By Kelsey Wiebe
As we struggle to digest and honour the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, let’s shift our historical focus away from the white men we hold up as pioneers and think about the First Nations people who have been in our region since time immemorial. One of the reasons we have remained silent about residential school is because we have systematically marginalized aboriginal people and excluded them from our history.
Look at Terrace. Our largest community festival is Riverboat Days, a celebration of the sternwheelers that brought early European settlers to the region. We don’t talk about how these settlers were able to pre-empt land in the region because traditional seasonal rounds to harvest fish and berries, as opposed to year-round settlement, were not recognized by the government, and so the entire region was considered vacant and in need of settlement.
We don’t remember that settlement took place because First Nations communities had been decimated by introduced diseases, including smallpox, which shrank their membership and shook their cultural foundations.
We don’t think about how the First Nations people who survived were forced into tiny reservations chosen by the federal government, allowing the rest of the land to be considered ‘open’ for pre-emption.
Instead of discussing these complex, difficult, critical subjects, our community celebrates George Little, the white man who pre-empted the land that became the core of Terrace. Sure, Little was an enterprising businessman who loomed large in the narrative of Terrace history, but does he deserve the sole weight of Terrace historical attention?
Our town remembers Little through the preservation and central placement of his house (to the tune of over a million dollars in relocation and upkeep costs), through the naming of streets and parks, through a memorial at the crest of the Sportsplex hill, and through the constant mention of him in our local history narrative.
So, let’s disrupt this narrative. Let’s remember Emma and Charles Nelson, Tsimshian people of the robin, who lived in Kitsumkalum. Emma Nelson (née Starr) held a high name in the Gisbutwada (killer whale) clan, and was the matriarch of the important House of Lagaax. Her husband, Charles Nelson, who held the name Xpilaxha, was a leader of the Ganhada (raven) clan.
The Nelsons assisted early European settlers through a general store ran out of Kitsumkalum. In addition to providing food, hospitality, and local knowledge, the Nelsons invested in Little’s sawmill—apparently without recompense.
Let’s remember Eliza Thornhill, née Wright, a high-ranking Gitselasu woman whose trapline edged what is now known as Sockeye Creek. In a fascinating demonstration of agency, Eliza claimed the land she would have traditionally been entitled to use between the two bridges through her English husband Tom Thornhill.
As a white male, Tom was the kind of settler the government was looking for when they opened the area up for pre-emption.
Eliza hunted, fished, and trapped on the land that became Thornhill. Tom grew a large vegetable and flower garden, selling produce to the sternwheelers that stopped at Thornhill Landing to pick up cordwood. Tom’s health was weak, and so Eliza, who had local knowledge anyway, took on the more traditionally masculine role in a pioneer couple.
One of the few places in the region named after an aboriginal woman – Eliza Creek – was officially renamed the relatively generic ‘Sockeye Creek’ by 1930. In 1978, pioneer historian Floyd Frank lamented the renaming of the creek, stating that ‘there’s only a few left that know these things.’ Without people to remember her, he implied, Eliza’s story would fade. When we fail to recognize – and celebrate – the depth and resilience of First Nations history in the Terrace region, we do ourselves a disservice. We also marginalize those stories, ensuring that First Nations people’s history is excluded from our community history.
This allows us to disengage from the horror of residential schools, and to see First Nations people as outside of our community, as something other than us.
This is what has led us to the present, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was necessary to bring to light the injustices that have been consistently meted against aboriginal people in Canada.
Kelsey Wiebe is the curator of the Heritage Park Museum.