The City Talks – Getting the Indians Out of Town: Race and Space in Victoria’s History

Last Thursday (October 22, 2010), Dr. John Lutz delivered the second of UVic‘s The City Talks. Entitled “Getting the Indians Out of Town: Race and Space in Victoria’s History,” he talked about how First Nations people have been made largely invisible in Victoria. Having dealt with the same topic in a more limited paper/blog post in the spring, I was impressed at how much more material he covered and by his ability to connect so many disparate elements of Victoria’s history over the past 160 years.

During the first part of the lecture, Dr. Lutz spoke about the coming of European settlers, the creation of inner city reserves (near the legislature and at Songhees Point), and the half century long process that culminated in moving the Songhees Reserve from Victoria’s harbour front to Esquilmalt. During the second part, he discussed how bylaws were used to bolster economic, moral and medical views about the need to isolate First Nations people outside the city, “for their own good.” Throughout the lecture, Dr. Lutz showed that First Nations people were an important part of the early economy and culture of Victoria, but that visual evidence of their presence has now been almost completely erased from the city.

As with other lectures I’ve seen Dr. Lutz give, this one was well illustrated. At the beginning, he provided a backwards visual chronology of the area, presenting paintings of the city (1889), the town (1858), the fur trade post (1840s) and an 1840s map that hardly showed any preexisting First Nations land uses, despite the fact that they had lived here for thousands of years. This, he said, showed that the local First Nation had been erased from the landscape by artists and mapmakers.

Other images that Dr. Lutz showed included a fire insurance map showing “Indian cabins” near Chinatown and a photo of a spidle whorl installed as part of a public art project in Victoria (Signs of Lekwungen).

Detail from Victoria Fire Insurance Map 4 1885, available at

The fire insurance map demonstrates that First Nations people were an integral part of the local economy, living close to the city centre in order to perform much of the manual labour that Europeans could not or would not do. Other evidence that Dr. Lutz marshaled in favour of this viewpoint included censuses, newspaper rhetoric, city council minutes and Department of Indian Affairs documents. He lamented the lack of First Nations voices from the time, because of the lack of surviving documentation.

The Sings of Lekwungen project is a partnership between multiple parties, particularly the Songhees themselves and the City of Victoria; it consists of a series of seven sculptures reminiscent of spindle whorls, meant to “honour the art, history and culture of the Coast Salish people who have resided in the Victoria area for [thousands] of years.”

Signs of Lekwungen Spindle Whorl Outside RBCM. Photo Credit: Vincent Gornall

Dr. Lutz used a photo of one of the spindle whorls, and convincingly argued that this art project is one of the only public, visual reminders of First Nations people in Victoria (except maybe a few stores specializing in First Nations art). A description and map of the project appears beside each spindle whorl, showing the location of each sculpture and the importance of each location to the Lekwungen:

Signs of Lekwungen Description & Map Panel RBCM. Photo Credit: Vincent Gornall

While this project does make First Nations people more visible in Victoria, Dr. Lutz argued that more needs to be done. He said that with the 150th anniversary of Victoria’s incorporation as a city approaching in 2012, we should “reflect on what our city means” and retell the story of how European settlers dispossessed First Nations of their land and history in this city and elsewhere. There are many opportunities to engage in public art and story telling, he said.

A similar public art project for the 1994 Commonwealth Games placed a totem pole representing “the three major Native languages of Vancouver Island” in four sections at Songhees Point and the Songhees reserve in Esquimalt.

Songhees Point Descriptive Panel. Photo Credit: Vincent Gornall

Detail from text from above panel, Songhees Point. Photo Credit: Vincent Gornall

It will be interesting to see how the city commemorates its history, in this and other areas, in the lead up to its sesquicentennial celebrations. Much will depend, as Dr. Lutz suggested, on what individuals and civil society groups organize and lobby for.

This entry was posted in Architecture, Downtown, E&N, Economy, Education, Employment, Esquimalt, First Nations, Historic Sites, Infrastructure, Land Use, Newspaper Coverage, Photographs, Public Art, Racism, Research, University Courses, University of Victoria, UVic. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The City Talks – Getting the Indians Out of Town: Race and Space in Victoria’s History

  1. Pingback: The City Talks – November | Vincent's Victoria

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