This summer I had the privilege of being awarded the British Columbia Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing for my book Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973. It is always a tremendous honour to have one’s work recognized. However, it was also a tremendous validation of the value of conducting community-based historical scholarship to tell the stories of community members at the margins.
Shared Histories examines the history of Indigenous-settler relations in a small town in the northwest interior of British Columbia. Just southeast of the Alaskan panhandle, the town of Smithers is at the northern edge of the Canadian ecumene—what geographers refer to as the portion of the earth where people have built permanent settlements.
Although Witsuwit’en inhabited this place since time immemorial, white settlers only ventured to this region a little more than a century ago. Understanding the relationships that developed between these communities helps illuminate the history of northern development. But it also invites a broader reckoning with the legacies of colonialism and racism that shape communities throughout the Americas.
Indeed, the book has its roots in community dialogue about how to address the histories of racism and discrimination that we inherit. I had originally been asked to facilitate a series of relationship-building workshops between the elected council of Smithers and the hereditary chiefs of the Witsuwit’en. I had a somewhat unique position to mediate this dialogue, as a researcher working with the Witsuwit’en who also descended from one of the old settler families in town. Several days of conversations with community leaders highlighted the need to build mutual understanding of the shared histories between the Witsuwit’en and settler communities.
The municipality, the chiefs, and I decided to enter a research partnership. I found grants to support the research—including funding from Florida State University—and devoted myself to the project. My research team and I collected thousands of documents and conducted oral history interviews with over fifty elders from the Witsuwit’en and white settler communities.
The resultant book, Shared Histories, particularly centers on the history of a Witsuwit’en village, known locally as Indiantown, that developed along the fringe of Smithers. Witsuwit’en and other Indigenous people came to Smithers for a variety of reasons. For some, the settlers simply came to lands on which they were already living. For others, the decision to relocate to town was forced upon them, for instance, after eviction from their homes by settlers or the federal Indian agent. For others still, moving to the developing railway town provided access to jobs and opportunities in the emerging northern economy.
The place of Witsuwit’en families in town was complicated. While Witsuwit’en labour helped build the town, they existed at the fringe of the community. Witsuwit’en families contributed to the local community, working together with settlers in the interest of their collective well-being. However, Indiantown residents remained apart from the settler community, encountering discrimination in health care, education, municipal services, policing, and the labour market. Their community remained impoverished.
In the postwar period, as the town developed, pressure to redevelop Indiantown increased. Growing settlement and technological change had decreased the need for Indigenous labour. Infrastructural development—particularly the introduction of water and sewer systems—transformed the built environment. Indiantown had not been extended those services and was increasingly viewed as a site of dereliction and disease.
In the 1960s, provincial social workers targeted poor Indigenous homes in a wave of child apprehensions, while municipal authorities began to enforce housing standards. The Indiantown community was devastated by the imposition of middle class, white norms to evaluate their lives, losing children to state apprehensions and homes to municipal redevelopment projects. As the municipality redeveloped the area into a new business district and a redesigned residential neighbourhood, Indiantown was displaced. The last house was removed in 1967.
The story of Indiantown was largely forgotten by the white community. By the time that I was born, a decade later, all the traces of the Indiantown community were gone. The house I grew up in was part of the subdivision that replaced Indiantown, but I had never heard about it. This research project exposed this hidden history of my hometown.
As the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal highlights, this is a story with broader purchase. Focusing on a particular place, Shared Histories highlights how racial injustices developed through the complex mixture of local, provincial, and federal policies. But it also registers the possibility of implementing different policies and building different relationships. It is important to share the story of Indiantown, so it does not happen again. So we can learn from it and create a new and different future.
Dr. Tyler McCreary is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography. You can learn more about and purchase Dr. McCreary’s award-winning book here.
Photo credit: Rebecca Hall
The feature image is from Creekstone Press.