Douglas College entrance sign, photo by David Denofreo

Talking about grey issues in black and white times

By Kathy Denton, Douglas College President
Photo by David Denofreo

Central to any university or college experience has long been the challenging of assumptions – getting us to analyze and dissect our beliefs, even our values – to hold them up to the light and peer deeply into that which we hold dear.

Conversations that question established narratives can be hard and scary. Having to justify positions under the light of competing stories, or in the face of passionate opposition, forces us to confront deeply entrenched beliefs that we may have previously accepted as “fact” or never even thought about at all.

One such conversation Douglas College is currently having is around our namesake – Sir James Douglas. Douglas is often described as the “Father of British Columbia” and the Douglas name is ubiquitous in B.C.: Douglas Channel; Douglas Peak; Douglas Street; James (Douglas) Bay; Mount Douglas; and, of course, Douglas College. This simple framing of the man as founding father is often where historical citations of Sir James Douglas end, leaving the impression of him as a great and noble leader bringing civilization to a wild and untamed land.

But there is much more to his name and to his legacy. Under a different lens, Douglas is seen as a colonial tyrant who subverted the interests of the people in favour of the corporate interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Crown. He opposed universal suffrage and negotiated treaties with First Nations that could be described as patronizing, self-serving and disingenuous at best.

Douglas had his own struggles with identity. He was born in Guyana of mixed-race parentage, educated in Scotland, was fluent in French and married Amelia Connolly, whose mother was Cree. He was responsible for helping hundreds of families from the San Francisco Black community, who had been denied U.S. citizenship, immigrate to Victoria, B.C., in search of a more welcoming home. Yet his reasons for doing so likely had less to do with humanitarian impulses and more to do with his desire to grow the number immigrants sympathetic to Britain under his rule.

In many ways, Sir James Douglas was an early poster child for Canadian multiculturalism. In others, he was a man of his times and a colonialist through and through. So, how should we talk about him? Is it enough to simply call him the “Father of British Columbia” when his legacy is much more complicated?

In today’s divisive world, it’s easy to see why institutions might shy away from challenging conversations. Yet, today the role of colleges and universities as champions of respectful dialogue is even more important.

Tonight, as a part of Douglas College’s response to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Douglas will welcome Adele Perry, distinguished University of Manitoba professor, and Wayde Compton, award-winning Douglas College creative writing instructor, to a public discussion on the complicated narratives surrounding the life and legacies of Sir James Douglas.

On complex issues, colleges and universities are often looked to for leadership. Encouraging open and respectful dialogue on challenging topics is part of that role.

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