How often do we give thanks for Governor James Douglas, Father of BC? BC still bears the mark of Douglas’ vision. Douglas had little to work with in terms of men, money and materials; the only thing not lacking was Douglas’ determination. Governor Douglas prophetically said: ‘It is the bold, resolute, strong, self-reliant man, who fights his own way through every obstacle and wins the confidence and respect of his fellows. As with men, so it is with nations.’
Douglas had a vision of a great highway of commerce down the centre of the mainland colony. In little more than two years, he was to achieve what seems almost a miracle: a wagon road, eighteen feet wide and four hundred miles long, connecting the wealthy new gold fields of the Cariboo to the older coastal settlements
Douglas was born in Guyana. His mom Martha Ann Ritchie, originally from Barbados, was a free Creole whose family moved to Guyana for better employment in the late 1790’s. His father John Douglas, a Scottish merchant planter, took James and his brother to Scotland at age nine. James never saw his mom again, never returning to Guyana. After schooling, James moved at age sixteen to Canada and apprenticed with the Northwest Company, which eventually merged with the rival Hudson’s Bay Company. James spoke French so well that he was even able to lead Prayer Book worship services in French with the other voyageurs.
At Fort St. James he married Amelia Connolly, whose father was an Irish-French fur trader and whose mother was a Cree Chief’s daughter. The Douglas family moved to Fort Vancouver, Washington where James quickly became the Hudson Bay Company Chief Factor in 1839. While still at Fort Vancouver, he had set down in a notebook four tasks that he hoped to achieve. These were: “The moral renovation of this place; Abolition of slavery within our limits; Lay down a principle and act upon it with confidence; The building of a church of Christ in this place.”
As it became more obvious that everything below the 49th Parallel would become American territory, James Douglas was sent to Vancouver Island to relocate the Hudson’s Bay Fort. On March 14, 1843 Douglas founded the new capital Fort Victoria. In 1851 Douglas was appointed the second Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island.
When the1858 Gold rush struck BC, Douglas noted: “this country and Fraser’s River have gained an increase of 10,000 inhabitants within the last six weeks, and the tide of immigration continues to roll onward without any prospect of abatement.” Writing to Lord Stanley, Douglas predicted that ‘in the course of a few months there may be one hundred thousand people in the country.’
James Douglas preserved BC from absolute chaos during the 1858 Gold rush. With tens of thousands of American gold miners descending upon BC, James Douglas held back a avalanche that would have irrevocably swept BC out of any Canadian orbit. As historian Derek Pethick commented, “It is in the hour of crisis, when all but the bravest would have abandoned the unequal struggle, one man stood up and was counted. That man was James Douglas.” There is no doubt that Canada as we know it ‘from sea to shining sea’, would not exist today without Governor Douglas, one of the greatest of the Fathers of Confederation.
Governor Douglas had an outer exterior of implacability, but in his private family life he showed great depths of feeling. Upon the death of his daughter Cecilia, Douglas lamented: ‘She was the joy of my eyes, the light of my life; her ear was ever open to the calls of distress; the poor and afflicted never appealed to her in vain; they will miss her sympathizing heart and helping hand.’
Douglas deeply loved nature as seen in a letter to his daughter Martha: ‘The sweet little robin is pouring out his heart in melody, making the welkin ring with his morning song of praise and thanksgiving. Would that we were equally grateful to the Author of all good.” In giving advice to his son James, Douglas commented: “We are all poor frail creatures when left to ourselves; our sufficiency is of the Lord; we must look to him for strength and guidance in the hour of trial. His power is sufficient for us…”
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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