“Progressive Victoria”: 1910 Editorial Cartoons Reveal Racist Arguments for City Expansion

During the term I just finished at the University of Victoria, I had the opportunity to work on a number of papers related to my interest in urban studies. It was amazing to realize this term how every course I took emphasized local themes, probably because human experience always takes place in specific places. This post is the first of several in which I hope to share the results of my research with a wider audience than university papers usually allow.

I’m a news junkie, and have found one of my greatest pleasures (both academic and personal) is reading historical newspapers as primary sources for historical research. They reveal a lot about the attitudes of powerful newspaper editors and owners (and in the case of student and union newspapers, about the attitudes of less powerful opinion leaders).

This term, I took a course called HIST 358F: Natives and Newcomers: Historical Encounters in Canada Since 1867. It dealt with interactions between the First Nations people of Canada and the more recent “newcomers” to this country, and focused mostly on British Columbia. For my paper, I looked at a local topic: the move of the Songhees Reserve from its former site in Vic West to Esquimalt in 1911. (I live in Vic West, so these events transpired practically on my doorstep.) Specifically, I looked at media representations of the Songhees and the reserve, and how the “need” for the move was constructed by the business elite at the time.

During my research, I found two contemporary maps that illustrate the reserves. The first shows the original reserve, that had been created in 1844 and was right on the inner harbour across from downtown:

This is from the Victoria Daily Colonist and was published on October 26, 1910, during the final negotiations between the federal, provincial and municipal governments and the Songhees Band about how and where to accomplish the move of the reserve. It’s interesting how close the reserve was to downtown. One of the biggest reasons some people advocated for moving the reserve was that it would allow economic “development” of the city. Indeed, in pure monetary terms, the former reserve was subsequently developed for industrial purposes, and is now being re-purposed for upscale housing at Dockside Green.

Three days after the above map was published, the Colonist printed another map, showing the location that the four parties had agreed to for a new reserve. It shows how the reserve had been isolated relatively far away from the economic and political centres near downtown and the naval base.

This second map appeared along with the text of the agreement that finalized the new reserve and the signatures of the major parties involved in the negotiations. One of those signatures is that of J.S.H. Matson, proprietor and editor of the Colonist. Clearly, powerful business interests were aligned with the process of moving the Songhees away from prime harbour front real estate. (The existing “I.R. [Indian Reserve],” adjacent to the new one, is that of the Esquimalt Band.)

Four editorial cartoons from the Colonist‘s then rival, and more recent merger partner, the Victoria Daily Times, show how these economic interests were constructed by the media. They were published a few months earlier, in May 1910, when negotiations were beginning in earnest. The first shows “Progressive Victoria” driving an automobile down a road, threatening the Songhees man seated in its way and yelling “Out of the Way!”

This image contrasts the idea of “progressive,” capitalist Victoria businessmen with the idea that the Songhees are obstinate and unwilling to move – implying that something ought to be done to make them move, possibly involving violence. The modern car, having been in Victoria for barely a decade, implies that there is something unstoppable about progress and land development; the Songhees are represented as incapable of winning against this “progressive” technology and attitude.

The second editorial cartoon copies most of the imagery from the first one, but includes a new element: the proprietor of the Colonist, Matson, appears waving a copy of his paper to prevent “Progressive Victoria” from running over the Songhees. The cartoon is titled “An Attempted Rescue.” Since Matson was one of the negotiators in the final settlement later in 1910, it seems there was some dispute even among economic elites about what should be done with the reserve.

The accompanying article describes a city council meeting at which plans for streets, parks, waterfront access and a railroad terminal were discussed. Although the article is positive about the actions of city council, it seems the city leaders were acting without due process, since the reserve land had not yet been granted to the city! Again, this cartoon and the related article show the connection between supposed economic “progress” and the avowed need to move the reserve.

The third editorial cartoon depicts two construction labourers discussing the upcoming passing of Haley’s Comet. Titled “A Hopeful Outlook,” one of the labourers says “Hilley’s comet will desthroy the earth tomorrow… We’ll git rid of thim Songhees Injins and have that resarve quistion sittled.” Based on the intentional misspellings in the dialogue, and the way the two characters are drawn, there also appears to be more than anti-Native racism in this picture. A nearby story on the front page of this issue of the Times talks about several groups of American “Negroes” who were afraid of Haley’s comet marking the end of the world. According to this reading of the cartoon, the Songhees are both delaying economic progress by denying these two construction workers jobs in the industrial development planned for the reserve, and are also represented as being racially inferior than residents of Victoria who were black.

The final editorial cartoon that I found in the Times appeared in October 1910, the day after the Songhees agreed to move to a new reserve. It depicts the “Songhees Tribe” as passively sitting against a house, while “Victoria” lights his pipe and Premier McBride stands nearby, aloof. There are three interesting facets of this cartoon: the passivity of the Songhees, the relative activity of “Victoria” and the aloofness of McBride. The Songhees refused several deals before accepting the final settlement and were very active in achieving a very generous package of benefits, that included cash payments from the government of $10,000 for every Songhees family. It seems to me that the Songhees should be represented as far more active than this cartoon makes them seem. The city, having no legal standing on the reserve before the agreement with the Songhees, apparently could only petition the provincial and Dominion governments to negotiate the deal and then have the land incorporated into the municipality by the province after it had been sold by the Dominion. McBride, as a provincial official, also wasn’t directly involved in the negotiations – his aloofness seems the only appropriate part of this cartoon. The effect of these representations is to make the Songhees seem lazy, the city of Victoria progressive and the province aloof and uncaring about the city’s concerns.

My research indicated that these cartoons were part of a larger discourse, which constructed the Songhees as not only impeding economic progress, but as dirty, diseased and immoral. Penelope Edmonds’ article, “From Bedlam to Incorporation: Whiteness and the racialisation of colonial urban space in Victoria, British Columbia and Melbourne, Victoria, 1840s–1880s,” was helpful in revealing this aspect of the social construction of space in early 20th Century Victoria. (The article can be found in Exploring the British World: Identity, Cultural Production, Institutions, eds.  Kate Darian-Smith, Patricia Grimshaw, Kiera Lindsey & Stuart Mcintyre. Melbourne: RMIT Publishing, 2004, 60-90.)

This analysis of historical editorial cartoons and maps indicates that Victoria, like other cities, has been not only physically constructed, but socially constructed as well. It implies that we should remember who we’re building our cities for (the people who live in them), and be conscious of equity concerns and abhorrent of racist expressions in the media.

I wish to thank Dr. Daniel Marshall and Dr. John Lutz for their help and advice in writing this paper. Dr. Marshall taught my HIST 358 class, and guided me to a number of useful resources for contextualizing the move of the Songhees Reserve. Dr. Lutz suggested looking at the first editorial cartoon from the Times, which he had reprinted in his new award winning book Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. Also, Dr. Jordan Stanger-Ross originally had me read Edmonds’ chapter for my HIST 469: The City in History course this past term, which positively influenced my thinking about this topic.

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This entry was posted in Book Review, First Nations, Land Use, Newspaper Coverage, Research, University Courses, Vic West, Victoria. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “Progressive Victoria”: 1910 Editorial Cartoons Reveal Racist Arguments for City Expansion

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