1826-1904)

Streets in Vancouver and Victoria, avenues in Richmond and Chilliwack. Engineer and land surveyor, chief commissioner of lands and works for colonial B.C. (1864-1871), first lieutenant governor of B.C. (1871-1876).

You may already know something of Trutch’s dubious legacy. In 2012, anonymous activists slapped stickers on every Vancouver street sign bearing his name, reading: “Joseph Trutch is a racist bigot.”

On Vancouver Island, the University of Victoria removed his name from one of its residences once his problematic past came to light, and there have been ongoing efforts by local residents to get Victoria’s street named after him changed. (It’s only two blocks long, but so far their efforts have been unsuccessful.)

So why have so many people been trying to remove Trutch’s name from their cities?

Trutch’s actions as chief commissioner of lands and works for colonial B.C. (1864-1871), and as the first lieutenant governor of B.C., significantly impacted Indigenous communities in the province and continue to this day.

According to historian Robin Fisher, James Douglas, the first governor of colonial B.C., had already begun making informal (unsigned) treaties and “buying” the land from First Nations in B.C. before Trutch came on the scene.

Douglas was relatively well liked by Indigenous people, writes Fisher, and seemed to believe that Indigenous people had a rightful claim to their land (shocking, I know).

Douglas marked out reserves that were comparable to those in other provinces, typically giving First Nations 160 acres of land per family and giving money or gifts in exchange for the land they were losing.

Most of these policies were altered as a direct result of Douglas putting Trutch in control of lands and works just before he retired, writes Fisher. Douglas’s successor, Frederick Seymour, allowed himself to be continuously swayed by Trutch’s suggestions.

Trutch believed, as he told prime minister John A. Macdonald in 1872, that Indigenous people in B.C. were “utter savages living along the coast, frequently committing murder and robbery amongst themselves, one tribe upon another, and on white people who go amongst them for the purpose of trade.”

According to Fisher, Trutch also became obsessed “with the idea that the Indians were standing in the way of the development of the colony by Europeans,” which drove him to advocate that Indigenous people “had to be relieved of as much land as possible, so that it could be ‘properly’ and ‘efficiently’ used by Europeans.”

As chief commissioner of lands and works, he continuously reduced the reserve sizes promised by Douglas by as much as 90 per cent. He felt that First Nations people only needed 10 acres of land per family, writes Fisher.

Fisher argues that significantly reducing the size of Indigenous reserves was not enough for Trutch. For the rest of his career in politics, he defended his actions.

And as the province’s lieutenant governor, Fisher writes, Trutch almost singlehandedly ensured that even after the federal government took control of “Indian affairs,” the reserves he established in B.C. were not changed, despite being significantly smaller than those in the rest of Canada.

2. Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919)

Avenue in Vancouver, an elementary school, and the Canadian five dollar bill. Seventh prime minister of Canada (1896-1911), leader of the federal Liberal Party for nearly 32 years.

Laurier is remembered as being Canada’s first francophone prime minister, and for being one of the nation’s greatest statesmen.

Here’s what you might not have known: as prime minister, he supported or enacted racist policies which affected Indigenous, Asian and black Canadians. A real triple threat.

In 1900, Laurier increased the head tax on Chinese immigrants to $100 per person, and then again to $500 per person a few years later. According to the Globe and Mail, $500 in 1914 was the equivalent of $8,340.28 in 2018.

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Wilfrid Laurier, racist triple threat. Image via the British Library and Wikipedia, public domain.

On the occasion of the first increase to the head tax under his authority, Laurier said: “In my opinion, there is not much room for the Chinaman in Canada. He displaces a good Canadian, or a good British subject.”

Laurier also opposed the immigration of black people into Canada.

On Aug. 12, 1911, his cabinet approved an order-in-council which stated: “For a period of one year from and after the date hereof the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” Laurier’s signature sealed the deal.

As was fashionable at the time, Laurier also vocally supported taking land from its rightful owners, Indigenous people.

According to the National Post, he spoke in the House of Commons in 1886 about the nation’s right to take land from “savage nations” because a Canada under Indigenous control would “forever have remained barren and unproductive, but which under civilized rule would afford homes and happiness to teeming millions.”

At least he thought that Indigenous people should be paid for their land.

3. John A. Macdonald (1815-1891)

Relatively major street in Vancouver, the old Canadian 10 dollar bill (replaced by Viola Desmond in 2018). First and longest serving prime minister of Canada (1867–1873, 1878–1891), longest serving aboriginal affairs minister (1878-1888).

This guy should be familiar to most of us as the subject of heated debates about memorialization and history in the past few years, and he’s also on our money.

In addition to being the PM who signed the first anti-Asian immigration policy into law (the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act, which placed a $50 dollar head tax on any Chinese person emigrating to Canada), Macdonald is considered by many to be the architect of Canada’s most genocidal policies concerning Indigenous people.

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PM and pusher of residential schools, John A. Macdonald. Image via the National Archives of Canada, public domain.

As aboriginal affairs minister, he laid the foundations for the Indian Act, the residential school system and the Department of Indian Affairs.

We know now that each of these caused unthinkable suffering and trauma, which endures to this day, as they worked to destroy and control the culture of Indigenous people.

Macdonald pushed for the residential schools to be designed the way they ultimately were because, as he said, “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write... he is simply a savage who can read and write... [T]he Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence.”

As if that weren’t enough, Macdonald starved Indigenous people in the Prairies in order to clear a path for the transcontinental railway by forcing them to move to federal reserves.

4. Richard McBride (1870-1917)

Boulevard in New Westminster, as well as a park, elementary school and annex school in Vancouver. Sixteenth premier of British Columbia (1903-1915), provincial MLA.

To be honest, I had no idea who McBride was or what he had done before I started researching this article. But his actions (and words) speak for themselves.

During his time as premier of B.C., McBride was vocally and politically anti-Asian. He supported the head tax on Chinese immigrants and discouraged local industries from employing Chinese labourers, even going so far as to try to fine companies that did so, although the federal government repeatedly disallowed these actions.

McBride was also premier at the time of the Komagata Maru incident.

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A most dubious premier, Richard McBride. Image via Wikipedia, public domain.

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship that arrived in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914. It carried 376 people, most of whom were Sikh and all of whom were British subjects hoping to emigrate from India to Canada. All passengers were denied entry and not permitted to set foot on Canadian soil.

After two months of struggle, when food on the ship had run out, it turned back to India. The passengers’ lives didn’t improve once they returned to India, as the British government felt that their story of being turned away from a British colony, while Indians still fought on behalf of the British Empire, could cause an uprising.

The passengers were placed under escort and treated as political agitators. When they resisted, a riot ensued and 20 were killed. (Today marks the 105th anniversary of the Komagata Maru’s arrival.)

According to journalist Ted Ferguson, McBride justified his stance against allowing the passengers of the Komagata Maru to disembark in Vancouver, saying: “we stand for a white British Columbia, a white land, and a white Empire.”

5. John Robson (1824-1892)

Major street and square in downtown Vancouver, also the name of a park in East Van. Ninth premier of British Columbia (1889-1892), provincial MLA, journalist.

I bet this name is familiar.

What might not be as familiar are the racist policies Robson enacted as a politician.

His most noteworthy contribution to the racism of the day was legislation that disenfranchised non-white voters. As a provincial MLA, he amended the provincial voting law to disenfranchise Chinese and Indigenous people and ended up getting their names removed from the registry of voters for the province.

Like basically everyone else on this list, Robson also held a paternalistic view of Indigenous people in B.C.

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Robson the disenfranchiser. Image of John Robson by Collections Canada via Wikipedia, public domain.

While he believed that Indigenous people would eventually be “utterly extinct,” he felt that it was the moral responsibility of settlers to “civilize” them. This “civilizing” process involved shipping them to reserves, which he believed should be small, and preventing them from drinking.

According to historian Fisher, Trutch’s action to reduce the reserves in the lower Fraser Valley actually gained its momentum from Robson. As an MLA, Robson moved in 1867 that those reserves should be “reduced to what is necessary for the actual use of the Natives.”

Worst of all, Robson was also a journalist. Yet another reporter giving us all a bad name...

Other dishonourable mentions

Matthew Begbie (1819-1894)

Elementary school in Vancouver and the name of a street and square in New Westminster. First judge of the Supreme Court of the Colony of B.C. (1858-1866), first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of B.C. (1871-1894).

Begbie’s name has been in the news a fair bit recently. The City of New Westminster voted on May 6 to take down his statue, citing his involvement in the hanging of six Tsilhqot’in chiefs.

The Chilcotin [sic.] War of 1864 was misrepresented in Canadian history up until very recently. (Read this to understand the war from the Tsilhqot’in perspective.)

After a largely unsuccessful attempt on the part of the settler government to effectively show the Tsilhqot’in who was boss, the settlers suggested a peace accord.

Instead of peace, five Tsilhqot’in chiefs were arrested when tricked into showing up for the discussion. Begbie, as the presiding judge at their trial, sentenced them to hanging. The chiefs were Head War Chief Lhats’as?in, Chief Biyil, Chief Tilaghed, Chief Taqed and Chief Chayses. A year later, Chief Ahan was ambushed and hung.

The B.C. government formally exonerated the chiefs, and an official apology was given to the Tsilhqot’in people by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year.

Begbie was also called the “hanging judge” after his death, which is reason enough to include him on this list.

J.A. Paton (1884-1946)

A two-block street in West Van. Mayor of municipality of Point Grey (1925-1927), newspaper owner, politician.

As mayor of Point Grey (which used to be a separate municipality), Paton supported, using municipal funds and police, the kidnapping and torture of Wong Foon Sing, a Chinese servant accused of killing a local white woman, Janet Smith.

For all the gory details about this and other things Paton did because he was “not content to rest on his racist laurels,” as writer Jesse Donaldson put it, read his Vice article on the man.

William Smithe (1842-1887)

A street in downtown Vancouver. Seventh premier of British Columbia (1883-1887), provincial MLA.

Smithe was actively against the rights of Asian and Indigenous people while in office. (Is this getting repetitive?)

This quote really sums up what kind of guy he was: “the hordes of Chinese... surge in upon the country and carry with them the elements of disease, pestilence and degradation over the face of the fair land.”

Joseph Denman (1810-1874)

Street in Vancouver, plus an entire Gulf Island! Rear Admiral in the British Navy.

When people talk about Joseph Denman, they mostly talk about how he was against slavery. So why is he on this list?

In 1864, Denman captained a ship, the HMS Sutlej, which was sent in retaliation for the killing of three white traders to Clayoquot Sound to fire on several Ahousaht villages, an action that killed at least 15 people. Denman and his wife “adopted” a young girl whose mother had been killed during the attack.

There is one fascinating glimmer of hope that came out of this story though. Read more about it here.

Frederick Seymour (1820-1869)

Street in downtown Vancouver. Governor of Colonial B.C. (1864-1866), and of the united colonies of Vancouver Island and B.C. (1866-1869).

According to historian Fisher, Seymour allowed Trutch to wreak mayhem on the reserves of Indigenous people because he couldn’t be bothered to pay too much attention to the issue, and also received praise in England for his “firm handling” of the Chilcotin [sic.] War.

This experience inspired him to write in a dispatch to Edward Cardwell (the British Secretary of State for the Colonies) that in the event of an emergency, “I may find myself compelled to follow in the footsteps of the Governor of Colorado... and invite every white man to shoot each Indian he may meet.”

So, what now?

Whew, that was exhausting. So many street names, so many racist histories.

But as you’ll read in a forthcoming story, attitudes about place names are changing as more people acknowledge their power as honorific memorials that communicate, whether we intend them to or not, the values we celebrate as a city or nation.

How is Vancouver taking on this challenge? We’ll have that story soon in The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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