We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

Echoes of British Columbia: Voices from the Frontier

By Robert Budd

March 5, 2015

Review By Jonathan Swainger

 

For devotees of British Columbian history and, in particular, of the province’s local histories, the origins of Robert Budd’s latest collection of oral history transcripts will be familiar. Drawn from the pioneering work of CBC radio journalist Imbert Orchard and sound editor Ian Stephen, a project launched in the late 1950s that amassed 2,700 hours of recorded interviews with 998 people all over British Columbia, this aural archive provided the foundation of Budd’s first and now second volume of transcribed and published recordings. Divided into six loosely defined sections, these twenty-six interviews span a diversity of topics covering much of British Columbia, including, among others, a splendid remembrance of Ross Thompson, the founder of Rossland, recollections of life in the Helmcken household in Victoria, and the story of how Constance Cox was spared burial in Barkerville. These and others make for intriguing reading and for captivating listening when one follows along with the original recordings included on three compact disks. As was the case with Budd’s initial 2010 publication, Voices of British Columbia: Stories from our Frontier, this latest addition will be assured a warm welcome from local history enthusiasts both in British Columbia and elsewhere.

Still, and as much as the experience of hearing these voices from the province’s past or, as the book rather more problematically describes it, as the “frontier” (a term that should at least be defined) Budd’s efforts raise an assortment of unanswered questions about the role these memories might play in constructing British Columbia’s past and, just as importantly, imaging how they might inform the province’s present and future. For as much as Budd argues that the ability to learn about the past through these vivid stories was a motivator for him to study history, we are nonetheless left with the pressing question of why we should be engaged in this enterprise of reviving Orchard’s interviews in the first place? Are Thomas Bulman’s account of the McLean Gang, Vera Basham’s recollections of teaching in the Nass Valley, or Bert Glassey’s version of the origins of Simon Gunanoot’s troubles merely interesting because they capture an image of the past, or do they shed important light on issues that continue to exist in contemporary British Columbia? From this perspective, and as much as these stories are interesting, their value is not solely in bearing witness to so-called frontier ethics, commitment to hard work, or the dedication involved in creating new communities. Rather they are valuable because they testify to the perspectives, good and bad, that formed this province and its outlook and in many ways continue to influence it today. As much as we might find pleasure in the backward glance, we miss a valuable opportunity to acknowledge that, at its best, historical awareness is a way of thinking about the present and how we got here. And in that regard, Budd has provided us with some intriguing material to fuel that extraordinarily important inquiry.

This smartly produced and well-illustrated volume can be profitably read in at least two ways. On the one hand aficionados of local history can seek out new perspectives and anecdotes to bolster their own sense of community distinctiveness and merit while, on the other, BC scholars will find in these accounts themes and strains that still resonate with our collective identity as British Columbians early in the twenty-first century. Both enterprises offer merit and reward, but the latter allows the identification of recurrent themes in British Columbia’s past and ultimately the promise of scholarly relevance and synthesis.

Echoes of British Columbia: Voices from the Frontier
Robert Budd
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 224 pp. $35.00 cloth