The author of Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973 has been shortlisted for the BC Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing.
Tyler McCreary, now a researcher and assistant professor at Florida State University, said the nomination is fittingly a shared honour for Shared Histories.
“I think it’s a tremendous honour to have this work recognized and I think it says a lot about the quality of the stories that community members shared with me,” he said via telephone from Tallahassee, FL. “The work Shared Histories is really a collective endeavour and I relied on all of the people in the community that sat down with me from both Wet’suwet’en and settler backgrounds to be able to produce that work, and I think the recognition it’s receiving is really a product of the depth of the engagement that the community had with the project in the research process.”
Violet Gellenbeck, a Wet’suwet’en elder and member of the still-active Shared Histories Committee, said the key goal of the project from the Wet’suwet’en perspective was that the story of the development of Smithers accurately captured the legacy of racism her people have endured.
“From what I know there isn’t another community in the province of B.C. that such a book has been written and during this era of the United Nations UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People) reconciliation, this book was timely,” she said. “I think in order to be able to reconcile we have to know both sides of the story and that’s what this book does. It portrays both sides of the people that were in the Bulkley Valley, which is sitting on the Wet’suwet’en territories and how our people were literally pushed off the land eventually and onto a small reserve here at Moricetown, which is only 10 square miles. You take 10 square miles from 222,000 square kilometres, which is Wet’suwet’en territory, and you put those people onto a 10 square mile reserve, that is disaster. It was a disaster.”
She also noted that it is particularly gratifying the nomination is coming from a historical organization.
“It is very important that the B.C. Historical [Federation] has acknowledged the book as a historical book and I’m very happy that it’s happened and that Dr. Tyler McCreary has been shortlisted for an award,” she said. “I’m very happy for that and I know our people will be also.”
Gellenbeck specifically referenced Chapter 4 of the book titled “Making Indiantown” and her great uncle Jack Joseph.
Indiantown was a small collection of houses on the east side of Hwy 16 (then-5th Avenue) across from what is now Heritage Park, but in those days was the exhibition grounds.
Joseph was a leader among early Wet’suwet’en residents of Smithers in attempting to integrate into settler society by getting involved in community events, buying property, building homes and paying taxes. Nevertheless, the municipality denied the Indigenous families basic services such as waste collection and the right for their children to go to school. Many of those children were taken away from their families and sent to the Catholic Lejac Indian Residential School near Fraser Lake, which according to the book was notorious for neglect and abuse of Indigenous children.
“While Canadian Indian policy in the early twentieth century promoted the ideal of integration, Indigenous people who embraced this vision were consistently betrayed by settler racism and a refusal to treat them as equals,” McCreary writes in Chapter 4. “Discrimination in property markets and municipal governance made finding and keeping a place in town a constant struggle for Witsuwit’en [sic] families.”
Before the late Bill Goodacre took him to a community meeting in Witset approximately 10 years ago, McCreary said he knew little about that history of the town he grew up in.
“Obviously, it’s a deeply personal reflection,” he said, describing the book. “It’s a story about my hometown and reflecting on some of the relations I think are often forgotten that have shaped the history of that town, the relationships between the different peoples that lived there and people that might not live there, in the case of some people that have been dislocated.”
McCreary said while it was Goodacre who initially spurred the Shared Histories project on the settler side, it was Chief Wah Tah K’eght (Henry Alfred) “who provided the key support and trust to help this project forward on the Wet’suwet’en side.”
Both of those leaders have recently died, Alfred on Sept. 23, 2018, and Goodacre on Jan. 27 of this year.
“It’s really tragic that they both passed, but I think it really was an honour that they both were both able to still be here to see the book come to fruition because it was something that they both played a large role in,” McCreary said.
Gellenbeck also acknowledged Goodacre, who, as the turnout at his memorial at the Dze L’ Kant Cultural Centre in February would indicate, was held in high esteem by the Indigenous community.
Additionally, Gellenbeck brought up former mayor Jim Davidson, who passed away in 2015, as a tireless proponent of truth and reconciliation.
“I went to school with Jim,” she said. “We went to school together so we knew each other very well. I knew how important it was for him during his time that he was the mayor, that the Indiantown story be told.
“These are gentlemen that I have a great respect for.”
The current mayor of Smithers, Taylor Bachrach, and the Town of Smithers also had significant roles in the Shared Histories project and producing the book.
“I was delighted to see the news that [McCreary has] been nominated for an award,” Bachrach said. “It’s very well-deserved and the book that Tyler wrote, with the help of many people, is a real legacy for our community and for the rest of the province.”
It may also be a legacy for the wider world according to McCreary, who sees the nomination and even his job at Florida State, as validation of the importance of the local research.
“I was brought in not because they needed an expert in Smithers history, but rather because there was an interest in having someone who could talk about the kind of histories of race relations that we inherit and how that can help us build better communities in the future and that was the aspiration of the book,” he said. “It’s doing it on a very local level, trying to gauge these conversations in Smithers, but the discussion in Smithers can certainly be translated elsewhere. The mayor, Taylor Bachrach, has presented about this research, or collaboration, to other mayors in the province and I’ve presented internationally about it as a kind of model for how we can start to have some difficult conversations about the shared pasts that we inherit and the ways that we might engage them.”
McCreary is currently using the learnings from Shared Histories in a project involving water politics and infrastructure development in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Obviously there are a lot of specificities to Smithers history and the unique relationships between settlers and the Wet’suwet’en, but I think some of the lessons about how you do community-based research, I’m using to apply to working with majority black communities in a city like Atlanta,” he said.
Gellenbeck hopes the attention garnered will encourage more people to buy and, more importantly, read Shared Histories.
“The book itself, it should not sit on a shelf anywhere,” she said. “I will do anything and everything to promote the book.”
Shared Histories, published by Creekstone Press of Smithers, is available locally at the Bulkley Valley Museum and everywhere online.
The award will go to “the author whose book makes the most significant contribution to the historical literature of British Columbia,” according to a press release issued Apr. 23.
The other finalists are: Blossoms in the Gold Mountains: Chinese Settlements in the Fraser Canyon and the Okanagan, by Lily Chow, (Caitlin Press, Prince George); Against the Current: The Remarkable Life of Agnes Deans Cameron, by Cathy Converse, (Touchwood Editions, Victoria); Trail North: The Okanagan Trail of 1858-68 and its Origins in British Columbia and Washington, by Ken Mather, (Heritage House Publishing, Vernon); Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley, Chad Reimer, (Caitlin Press, Chilliwack); S.S. Minto: The Arrow Lakes Longest Serving Sternwheeler, by Bruce Rohn (Arrow Lakes Historical Society, Nakusp); and The Last Suffragist: Standing The Life and Times of Laura Marshall Jamieson, by Veronica Strong-Boag, (UBC Press Victoria).
The winner will be announced at the British Columbia Historical Federation Conference Book Awards Gala on June 8, 2019 in Courtenay, B.C.