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At the approach to the Dunsmuir viaduct, opposite the Stadium-Chinatown SkyTrain stop, rises the Beatty Street Drill Hall, the Canadian Forces armoury that is home to the city’s oldest military unit, the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own). It’s a handsome, unnoticed building in the Baronial style, designed by Canada’s onetime chief architect David Ewart, who also built the federal mint and Rideau Hall’s façade.
If Ewart meant the armoury to endure (its walls are over a metre thick) and to intimidate, he succeeded, doubly so when you take in at close range the turrets and the stone trim and the two Sherman tanks parked outside. He might, though, be nonplussed by today’s visitors, a mixed collection of politicians, influencers, and local history buffs intrigued to see what Thanksgiving weekend, the 19th-century Oregon boundary dispute, and the indigenous trading jargon Chinook have in common.
We’re 20 in all, welcomed into the panelled sergeants’ mess by our hosts, commanding officer Lt. Col. Harjit Singh Sajjan and the organizer of the lunch, MLA Sam Sullivan, an honorary major in the B.C. Regiment. (For the last decade, Vancouver mayors have been given the courtesy title-including Maj. Hon. Gregor Robertson.) Sullivan has convened this lunch for several purposes: “It ultimately relates to a theory on the origins of Vancouver,” he wrote in his invitation. “To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the purchase of Fort Astoria by the North West Company. If British Columbia is defined as British administration this side of the Rockies with an orientation to the Pacific Ocean it could be argued that we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of British Columbia.” Continue reading…
Sullivan begins this unexpected bicentennial-traditionally anticipated for the year 2058-with a rum toast to King George III (so we may eat), then concedes that with this assertion, we’re straying from conventional history: long-time partner Lynn Zannata “accuses me of getting eccentric in my old age,” he says. Without skipping a beat, he continues: “Klahowya konoway tillikum. Nika delate youtl tumtum mesika chako.” That’s Chinook, the patois used widely through this region back in the day. “Greetings to you all,” it means. “I’m so happy you came.” For the few among us who daydreamed through Socials 10 (okay, me), Sullivan and historian guests Bruce Watson and Jean Barman lay out the terrain: in 1808, America’s foremost fur trader, JJ Astor, established a fur depot at the mouth of the Columbia River to service Asia. One thing led to another, the War of 1812 erupted, and the British warship HMS Racoon arrived to seize Astoria by force for king and crown. To its crew’s frustration, though, they were too late: only days earlier-on October 13, 1813-the Brits had bought out the Americans.
It’s a long story as to how the newly British, newly rechristened Fort George led to the exploration and colonization of the northern portion of the Oregon Territory, now known as British Columbia. Suffice it to say that if we are to give thanks for the development of these lands-and for their freedom from American control-we might do well to agree with Sullivan and start with Fort Astor, 1813.
But is there more to this than academic quibbling? I think yes. Relevant to our own times is his championing of the multiculturalism built into our past. Too often we look back and see only a simplistic fight between Europeans and Natives, but the lunch was distinctly inclusive in celebrating a trading environment that was multinational, multi-ethnic, diverse. As was the lunch itself: from our host, the first Canadian Sikh to head a British Columbian regiment, to guests such as Cathy Roland (a third-generation Victoria resident of Hawaiian ancestry; 30 percent of those working the land in the early 1800s were of Polynesian descent), and Geordie Hungerford (senior legal counsel for the B.C. Securities Commission and of Gwich’in heritage), and James Douglas Helmcken, whose great-great-grandfather was Gov. James Douglas, long understood to be descended from a free coloured woman.
That diversity lingered in my mind the next night as I welcomed my guests to Thanksgiving dinner. Klahowya, I told them. Nesika tikegh mamook hyass tumtum kopa ahnkuttie tillikum. Greetings. And let’s remember all those who came before.