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British Columbia: Land of Promises

By Patricia E. Roy, John Herd Thompson

Review By Robert Campbell

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 148 Winter 2005-2006  | p. 111-3

This delightful book is Volume 5 of Oxford University Press’s six-volume Illustrated History of Canada. As the authors note in the introduction, the series is “uniquely Canadian” because the volumes are not shaped by chronology but by region (1). As we all know, regional identities are deeply embedded in this country. That said, while I can guess what the other regions are in the series, it would have been helpful if somewhere in this volume they were made explicit. 

The grand theme of the book is contained within the title. British Columbia has drawn people to it by offering the hope of a better life. Yet the authors carefully emphasize that “for many people – First Nations, native-born, or newcomer – British Columbia has been a land of promises unfulfilled” (6). This book is a critical history (in the best sense of the word) of the province. While Roy and Thompson give due diligence to racism, sexism, and class struggle, the book is not an unrelentingly grim history as “some have found exactly what they sought in British Columbia.” (7). Perhaps that is why Roy and Thompson, rather than use their own words, chose to close the book with a quotation from a “BC booster”: “All you have to do is wake up in BC to realize how lucky you are” (188). 

In addition to its refreshing brevity – just over 200 pages – two things are prominent. First and foremost are the images. The book is so well illustrated that when one encounters two pages of straight text, they stand out. Nearly two dozen of the images are in full colour, which adds to the visual richness of the book. Yet, far more important, the authors have worked hard to choose images not primarily for their “aesthetic appeal” but for “the historical evidence they may convey.” (3). Each image is carefully credited to its source, and many have elaborate captions that try to explain “who created it, for what purpose, when, and under what circumstances” (4). For example, the authors have included a photograph that the photographer has entitled: “An Indian prayer meeting with Roman Catholic clergy.” To my eye the Aboriginal people look to be devoutly praying with their priests. Yet the caption explains that the photographer, Frederick Dally, included two other descriptions on the original print, which is housed in the British Columbia Archives: “Indians Shamming to be at prayer” and “At the priests’ request all the Indians kneel down and assume an attitude of devotion. Amen” (41). For whatever reasons, he chose to present a staged event as a “natural” one, thus altering the relationship between colonizer and colonized. 

The other prominent feature is the emphasis given to political and economic history. I agree with their comment that this book complements rather than supplants Jean Barman’s The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (1996), which gives primacy to social history. The chapters of Land of Promises are framed by big political and economic events: colonial creation, the Canadian Pacific Railway, two world wars, and the decisive 1972 election that first brought the New Democratic Party (NDP) to power. The authors explain their emphasis by observing that “the struggle for power … has been a very real contest over the development of resources and the distribution of wealth” (2). Since politics does get such a high priority, however, a table listing elections and premiers would have been very helpful. 

Still, British Columbia: Land of Promises does not ignore social history. Neither of the authors is a First Nations specialist, but they weave Aboriginal history throughout the text rather than simply confine it to contact with Europeans and the development of the Aboriginal rights movement after the Second World War. Considering the expertise of Patricia Roy, in particular, it is not surprising that the history of Asian peoples (Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians) is well developed. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how much attention is paid to Doukhobors as their persecution is less well known than is that of Aboriginal and Asian peoples. The sections on working-class history lean more to the traditional story of unions and politics, but wage labour gets a fair amount of attention. While I realize that a brief history cannot cover everything, more discussion of women’s history and gender relations would have been welcome. 

One could raise other quibbles, but overall Land of Promises is a fine contribution to BC history. For those who teach the subject, it merits consideration as a textbook; for others, it offers a good read on a wet Vancouver day.