Free Spirit: Stories of You, Me and BC
British Columbia: Spirit of the People
November 4, 2013
Review By Jaime Yard
Two books have been released this year marking the sesquicentennial, or 150 years, since the creation of the Colony of British Columbia. The first, British Columbia: Spirit of a People, was written by Jean Barman and vetted by Premier Gordon Campbell. The second is a companion publication to the Royal British Columbia Museum Exhibit of the same title, Free Spirit: Stories of You, Me and BC, which runs from March 2008 to January 2009. Both are lavish coffee-table books filled with full-page colour photographs and prints. Both are also official “BC 150” commemorative provincial histories. Each author utilizes the concept of a common “spirit” of the people to unify the province. According to this framing of the sesquicentennial celebrations, British Columbians are a diverse people who nonetheless share a common connection to place, a passionate determination to succeed, and a sense of provincial belonging. The theme of unity in diversity pervades both publications, which raises important questions about both the intent of these official heritage scripts and their relationship to their presumed audiences. Both texts contain what Clifford (1997, 137) has referred to as the “sweep” and “nonoppositional completeness of majority history.” Histories of extensive ethnic and environmental exploitation in the province are not omitted, but they are not soberly assessed by either author. The celebratory thrust of the BC 150 declaration – that the province is “The Best Place on Earth” – overwhelms any such reflection.
Each book takes a very different approach to the task of commemoration. Jean Barman uses a traditional historical chronology that traverses the distance from first contact to the large-scale economic base shift from resource extraction to service-sector work in fewer than two hundred short paragraphs. In contrast, both the Royal BC Museum Exhibit and its companion book by Gerald Truscott attempt historical pastiche, presenting a “collection of tales, vignettes and anecdotes” of “ordinary life” in the province as a “conversation among friends” (5). The exhibit also involves a website where the public can contribute stories, some of which were featured in full-page spreads in the Vancouver Sun in 2008.
Truscott’s book has the appearance of a scrapbook, with the historical narrative led by objects and images interpreted with brief captions. While the online Free Spirit project attempts to generate a feeling of provincial inclusion by inviting stories from the public, submitted stories are edited and made to fit the dominant trope of an entrepreneurial, “pioneering” province enshrined by the previous centennial celebrations (1958, 1966/67, and 1971) initiated by the Social Credit government of W.A.C. Bennett (see Reimer 2007). A lack of chronology doesn’t mitigate the privileging of some histories over others, despite claims to the contrary: Governor James Douglas, Colonel Richard Moody, Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, and the creation of a provincial police force occupy the bulk of the first twenty pages. The selection of objects and events to profile for the 2008 celebrations and museum exhibit irreverently juxtaposes kitsch with prolonged struggles for the rights of citizenship. In Truscott’s text the decimation of First Nations populations by smallpox is given as much space as the Steller’s jay (British Columbia’s provincial bird) and drive-in movie theatres. Truscott invites us to claim all of these as a part of “our collective heritage” (64). Struggle is consigned to the historical past, and we are asked to simply consume and comprehend objects from and pictures of “our” past. Often, as with the vintage travelogue videos, the point appears to be to giggle at how much more sophisticated and modern we are today than we were then. It is worth noting that, spatially, the Royal BC Museum’s Free Spirit exhibition is laid out so that access to multicultural foods and travelogue videos is direct, while poems carved into prison walls by Chinese immigrants and discussion of First Nations land claims must be approached indirectly, through the food exhibit or a road trip display.
Barman is much more careful in her presentation of information, assiduously presenting First Nations peoples as possessed of complex living cultures with ongoing legitimate claims to the territory currently being celebrated as British Columbia. She profiles the contributions of many immigrant populations to the province, not simply those of white settlers, and she does not camouflage First Nations peoples as one minority among many. Barman manages, at the very least, to flag that this celebrated, multicultural unity in diversity has come, in large part, from the unity in adversity of minority and marginalized groups. The centennial frame demands a narrative of progress and inclusion, an assessment of the past with an eye towards the future, and so credit must be given to Barman for adding a much-needed qualification to this narrative structure, at least insofar as this is possible in a coffee-table format.
As both texts rely predominantly upon images to tell the story of the province, it is vital to scrutinize the selection and arrangement of photos, paintings, and objects. The glossy prints of monumental landscapes and diverse smiling faces foster speculation that the provincial boosterism of the sesquicentennial celebrations is predominantly about economic generation through tourism promotion. As Reimer (2007) convincingly argues with regard to previous centennial celebrations, government-led efforts to promote a provincially specific nationalism and identity serve a valuable function in branding place and preparing the population to host visitors. The preferred iconography for British Columbia is made abundantly clear on the cover of Barman’s text: in the background the Coast Mountains; in the foreground Emily Carr, James Douglas, a grizzly bear, a hand-logger, a Nuu-chah-nulth man in traditional dress, a Japanese-Canadian woman in a kimono, and the currently overdetermined 2010 Olympic imagery of an inukshuk and snowboarder.
Arguably, the sesquicentennial celebrations showcase Gordon Campbell’s taking a page from W.A.C. Bennett’s playbook, preparing and promoting the province for the international stage. The real value of these books to scholars is perhaps less as histories than as historical artefacts, marking the official heritage scripting of British Columbia in 2008.
Clifford, James. 1997. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Reimer, Mia. 2007. “‘BC at its most sparkling, colourful best’: Post-War Province Building through Centennial Celebrations.” PhD diss., University of Victoria.