The City of Victoria is celebrating its 150th anniversary with what it’s calling “a wide range of events and projects that embrace Victoria’s proud history and its defining heritage characteristics, while maintaining a current and contemporary view of the future.”
In their promotions for the events, the organisers remind us that: “Victoria has been home to some of Canada’s most colourful characters… including architect Francis Rattenbury, painter and writer Emily Carr, newspaperman and ‘lover of the universe’ Amour de Cosmos, hanging judge Matthew Bailey Begbie…” And, one of the planned Victoria 150 activities focuses on the importance of Fort Victoria’s role in helping to build the city. To pay tribute to this history, the organisers have planned what they call a “fun event [that] will register the ‘universal appeal of forts’ while paying tribute to Victoria’s start as Fort Victoria, a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost, which is the basis for the modern City…”
To take up the City of Victoria’s invitation to embrace Victoria’s heritage and history, with an eye to engaging the present and future, it is necessary to go beyond ‘celebration’ to raise the matter of our ‘obligations.’ It is necessary to ask probing questions about the past and about our relations today. Positioning the above characters as ‘colourful’ and framing the appeal of forts as ‘universal’ reflects a disturbing gap between unthinking celebration and engaged obligation.
We should ask whether the term ‘colourful character’ is appropriate in the context of a “hanging judge.” We can remember that Judge Begbie tried people outside of his jurisdiction, often finding defendants guilty after trying them without interpreters. Undeniably he is an important historical figure, the restored version of his courtroom resting in the Maritime Museum of BC, located in Bastion Square, the heart of the old Fort Victoria site and the site of planned celebrations is a testament to this fact; but what does it tell us about our celebrations when we denude the context of a hanging judge? Who did he hang and why? Or, what does it tell us about ourselves when we pass off the state’s executioner as “colourful?” What, who, and how are we celebrating?
In the most direct terms, the configuration of the fort as having universal appeal is delusional. It is important to acknowledge that ‘fort’ is a shortened word for fortification and to remember that fortifications are precisely built structures of contest, violence, and exclusion. They exist because of a desire to assuage fear and provide security through the physical separation of peoples, those inside who are safe and trustworthy but who see themselves as under threat from those outside who are dangerous because of their difference from those inside the fort (civilised v. savagery). It is important to acknowledge and remember that our Fort was a structure laden with cannons and directed the entire colonising force on the Island. It helped to organise and perpetrate quick and devastating and long-term acts of violence on people throughout the land – helping the forced removal of people from their lands, the confinement of peoples into ghettos, theft of resources, intensive missionizing efforts and sustained cultural suppression through school curricula and colonial history. Forts, by design, do not have universal appeal and ours is part of a militaristic and violent operation whose effects continue to this day. That the organisers of the City’s celebration could conceive of it so out of time and history — so out of context — that they would contend that a fort is for all is more than naïve, it helps to create the conditions of revisionist history and altered reality.
To celebrate our history and our place in Victoria is a worthy endeavour and the practice of building structures in downtown Victoria is a creative idea that will no doubt yield interesting, provocative, and artistic responses. In the most serious of terms, however, I wonder if we could valorise other institutions and other ideals. Could we think about and plan for what we need in Victoria, and in downtown Victoria specifically? Could we envision a safe injection site, mental health help, care and love for seniors, food, public toilets, and safe places for marginalised and vulnerable people to live and sleep? There is no doubt that the history of the fort is important and undeniably it is crucial to the city of Victoria, where I live and the community that I care about dearly. Nonetheless, could we celebrate and create something beautiful?
Clearly, with the desire to celebrate our heritage there come obligations to understand our past against what we know to be true and how we’d like to organise and live our lives today. That is, at this time of celebration and retrospection, we could ask questions about the past, examine different accounts of events, and reflect upon how these histories effect our relations today. In this way, with the coming Victoria 150 Celebrations, we could reflect on certain specific community building practices and ask how they might shape our lives. We could, then, remember that Fort Victoria is the site of the ‘signing’ of many of the so-called ‘Fort Victoria’ or ‘Douglas’ Treaties that took place in the early 1850s and we could do something daring and work to honour our treaty obligations.
To celebrate our history is to know it.