________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 15. . . .December 11, 2009


James Douglas: Father of British Columbia.

Julie H. Ferguson.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2009.
240 pp., pbk., $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-55488-409-4.

Subject Headings:
Douglas, James, Sir, 1803-1877.
British Columbia-History-1849-1873.
Northwest, Canadian-History-To 1870.
Governors-British Columbia-Biography.
Fur traders-Canada, Western-Biography.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by A.D. Gregor.

**** /4



Despite his unpopularity in some quarters, his slow acceptance of democracy, and some misplaced favouritism, Douglas's vision and energy can't be questioned. He was a man of sharp intelligence and fierce drive that, coupled with unusual courage and a disciplined life, ensured success in the fur trade of the early 1800s. Later these traits overcame British apathy toward the far-flung Pacific frontier. While he was governor, Sir James took risks that resulted in many more positive outcomes than negative ones. He fought hard to secure British territory west of the Rocky Mountains for all time, instituted law and order during the gold rushes, and laid the foundation for land, water, and mineral rights. His passion for roads enabled infrastructure to open up and settle the region, and he maintained peace between First Nations and colonists while following a humanitarian philosophy in his dealings with blacks, aboriginals, and slaves.


In the realm of politics and public affairs, historians enjoy the perennial argument of the relative significance of particular individuals, as opposed to the larger forces moving events. Examples abound in the course of Canadian history; and the life of James Douglas, the "father of British Columbia," provides a particularly compelling case. It is indeed arguable whether his influence there was, in fact, fundamental rather than incidental – that, without his involvement, the future of the province, and, by extension, the country, might have been dramatically different. When we look back now on Confederation and the subsequent growth of the dominion, from sea to sea to sea, it is too easy to lose sight of how close-run an event it was – and in the case of British Columbia, how close that sometime colony came to following the rest of the Pacific coast into the American fold.

      James Douglas: Father of British Columbia joins the excellent Canadian biography series developed through Dundurn Press and provides a valuable and engaging addition to the historical literature available to the school curriculum, from middle school onward. Its contribution lies in several aspects: in its very balanced historicity (it doesn't presuppose any inevitable of foreseen progress to the present, but rather looks at each period in its own terms and within its own perspective); and in its equal emphasis on the personal and human dimension of the events and circumstances. James Douglas had a rather remarkable personal odyssey that is, in its turn, instructive to anyone trying to understand the unique character of the Canadian experience. He, with two siblings, were the not atypical illegitimate offspring of a wealthy Scottish trader in South America and a part-black mother from Barbados. This eventuated in Douglas' being brought back to Scotland for his education (but without integration into the "legitimate" family), and ultimately being sent in 1819 on to Montreal as an indentured apprentice with the North West Company (at that time the increasingly deadly rival of the Hudson's Bay Company). His work in the NWC (and, subsequently, with the HBC after the two empires were ultimately merged) provides colourful images of the life and travel on the famous trade routes – and the meeting of two quite different language groups on the western frontier, along with the complex relationships both struck with the aboriginal peoples. (In this latter domain, Douglas' own background fostered an empathy that would prove important as the relationships between the races altered significantly, when trading – which had a comparatively light imperial footprint – evolved into settlement and colonization). Because Douglas' own tale took him from apprentice to the level of chief factor in the enormous and powerful business empire that the Hudson's Bay Company had become; and because events in the latter stages of that career brought him to the (often conflicting) concomitant roles of colonial governor – of Vancouver Island and of what was to become British Columbia – his own story traced the tumultuous transition of commercial empire to settled province (although his own primary loyalty and world-view was that not surprisingly that of a Briton rather than a nascent Canadian).

      Very valuable as well is the attention paid to the internal life of the family during the years both of the fur trade and of initial colonization. Douglas' wife was of mixed blood as well, but in her case Mιtis and French-speaking. Their marriage was "according to country custom" – a matter of course during the days of the fur trade. But while such things mattered little then, they led to subsequent uneasiness with the subsequent arrival of British settlers and rather less flexible assumptions and attitudes. On several levels, the trading culture and the colonizing culture were in less than full harmony; and Douglas' own story at the centre of both is enormously instructive. And on the human side – frequent moves across very unfriendly terrain, isolation, geographic separation from family, endemic infant mortality – all provide rather humbling insights to life on and beyond the frontier – even for the "privileged."

      Fortunately for us, Douglas was a relentless journal keeper and a faithful correspondent, and the author makes excellent use of those very readable sources in bringing events closer to reality. Similarly useful is the use of simulated dialogue, often very effective in giving events a human immediacy. The book is well illustrated and offers a useful bibliography and time chart – comparing incidents within the story to simultaneous events taking place elsewhere in Canada and other parts of the world. If there is one additional element this reviewer would find useful, it would be two or three maps outlining the various trips and developments described in the text. For someone unfamiliar with the locale, the place-name references can often be a bit unclear.

      In summary, though, a first rate biography and thematic history. Strongly recommended for middle school and up.

Highly Recommended.

An author of historical texts for juveniles, Alexander D. Gregor lives in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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