Decolonizing the Despatches

by Skye Lacroix and Lisa Schnitzler

This piece is co-written by two Indigneous students, Lisa Schnitzler of Cree-Métis descent, and Skye Lacroix of Inuvialuit and Vuntut Gwitchin descent. Although the Colonial Despatches has been supportive of our work, it is not accurate to say that each statement made in this essay reflects that of the entire project team. This is an exploration of what decolonization looks like for the Despatches, and for ourselves as Indigenous women. We encourage you to combat any biases that may occur during your reading of our truths and lived experiences.
In 2019, the Colonial Despatches team made several changes to the database, website, and project, in an on-going effort to “decolonize” the Despatches. We cannot rewrite a colonial archive, or speak directly to the colonial administrators or colonists, but we believe it is possible to make progress in decolonizing these documents by naming them as a primary-source record of colonialism and its legacies. We will work to develop tools that allow users to access and use the archive, to further the aims of decolonization.
To achieve these aims, the site will include updated mentions of Indigenous place names, mentions of specific Indigenous groups, additional biographies for Indigenous individuals, and improved search functions for communities who use this site as a resource. We acknowledge the need to centre Indigenous narratives and deconstruct the status quo.1 We recognize that this journey will not be perfect, and that we will face challenges along the way.
With funding from the Victoria Foundation, the Colonial Despatches team embarked on an exploration of how we might include Indigenous content and perspectives in order to decolonize an archive of colonial correspondence. The BC Union of Indian Chiefs and the First People’s Cultural Council were our grant-partners, and we hope to nurture these partnerships as we continue on this journey. We acknowledge the diversity of meanings within the term Indigenous, and hope that our changes to the database and content reflect the diversity and sovereignty of different nations across the continent. For the purposes of this introduction, we have chosen to use the word Indigenous to refer to the First Peoples of what some Indigenous Peoples call Turtle Island. We include the Métis Nation, the Inuit, as well as First Nations in this term, recognizing their personhood and sovereignty as Peoples with distinct cultural practices and teachings.
  • 1. Leanne Simpson, Embodied Resurgence Practice and Coded Disruption, in As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 192.

About the Despatches

The Colonial Despatches contain transcripts of the complete correspondence between the British colonial authorities and the successive governors of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. These despatches—the letters between the Colonial Office in London and the governors on Vancouver Island and British Columbia—provide insight into the psyche that led to the colonization of what is now called North America.
Although the date range of the correspondence is 1846-1871, the legacy of the decisions made within them lives on today. Before the current social order could be created in Canada, the old order had to be displaced, largely through the extinguishment of Indigenous bodies and land title.1 Many of the decisions, policies, and practices mentioned in the Despatches correspondence continue to negatively affect Indigenous and other minority groups across the country. Much of the colonial ideologies in the Despatches correspondence remain embedded in Canada’s identity as a settler colonial state.2
Many of the correspondence suggest a divine right to spread Christianity and to conquer lands for the Crown, and indicate that Canada’s foundation is built upon the dispossession and displacement of Indigenous Peoples.3 This immoral perspective drove colonizers to attempt to civilize Indigenous Peoples through deliberate assimilation efforts.4
  • 1. Michael Asch, Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation: Stepping Back into the Future, in Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teachings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 31.
  • 2. Settler colonialism is different from other forms of colonialism in that the settler comes to stay and enforce their laws and norms. Settler-colonial states are structures, not events, and the violence that occurs in these states is a product of the need to assimilate (eliminate) the Native. It is imperative to note that settler colonialism is ongoing. To read more about settler colonialism please refer to J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, A Structure, Not an Event: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity, Lateral Journal of the Cultural Studies Association 5.1 (Spring 2016), https://doi.org/10.25158/L5.1.7.
  • 3. Paulette Regan, Deconstructing Canada’s Peacemaker Myth, Unsettling the Settler Within (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010), 92.
  • 4. Ibid., 82.

Shifting perspectives

Some have yet to accept the term genocide to be applicable to the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in North America; however, we support the use of this term, as it is defined by the United Nations.1 More recently, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls defined Canada’s past and current colonial policies, actions and inactions towards Indigenous Peoples [as] genocide.2 We encourage users to consider critically the actions and inactions of colonial states.
Coercive measures are embedded in colonial policies, such as the Indian Act, and continue to infringe upon Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Among other reasons, the assumed inferiority of Indigenous Peoples became a rationale and justification for acquiring Indigenous lands and resources, and for the creation of prescriptive re-education and assimilation policies, which includes the atrocious Indian Residential School system, upon which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has done extensive research.4 We have much to learn among the Despatches team from projects such as the TRC, the National Inquiry, and others, including Indigenous scholars that have studied the contemporary and historical relationships of the settler state and Indigenous Peoples.
Much of the correspondence in the Colonial Despatches collection contain misinformation about or biases against Indigenous communities. The correspondence often fails to acknowledge the presence of Indigenous Peoples, and rarely acknowledges Indigenous voices, in effect, [denying] a critical Indigenous counter-Narrative.6 Although we cannot undo this, we are working to better represent Indigenous perspectives in the project.
Reconciliation has been at the forefront of many political discussions lately, yet little action has been taken by colonial governments to remedy the relationships between settlers and Indigenous Peoples. It is important to recognize the unavoidable relationships between Indigenous Peoples and settlers, as Indigenous Peoples are ultimately under the dominion of the settler colonial state. We acknowledge settlers as anyone who is not Indigenous, which comprises a diverse group of people that have come to these territories in many different ways. It is also important to acknowledge diversities in settler people and communities, and that white settlers benefit from living on Indigenous territories more than other communities such as Black folks and People of Colour.
Canada and British Columbia have infringed upon the political and territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples for centuries, but this has been met with continual resistance.7 The colonial project is about settlers having the privilege to position themselves as superior, and to impose their own laws on Indigenous lands, which is evident in many correspondence. Indigenous Peoples are seen as abnormal, and subject to the laws and norms of settlers.8 The traditional practices of Indigenous Peoples are often devalued.9 Yet, it is imperative to recognize that Indigenous Peoples have actively resisted the colonial project, and continue to maintain and assert sovereignty today.
Our call to settlers engaging with this material is to look critically at these letters and to question their authority: to ask who is being left out of the story, and why.
We acknowledge that archives are by definition settled places, and we hope that our ongoing efforts to decolonize the Despatches will encourage a more holistic perspective of history.10 The National Inquiry states that ending the Canadian genocide of Indigenous Peoples requires an honest and active process of decolonization and indigenization of structures, institutions, legislation and policies.11 Decolonization means more than just recognizing the injustices of colonialism: it involves concrete action.

Decolonizing in practice

The following list shows some of what we see as our efforts to decolonize the Despatches project and content. This list will be updated periodically, as our work continues:
  • Revised and added placepgraphies for a number of entries to better include historical and contemporary presence of Indigenous Peoples. Namely, Ahousat, Alaska, Beacon Hill Park, Bute Inlet Road, Cadboro Bay, Clayoquot Sound, Hope, Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson), Metlakatla, New Zealand, Northwest Territories, Osoyoos, Pender Island, Red River Settlement, and Rupert’s Land.
  • Revised and added biographies for a number of entries to better include the narratives of Indigenous Peoples. Namely, Cecelia E. Young, Father Leon Fouquet, Gilbert Malcom Sproat, Sir James Douglas, Joseph William McKay, John A. Macdonald, John Trutch, Sir Joseph William Trutch, Lord Durham, Louis Riel, Matthew Baillie Begbie, Squinteye, Sudaał Ligeex, and William Trutch.
  • Changed all instances of “FN” (First Nation) to “IP” (Indigenous Peoples) within our database, to be more inclusive.
  • Changed link on Index page from “First Nations groups” to “Indigenous groups and people” to more accurately represent those involved.
  • Drafted revisions to the Landing Page which includes a Territory Acknowledgment and our project’s objectives of decolonization.
  • Published an essay of what it means for us to decolonize a colonial archive, titled “Decolonizing the Despatches.”
  • Drafted a glossary of terms to be used in conjunction with the essay for readers to gain a better understanding.
  • Transcribed an enclosure in this important document, which, among other things, lists 55 Chiefs and their village names on a petition given at an assembly at New Westminster. This introduces 55 new Indigenous names into the digital collection, each of which, in time, will be researched in consultation, as required and available, with First Nations communities.
  • Began a process to include Indigenous artists' work as part of the re-launch celebration for the Despatches website.
The Colonial Despatches Team. Decolonizing the Despatches. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. James Hendrickson and the Colonial Despatches project. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/decolonizing.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)