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Review

The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhqot’in and Other First Nations Resistance

By Tom Swanky

November 4, 2013

Review By Robin Fisher

One should always be skeptical of books when the title proclaims them to be the “true story” on any aspect of history. For truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Tom Swanky’s book on the impact of smallpox among the Aboriginal people of British Columbia is a case in point. There is some truth here, but not the whole truth.

There can be little doubt, as Swanky argues, that governments and settlers in British Columbia deprived First Nations peoples of their land and undermined their traditional systems of government. Nor can there be any question that Europeans introduced smallpox and that the disease, along with others, resulted in a sharp decline in the Aboriginal population. What is less convincing is the extent to which Swanky argues for an explicit and conscious connection between the two. That is, he strongly believes, and vociferously argues, that the Douglas government and prospective landowners engaged in a deliberate, premeditated, systematic, and covert operation to spread smallpox among Aboriginal people in order to eliminate the population and make the land available for speculators and settlers.

I have several concerns with the way this conclusion is presented. The line of argument is circuitous, rather than straightforward, and therefore difficult to follow. As the author puts it: “Like a coyote on the hunt, we have been crisscrossing space and time…” (66). Swanky also has a great fondness for adjectives, hyperbole, rhetorical devices, and forced allusions. Suggestions or suppositions in one sentence become dead certainties in the next. There are particular assertions that stretch credulity to the limit, such as the claim that James Douglas stopped signing treaties with First Nations on Vancouver Island because he knew that smallpox would solve the problem by removing the population. And then, for Swanky, historians with different views are not worthy of the name or, worse still, are the authors of “criminally negligent work” (24 and 11).

These, perhaps, are details. My fundamental concern is with how the conclusions in this book are reached: in other words the use of evidence. Like a coyote on the hunt, the route may be circuitous, but there can be only one outcome. And so the evidence is marshaled and manipulated to prove a predetermined point. The author knows that the written record is easily manipulated but does not believe that he himself is doing it. The oral record of First Nations people, on the other hand, is apparently not open to question. For one so dubious about the written record, Swanky places a great deal of reliance on the gospel according the The British Colonist. The Victoria newspaper was strongly opposed to the Douglas government and on that subject especially is a better source of opinion than of fact. When the author fails to find evidence of deliberate introduction of smallpox it is because it was a covert operation and therefore kept secret. Those who claimed to be trying to limit the impact of smallpox in First Nations communities through vaccination were either misguided or lying. Much of the argument in the book is based on inference and the interpretation of evidence according to a pre-determined conclusion. Unfortunately this approach makes it too easy to dismiss his more controversial claims.

Readers of this review should understand that Swanky would probably consider me totally disqualified to comment on his book. While he seldom identifies those historians who he objects to, though clearly it is most who have written on the Aboriginal history of British Columbia, I have to assume that because I have written some reasonably positive things about James Douglas I am merely one of the many “later apologists and collaborators in genocide” (219). Before I got my academic hackles up too much about that comment, I recalled that this is not the first time that I have heard the allegation. I once invited a distinguished historian to speak at my university and he presented his high population decline view of disease on the Northwest Coast. When I raised some questions about his argument the response was that only “Jim Keegstra types” would question his views. I thought at the time that such aspersions have no place in academic debate. Now, having read Swanky’s book, I daresay that I would have to add, unless, of course, they are true!

The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhqot’in and Other First Nations Resistance
By Tom Swanky 
Burnaby, Dragon Heart, 2012. $19.72 Epub