Justice Matthew Begbie is a larger than life figure in BC’s history, but he was also a man of his times. And the debate over who-from-the-past-should-be-remembered-where (Robert E. Lee, Edward Cornwallis, John A. Macdonald . . .) has now caught up with him. The ‘Hanging Judge’ has been hung out to dry.
The Law Society of BC has announced it will remove a statue of Justice Matthew Begbie, who sentenced six native leaders to death before Confederation and became known as BC’s “hanging judge,” because it’s a colonial symbol that offends natives.
“The presence of the statue is offensive to them (indigenous people) and affects their current experience with the law society,” the society said in a statement. It’s a “reminder to them of the province’s colonial past and Justice Begbie’s role in the hanging of six Tsilhqot’in chiefs.”
“As a step toward reconciliation, the law society will remove the statue of Justice Begbie from its lobby and replace it with a more unifying and inclusive symbol in due course.”
The [law] profession’s blue-chip journal, The Advocate, has rallied to defence of the province’s first chief justice.
In its unsigned editorial column entitled Entre Nous – Between Us, the august publication this month says that the move is “perhaps [more] a step in the wrong direction – than a purposeful and reasoned step toward reconciliation.”
“By removing the Begbie statue from the Law Society lobby, our governing body is now telling us that Begbie’s legacy has but a single dimension which is antithetical to truth and reconciliation,” asserts the magazine that goes to every lawyer in the province. . . .
The editorial acknowledged a certain amount of anxiety about wading in on the issue “but just as the first tentative steps into the ice-cold mountain lake can result in a terrified skip back up the slope, usually it is the icy plunge itself that yields the better reward.”
It then proceeds to kick the intellectual stuffing out of the society’s decision – citing the historical record to show the renowned legalist was ahead of his time and a supporter of Indigenous people.
“Begbie did a lot that was good by bringing in common law and keeping peace in the gold fields,” said Mary-Ellen Kelm, an SFU history professor. But “he also hanged six chiefs who were simply trying to defend their land and their people.”
She said some people may not like it when statues are removed but people are symbols of the past and “it’s time for us to disrupt those symbols. We’re in a moment of disruption.”
She rejected the argument that the statues should remain because the public can be educated about the dark parts of our past because “it’s pretty hard to tell the story of the Chilcotin War on a plaque” and said there are other ways to educate.
However, I was also impressed by these concluding words from the Advocate opinion piece:
With great respect to the intentions of the parties, we think the recommendation to remove the Begbie statue and the acceptance of that recommendation are both misguided.
Yale historian John Fabian Witt posited a test for renaming or removing references to historical figures. It was recently modified for a Canadian perspective by Peter Shawn Taylor, editor-at-large of Maclean’s.
The test is as follows:
• First: Is the principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? This requires a broad understanding of the life’s work of the individual in question.
• Second: Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested during the namesake’s lifetime? Isolated statements or actions considered controversial today may have been conventional wisdom at the time. Context matters.
• Third: At the time of the naming, was the namesake honoured for reasons fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? Why was this person commemorated?
• Finally: Does the building play a substantial role in forming community? The more prominent the edifice, the greater the case for retaining names of historical significance.
If the benchers had been so inclined, how might they have applied the Witt test? We fear that the rush to reconciliation has trampled a principled approach with one unintended consequence being estrangement rather than reconciliation of interested parties.
We can hope for a just and reconciling outcome to this situation, but I’m not optimistic. Not too long ago, the Law Society of BC Benchers first approved the TWU School of Law and then caved in to pressure and reversed their course. Clearly the Benchers know how to change their minds, but will they take the time and effort to work through the issues in a just manner?