Fragments of Encounter in the Fraser Canyon

View of Laluwissin Mountain below Cameron's Flat. Photo: Hereward Longley, 2019.

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Histories of resource extraction and settler colonialism in Canada have mostly focused on the relationships between settlers of European descent and Indigenous peoples. My doctoral research on bitumen extraction in the Athabasca region also addresses these issues, looking at histories of conflict between the settler state and industry and Indigenous peoples. The 2019 Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium (CHESS) was a rafting trip down the Fraser River through St’át’imc and Nlaka’pamux territory to learn about Chinese and Indigenous histories of gold mining after the 1858 Fraser Gold Rush. It challenged me to complicate my understanding of settler colonialism by showing how the rush for gold produced global encounters between peoples from all over the world. CHESS also demonstrated the importance of place-based experiential learning.

The Chinese men who came to North America followed a dream of moving to this continent and making enough money and investments to retire to their home villages or to Hong Kong. The majority of Chinese people who traveled to North America between 1850s and 1923 came from eight Cantonese speaking counties in Guangdong province. These migrations accelerated after the California Gold Rush of 1850, enabled by a network of infrastructure and social connections mythologized by the dreams of Gold Mountain or “Gum San” — the name migrants gave to North America. Historian Henry Yu writes that “Gum San” referred to Canada, the United states and even Australia, but not did not indicate a specific place. Instead “Gum San” “named a set of aspirations for a better life, creating a geographic imaginary that determined the meaning of places and journeys.”[1] In the Fraser Canyon, the meaning of the term “Gum San” was more literal, as Chinese gold miners came to dig gold from the mountains of the Fraser Canyon. After the 1858 gold rush, much of the attention of settler gold miners shifted to the Cariboo region but Chinese and Indigenous miners continued mining gold in the Fraser Canyon into the early 20th century.[2]

John Haugen walking towards the Cameron’s Flat homestead. Photo: Hereward Longley, 2019.

Lorzeno Veracini distinguishes between migration and settler colonialism. While migrants and settlers both move to new places, settlers work to transplant their sovereignty and political orders, and migrants live within existing political orders.[3] As Jean Barman points out, although the history of Chinese peoples in British  Columbia “is still largely equated with Chinatowns,” some Chinese men moved away from the centres of settlement to the interior of British Columbia where they built lives, relationships, and families with Indigenous peoples.[4] Many of the Chinese men who partnered with Indigenous women were gold miners. Chinese and Indigenous peoples in the Fraser Canyon had special relationships that were different from those of European settlers and Indigenous peoples. Lytton Band Councillor John Haugen, who joined us on the trip, told us how his community’s oral history recalls that Chinese miners had different and generally better relationships with Indigenous peoples than did settlers.

From Sarah Ling, John Haugen, and archaeologist Michael Kennedy, (are these people in the photo? Perhaps indicate who is who) we learned how people from Guangdong province migrated to North America in the 19th Century. Photo: Hereward Longley, 2019.

CHESS 2019 reinforced the importance of place-based learning. Scrambling over the vast piles of cobble tailings and around the stacked cobble sludge chutes and experiencing the heat and wind of the Fraser Canyon helped us experience the incredible amount of work that went into the landscape affected by the Chinese and Indigenous miners on the Fraser environment. Spending three days traveling down the Fraser River by raft, camping, and visiting the Chinese gold mining sites created opportunities for experiential learning and connections with group members that would not have been possible in a classroom or conference environment.

Mica Jorgenson, Marwan Hassan, and Michael Hathaway exploring one of the cobble sludge chutes at Browning’s Flat. Photo: Hereward Longley, 2019.

Learning about Chinese and Indigenous histories of the gold rush in place was an important part of engaging with Indigenous knowledge. In my own work, I have collaborated with the Fort McMurray Métis community on several cultural heritage canoe trips on the Athabasca River. These trips blend river travel with Indigenous knowledge and history, visiting Indigenous places and extractive sites. The opportunities to experience and learn from Elders on the land helps to recognize and honour the embedded experiences of land use that are so important to Indigenous knowledge.

Darwin and Sue Baerg have been guiding on the Fraser River for over 30 years. Photo: Hereward Longley, 2019.

CHESS 2019 pushed me to look at histories of settler colonialism and resource extraction as more than just histories of Euro-Canadians and Indigenous peoples. As scholars debate how to explain what settler colonialism means in the context of resource extraction in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is important for us to examine not only extractive conflicts and dynamics, but also to consider the complex cultural encounters that occurred within these histories. This means looking not just at the dynamics of settler colonialism itself, but also examining the global connections that developed from resource extraction and settler colonialism.

[1] Henry Yu, “Mountains of Gold: Canada, North America, and the Cantonese Pacific,” in Handbook of the Chinese Diaspora, ed. Tan Chee-Beng (2012), 112.
[2] Michael Kennedy, “Fraser River Placer Mining Landscapes,” BC Studies, no. 160 (2008): 44.
[3] Lorenzo Veracini, “Introduction: The Settler Colonial Situation,” in Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 2.
[4] Jean Barman, “Beyond Chinatown: Chinese Men and Indigenous Women in Early British Columbia,” BC Studies, no. 177 (2013): 39.
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Hereward Longley is a PhD candidate in environmental history at the University of Alberta. Hereward's research examines the political, economic, and environmental dynamics that have shaped the history of the Athabasca oil sands region, the consequences of development for nature and Indigenous peoples, and how these impacts and conflicts have influenced subsequent development.

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