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Stanley Park’s Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi Whoi, Kanaka Ranch and Brockton Point

By Jean Barman

Review By Sean Kheraj

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 148 Winter 2005-2006  | p. 113-5

Jean Barman brings clarity to a long misunderstood part of the early history of Vancouver and British Columbia. Building upon earlier re-search on Stanley Park by William C. McKee (Urban History Review 3 [1978]), Robert A.J. McDonald (Canadian Historical Review 45, 2 [1984]), and Susan Mather (MA thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1998), through extensive research and oral testimony, Barman reconstructs the complicated genealogies of the families who once lived in the park and the stories of their dispossession. This book dispels many of the myths surrounding the families of Whoi Whoi, Chaythoos, Kanaka Ranch, and Brockton Point – myths that, throughout the past century, have been bandied about by the popular press and that have muddied our understanding of the past. Barman rejects common terms found in many of her sources, such as “squatter,” “Indian,” and “Shanty,” to provide a critical understanding of those people who, from both Native and newcomer backgrounds, founded communities on the shores of Burrard Inlet in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Following a chronological structure the book introduces readers to the three main clusters of settlement within and near what would become Stanley Park. These clusters include the Native inhabitants of the area prior to European colonization; the Hawaiian settlers at Kanaka Ranch, located outside the park boundaries on the south shore of Coal Harbour; and the families at Brockton Point. The narrative moves on to discuss the creation, or “imposition,” of Stanley Park in 1887. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the lives of the second generation of children born at Brockton Point, Chaythoos, and Kanaka Ranch and their experiences at the Coqueleetza Industrial School near Chilliwack. The remaining chapters represent the denouement of Barman’s narrative and the demise of these communities as the process of dispossession occurred from the late 1890s to the early 1930s. 

Barman’s work contributes significantly to our understanding of the early land history of the Burrard peninsula as Europeans began to colonize the area in the late 1850s. She discusses the presence of Native peoples on the south shore of the First Narrows at the location of a prominent village called Whoi Whoi as well as adjacent settlements of Chaythoos located at present-day Lumberman’s Arch and the infamous and extensive middens found in Stanley Park. Barman and others have generally agreed that the area was inhabited by both Squamish and Musqueam peoples first as a seasonal fishing village and then as a year-round settlement after the establishment of the Moodyville and Hastings sawmills in the 1860s. 

The most compelling arguments in the opening chapter surrounding the early land history of Burrard peninsula focus on whether or not Colonel R.C. Moody of the Royal Engineers, stationed at New Westminster, had established a military reserve on the western tip of the peninsula near Coal Harbour. Barman, through comprehensive research of colonial correspondence and other material, comes to the conclusion that there is little evidence that Moody or Governor James Douglas ever formally declared a reserve at this location. The common narrative of the government reserve at Coal Harbour is that Moody had established a military reserve for defence against a possible rear attack on New Westminster by the Americans. However, Barman provides evidence that Moody never declared this reserve and that it was treated like any other Crown land in the area. She particularly emphasizes Moody’s support of Edward Stamp’s efforts to purchase 100 acres on the government reserve to construct a sawmill. These conclusions have significant historical ramifications for the subsequent development of that government reserve into an urban park in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Stanley Park’s Secret also draws attention to the importance of oral testimony in the historical research of marginalized peoples in early BC history. Barman relies on three main sources of research: (1) legal records of the dispossession of the inhabitants of Stanley Park; (2) the recorded interviews of city archivist Major J.S. Matthews with early settlers and August Jack Khahtsahlano between the 1930s and 1950s; and (3) oral interviews with descendants of the families of Brockton Point and Kanaka Ranch, which fill in certain gaps in the documentary evidence (of particular significance is a rich personal photographic record). Without these oral testimonies, much of Barman’s work would not have been possible as many of her subjects rarely grace the documentary record, and, when they do, the record is often either incorrect or coloured by the prejudices of the dominant White settler society. 

While Stanley Park’s Secret provides valuable new insights into Vancouver’s early history, it remains largely a narrative of the lives of Stanley Park families over three generations, rarely touching on other key themes. For instance, there is little discussion of what it meant to create parks or of ideas about the relationship between nature and urban parks, both of which influenced the process of dispossession during this period. Barman does acknowledge that certain notions of virginal wilderness and pristine nature lay at the foundation of the efforts to remove the park inhabitants, but her discussion is brief. There is also opportunity in this book to draw attention to the complications of federalism in British Columbia – complications that played a prominent role in the story of those families who were affected by the Dominion government on two levels, through the Department of Indian Affairs and the Department of Militia and Defence, respectively. 

The subsequent court action that removed the Brockton Point families also had tremendous significance for the greater “Indian land question” in British Columbia, which ran concurrently with these court cases. The trials that led to the eviction of the families at Brockton Point were the closest that the question of Aboriginal land rights in British Columbia ever came to the courts during the first Indian rights movement in the province. As Renisa Mawani argues in her recent article in Social and Legal Studies (14, 3 [2005]), the question of whether or not these people were Indians was central to the trials. However, Mawani and Barman both fail to make the connection with the Indian rights movement. Barman suggests that the Park Board wanted these families to be defined as status Indians so that they could not claim adverse possession rights (i.e., squatters’ rights) on their land in the park, while Mawani argues that it was necessary to define the families as non-Indian in order to avoid the matter of Aboriginal title in the courts. It is clear that prior to the trials, the Park Board permitted the Brockton Point families to live in the park so as not to antagonize the Squamish on the North Shore reserve, who were active in the Indian rights movement at the time. Furthermore, there is evidence that, through a local Indian agent, the board carefully managed Aunt Sally, the only park inhabitant described as a “full-blooded Indian,” in one instance seeking the agent’s help to remove a tree from her property. Joe Mathias, chief of the Capilano Reserve and a leader in the Indian rights movement, intervened in the question of the status of the families in Stanley Park and acted as a translator in the trials, lending further support to the argument that the Park Board’s policy for the period from 1913 to 1923 was not, as Barman puts it, “a game of cat and mouse” (170) but, rather, a calculated way of managing the question of Aboriginal title in Stanley Park. But the matter of Aboriginal title may not have been a primary concern for the families of Brockton Point, many of whom did not identify as Indian – a curious omission in Mawani’s work. 

Stanley Park’s Secret will be useful for historians of the early history of Vancouver and British Columbia. It is also an important contribution to urban park history in Canada, raising interesting questions about the status of “squatters” in parks across the country during this period. Finally, it also offers compelling discussions of the experiences of mixed-race children in British Columbia and the negotiation of hybrid identities.