Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Judging Begbie

Apr 30, 2017


One evening this past week I was at an historical society meeting and out of the blue someone asked, "should they remove Begbie?" I knew what she meant and answered, abruptly, No. Sometimes we find out what we think without thinking.

For those of you who missed it, Begbie is Matthew Bailey Begbie, original Chief Justice of British Columbia, and the reference to removal is a decision taken by the Law Society of BC a few days ago to remove the statue of Begbie that has been standing in the lobby of its building for many years.

The chief justice has fallen out of odour with the barristers because of the role he played as the presiding judge in the trial of five Tsilhqot'in chiefs in 1864. A jury, all white settlers, found the chiefs guilty of murder, Begbie pronounced the death sentence, and the men hanged. (A sixth man was executed later.) Nowadays the Tsilhqot'in  actions are seen as acts of resistance against a colonial power and not long ago the province apologized for the executions. In a spirit of reconciliation with First Nations people, the Law Society has decided to disappear Begbie.

It is ironic that Begbie is the latest dead white guy to feel the retrospective wrath of history because by most accounts he was a fair-minded judge who often treated First Nations leniently in the courts. Contrary to what newspaper accounts have implied, he was not called the "Hanging Judge" because of his delight in sending Indians to the gallows. More likely he encouraged the nickname himself to convince the rough miners and cattle rustlers to obey the law, or else.

As usual, when efforts are made to redact the historical record, complexity is the first victim. Begbie did many good things and undoubtedly did some bad. Now he is to be judged on a single case. I was attracted to the suggestion by another party to the conversation that instead of removing Begbie the lawyers should add a statue of Klatsassin, one of the Tsilhqot'in chiefs, with perhaps some explanation of the events. That way we get dialogue and contention instead of judgement and moral posturing.

Embarrassingly for the Law Society, its highest award honouring exceptional members of the profession is a bronze statuette of the same Matthew Begbie. On its website the Society quotes approvingly an 1894 eulogy of the Judge referring to him as "a great lawyer, a close acute reasoner, a strong impartial judge." Now, not so much. Presumably the award will be renamed, and perhaps previous winners will be asked to exchange their prize for some more appropriate symbol. I am not trying to be a smart aleck, I am simply pointing out the difficulty of grappling with historical cleansing.

Of course, this is not an isolated incident. Many countries are trying to atone for their colonial past by removing symbols, renaming streets and buildings, etc. An interesting article on the subject appeared in The Guardian just this weekend.