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Becoming British Columbia: A Population History

By John Douglas Belshaw

Review By Forrest Pass

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 164 Winter 2009-2010  | p. 120-122

If Canada, as William Lyon Mackenzie King once quipped, has too much geography, John Belshaw might well reply that Canadian historiography has too little demography. Regional historical writing, including that found in British Columbia, has emphasized the geographical basis for regional character, from the problems of overcoming distance by means of transportation and communication technologies to the cultural and political implications of natural resource extraction and, more recently, the various manifestations of human interaction with landscape. Demographic assumptions have played a significant role in shaping impressions of British Columbia. Imprecise estimates of its population provoked animated discussion when Canadians considered the admission of the Pacific colony to Confederation. In the minds of historians and contemporary commentators, British Columbians and outsiders alike, the province has been variously defined by its maleness, the transience of its population, the ephemeral character of its resource communities, its racial diversity and patterns of racial segregation, the prevalence of miscegenation, and its high level of urbanization. Yet, as Belshaw observes, population history seldom excites the public or academic imagination.

Belshaw’s contribution to the field is a study that is at once revelatory to the academic historian and accessible to the educated non-specialist. Becoming British Columbia succeeds, in part, because it is engagingly written, a rare feature among works of demographic or quantitative history. The author never loses sight of the fact that population history is first and foremost about people; although he employs a wealth of statistical evidence to construct his population history, both in the text as well as in a series of appendices, it is balanced with illustrative details, intriguing anomalies, the occasional amusing anecdote, and evocative metaphors that enliven his narrative. A description of the crumbling sandmortared foundations of Kamloops’ Victorian houses serves as an apt allegory for Belshaw’s conception of demography as the undervalued foundation for the edifice of history and, more obliquely, of demographic assumptions as the foundations of the “British Canadian domestic-cultural values” extolled in the triumphalist history of an earlier generation (3). Even more intriguing is his characterization of the Canadian Pacific Railway as the “double-helix” of the nation, an observation that evokes both the railway’s physical appearance and its talismanic place in Canadian memory (42).

Taken on their own, statistics can simultaneously exaggerate and obscure historical phenomena, and his attention to diversity leads Belshaw to challenge some of the stylized facts of BC history. After an opening chapter that concisely presents the broad contours of BC demographic history, the remainder of the book presents a series of problems or case studies. The first case, a critical evaluation of the ways in which scholars from a number of disciplines have estimated precontact populations and postcontact smallpox mortality rates, illustrates the shortcomings of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal sources for demographic information and also emphasizes that the political manipulation of demographic statistics is not limited to colonizers. Although reliable numbers are elusive, Belshaw does present compelling evidence that British Columbia’s demographic history during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was defined by death and depopulation rather than by settlement and growth. Considering British Columbia’s population as a whole, and not just the European minority, thus presents a very different version of the province’s early history from the once-dominant pioneering narrative. Conversely, his acknowledgment of the reality of ethnic divisions leads Belshaw to qualify the long-standing perception of the BC frontier as an overwhelmingly male community. While raw census data point to a peculiarly asymmetrical gender ratio before the First World War, the near-impermeable division of marriage between the province’s Asian and Caucasian communities precluded random marriage, and, among the latter, the ratio of men to women was considerably lower than it was among the former. This re-evaluation has obvious implications for patterns in nuptiality and fertility, both of which, along with mortality, Belshaw addresses at length. He does not fall into the trap of assuming that circumstances and experiences were identical throughout the province. British Columbia’s urban character distinguishes it from other, predominantly rural, parts of Canada, but its urban centres vary significantly in size, structure, and importance. Belshaw’s previous scholarly work gives him a familiarity with two regional centres – Nanaimo and Kamloops – that underlies his analysis of urban growth and demography, and he also shows how the relationship between urban and exurban population trends has evolved over time, as the Lower Mainland conurbation increasingly exhibits demographic traits that are very different from those observed in the provincial hinterland.

As its title suggests, Becoming British Columbia tells a story about the process of region formation and, thus, contributes to the ongoing discussion of the utility of regionalism as a framework for BC history. For Belshaw, a self described Marxist, British Columbia’s occasionally dramatic departures from demographic trends observed elsewhere in the Western world involve differences of timing and degree rather than evidence of far-western exceptionalism, and can be explained in terms of the extension of industrial capitalism. British Columbia is distinctive to be sure, but its distinctive qualities make it a “splendid laboratory” for the study of the broad demographic trends of which it is occasionally an extreme example. This is regional history at its best, grounded in local experiences and exhaustive reading of local sources, having a deep respect for the specificity of place but being well attuned to national and global developments. For regional historians, Becoming British Columbia will prove a valuable complement to the standard surveys of provincial political, economic, and social history, with which it should be read in tandem. For students and scholars in British Columbia and beyond who are unfamiliar with the fundamentals of demographic history, it is an accessible introduction to the field’s methodology and concentrations.

PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 164, Winter 2009/10