Nanaimo has held celebrations to mark Queen Victoria’s Birthday in May. The first recorded Victoria Day event in 1863 was marked with various activities such as foot races, sailing and shooting matches, Snuneymuxw canoe races, a 21 gun salute and drumming.
In the early 1900s, ‘Empire Day’ was observed each year on the school day preceding Victoria Day. A primary aim was to stimulate patriotism and imperial loyalty among the children of newly arrived immigrants from countries other than England.
In later years, instead of celebrating the Queen’s Birthday separately, it was decided to join the two events as one and the name ‘Empire Day’ stuck.
What was the British Empire?
The British Empire began in an earlier era with the founding of companies such as the Hudson’s Bay Company (not to be confused with the retailer of today) and the East India Company. These companies were given royal charters which allowed them to govern large swaths of land in India and Canada. By virtue of a royal chit of paper, these companies were allowed to control the people and resources with their own laws and even, as in the case of the East India Company, their own armies.
The Hudson’s Bay Company ruled the land west of the Rockies, known as ‘New Caledonia’ and introduced their own form of law. Disputes been HBC men, traders and First Nations that threatened the Company’s operations were often settled with violent and deadly informality; a knife to the chest or a shot from an HBC musket.
Ironically, it was during Queen Victoria’s reign that the British government began to realise that these corporations running their own empires were turning people against Britain. In fact British law was nowhere in sight when the people of India had their uprisings against the East India Company. The lines between company and government were blurred, and perhaps on purpose. Clearly, it was time that the British government should take control of its colonies before these companies made a complete mess of things.
The House of Commons in London, England decided to appoint Richard Blanshard to govern the newly created Colony of Vancouver Island in 1850. But he was run out within a few short months. The one thing he did do though when he got back to London was report that everything was controlled by the HBC. Something had to be done to break their stranglehold on the Colony. The House of Assembly was like another board meeting of the HBC; almost all of the representatives were HBC employees and stood to profit on their exclusive trade.
The founding of British Columbia
In 1858, Queen Victoria gave the name British Columbia to the new mainland colony. (Back then, Vancouver Island was still a separate colony).The following year, HBC’s control of the Colony of Vancouver Island was not renewed and their exclusive trade west of the Rockies was revoked.
After that, colonial settlers from the British Isles came in droves. Many of them spoke the indigenous languages of Wales, Scotland, and of southern England. When they arrived in British Columbia they learned the Chinook trading language and came to appreciate and respect First Nations.
Changing Canadian demographics
In more recent history, Canada’s demographics has changed significantly. This can be seen in Canada’s urban centers. The wave of immigration is no longer coming primarily from Europe but from Asian and South Asian countries.
Recent news reports have pointed out that more people are becoming concerned about Chinese-only signs in Richmond where one in ten residents have no knowledge of the English language.
A Toronto Star article highlighted the issue of ‘white flight’ in Brampton, Ontario. In one decade that city’s population increased by 60% (two thirds from South Asia) while at the same time, Caucasians declined by 12%.
Preserving Pioneer History
The controversy over the name ‘Empire Days Parade’ in Nanaimo is understandable in light of ‘empire building corporations’.
The British Columbia Pioneer Society was formed as a social organization for British people who arrived in BC prior to 1869. It no longer exists. Maybe it is time to recognize Nanaimo’s colonial settlers and First Nations in a unified event and bring back the canoe races and the foot races of old.
2014 marks 160 years since the Princess Royal sailed into Nanaimo harbour with twenty three miners from Britain with their wives and children, recruited to work in the coal mines by the Hudson’s Bay Company. None of them went back.