City Councillors in New Westminster are considering whether the provincial courthouse is an appropriate place for the location of the statue symbolizing British Columbia’s colonial past.
Matthew Begbie was B.C.’s first chief justice. The British lawyer moved to the colony in 1858 and served on the bench until his death in 1894.
His name can be found everywhere in B.C. Three mountains, one elementary school in Vancouver, a street in New Westminster and even a tavern on Columbia Avenue bear the Begbie name.
He is perhaps most well known for his role in settling the Tsihqot’in war. Six chiefs from the region were convicted of murder and Begbie sentenced them to death by hanging.
The statue of the man known, after his death, as the ‘Hanging Judge’ stands prominently in front of the New Westminster courthouse.
The New West council is scheduled to debate a motion Monday night proposing the statue be removed and relocated.
The Tsihqot’in people consider the courthouse an inappropriate place to remember a man who played such a critical role in the subjugation of Indigenous people.
Councillor Chuck Puchmayr agrees, and said considering how many Indigenous people are in the court system, displaying the statue in such a position of power is wrong.
“Three per cent of New Westminster’s population identifies as Indigenous, but yet a majority of the comments we hear from the community are positive,” he said.
“We are not necessarily talking about having it removed and [then] bury it somewhere, but we are talking about removing it from a place of power here at the court, so close to a spot where an atrocity was committed.”
Historians disagree about Begbie’s moral character.
Some describe him as reasonably enlightened for the time, rendering some court decisions that favoured Chinese Canadians, and even a few that were favourable to Indigenous people.
But for Coun. Nadine Nakagawa that isn’t good enough. She would like to see the space used for something else, ideally something that more fully explains the history.
“The intention is not to scrub the name away from history, but to tell history better,” she said.
“So people can understand the nuanced history and the full history of who he was not only for the community, but for the Indigenous community as well.”
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Indigenous leaders across the province are applauding New Westminster city council.
Grand Chief Terry Teegee says the provincial government has apologized for the wrong in the Tsihqot’in war, and that the federal government has done the same.
He wants to know why we shouldn’t hold municipal governments to the same standard.
“It won’t bring back the six chiefs, it won’t bring back a lot of things, but I think the symbolism and the meaning for New West mayor and council are moving and recognizing Indigenous people is very meaningful,” he said.
The anniversary of the wrongful convictions and hangings of the six chiefs is in July.
Chuck Puckmyer believes that if the motion passes, the statue can be moved by then and meaningful dialogue about reconciliation can start between the city of New Westminister and the Tsihqot’in people.
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