The Great Land Grab: Settler Colonialism, Real Estate, and Commuter Rail on Vancouver Island

By Kelly Black

[This post first appeared on the BC Studies blog in two parts – here and here. It is reproduced here in its entirety]

After years of questionable service and maintenance, it’s time to get serious about retaining the E&N rail corridor for future rail service. It is well past due, however, that we take seriously the colonial legacy of the E&N Railway.

When it was first completed in 1886, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway transformed transportation and access to markets on Vancouver Island. Resource extraction, at first coal then later timber, and capital accumulation were the impetus for the railway’s construction and the growth of Settler communities. Historian Elizabeth B. Norcross explains the train’s impact on the agrarian Cowichan Valley:

New people started to come in, people with capital to buy land and the equipment and stock to work it. When the trains actually started regular service this third wave of settlement could almost be characterized as a flood. (Memories Never Lost, 1986, p. 141)

The torrent of settlers via the E&N continued until they found another route via the Malahat Highway, constructed less than three decades later. The demise of passenger and freight service on the line mirrors the ascent of the automobile, but it was not until 2011 that passenger service ended. By then, the corridor had finally succumbed to decades of “deferred maintenance” a2008-10-11-23-18-59-2940615514-51b3cdb6373cd-1nd ever-shrinking budgets.

I recall taking the train from Nanaimo to Cobble Hill in 2008 when the train suddenly slowed to no more than a few kilometers per hour as it crossed the Chemainus River bridge. Maintenance on the bridge was so “deferred” that a 2012 report recommends it be replaced if used for freight purposes – owing to the extensive deterioration and overall coast and complexity of repairing it.

When the passenger service ended, few people lamented the loss of a decrepit transportation route that seemed to travel the wrong way at the wrong time of day (Victoria to Nanaimo/Courtenay in the morning and Nanaimo/Courtenay to Victoria in the evening).

In 2006 the non-profit Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) became the owners of the E&N tracks, stations, and right-of-ways when Canadian Pacific and Rail America donated their portions of the track to the charity. The foundation, consisting of representatives from local governments and First Nations located along the corridor, has made some repairs since taking over the line – new rail ties, tracks, some updated crossings. The ICF currently has a $21M plan to revive passenger and freight service on the line. This project is contingent on funding from regional districts ($7M) and the federal and provincial governments  ($7.5M respectively). This planned return to passenger service includes twice daily runs from Nanaimo to Victoria and service north of Nanaimo on Wednesdays and weekends.

Whatever the practicality of this proposed schedule, it’s not likely to quell complaints about passenger service on the E&N.

The Great Land Grab

In 1968 the Canadian Pacific Railway – then owners of the rail line – brought forward an application to the Canadian Transport Commission to eliminate passenger trains on the line – a service far less lucrative than freight services. A 1969 Vancouver Suneditorial by James K. Nesbitt summed up a common sentiment at the time: “I hate to see the E and N go, but it’s likely inevitable, and there’s no use crying about it.” (July 28, 1969, p. 20). Although the passenger service did not end in 1969, it was greatly reduced and was accompanied by declining maintenance of the rail infrastructure.

Recent headlines from the Cowichan Valley Citizen letters section reveal more frustration:

“E&N railway nothing but a money sinkhole” (March 18, 2016); “Many questions surround rail line” (March 18, 2016); “After years, railway line a dead asset” (March 24th, 2016); “All aboard the E&N rail plan? I don’t think so” (April 7th); “Fixing train tracks would take too much money” ” (April 13, 2016).

In early April 2016, the Regional District of Nanaimo voted to stop collecting monies toward its contribution to the project, citing ongoing delays and the continued deterioration of the rail corridor.  There has also been a recent proposal to tear up the line to create a bike path – something the City of Vancouver decided to do when it paid CP Rail $55M for the Arbutus rail corridor.

However, rumblings about deteriorated bridges and poor scheduling are frivolous compared to the affect the E&N has had on First Nations communities.

Land grants and railways are synonymous in Canadian history and the E&N is no different. In 1884, the provincial government granted nearly 2 million acres to the federal government for the completion of a railway on Vancouver Island. In 1887, upon completion of the line, the federal government granted the land to coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and his investors, as well as $750k and all mineral and timber rights. The land grant had the effect of privatizing crown lands – and First Nations territories – within its boundaries.

Most of that private land is now in the hands of forestry corporations, includingTimberWest and Island Timberlands. Over the last decade, these companies have developed real estate offices and have sold choice parcels to supplement their bottom line. As this protracted and piecemeal sell-off takes place, First Nations within the land grant have continued to assert their rights to land that was taken without consent.

Discussions about the future of rail services on Vancouver Island have long been centred on whether or not rail transportation is practical or financially viable. Within the context of soaring real estate prices, climate change, and calls for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, it seems likely that the E&N Railway could once again play a pivotal role in shaping Vancouver Island’s future.

Earlier this year, the Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose) First Nation initiated a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court against the ICF and the Attorney General of Canada. The Snaw-Naw-As are asking for the return of a parcel of land taken from them to build the railway. The Hul’qumin’um Treaty Group (HTG) calls the E&N grant, the great land grab.[1]

The legacy of the land grab looms large. Although the ICF has partnerships with and directors from local First Nations, the ICF does not own or control these privatized lands – it is responsible only for the rail corridor. However, a push to return passenger service, and perhaps one day a commuter service, cannot be divorced from the realities of the land grab or the failure of successive BC governments to address its impact.

Rapid growth on southern Vancouver Island and an obstinate commitment to fossil fuels demand serious consideration of passenger and freight services by rail. Driving north from Victoria, it is immediately evident that the Western Communities (Colwood, View Royal, Langford, Metchosin and the Highlands) have begun to reach their limits. The stark reality of this growth is apparent: both sides of the highway, once knolls of solid rock, have been blasted into rubble to make way for single-family homes. The overburden and exploded rock now form walls and berms in an effort to hide the highway and its thousands of commuters.

Real Estate and Rail

The climbing price of real estate in Vancouver – and by extension southern Vancouver Island – has made Greater Victoria increasingly unaffordable. Victoria has long had a problem with housing affordability, but it is not difficult to see the current state of inequality walking past tent city on Blanshard Street. Just a few blocks away, houses go on the market and are sold within days – some are quickly demolished, the lots transformed to accommodate bigger, more modern residences.

As more and more people are pushed out of the Greater Victoria housing market, the region’s environs – Langford and the Cowichan Valley in particular – are in turn affected. Looking to the future, a commuter rail service seems inevitable if we are to support transit-oriented growth and slow climate change.

Despite exasperation with the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) and the future of rail service, the Mayor of North Cowichan and Chairperson of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, Jon Lefebre, recently stated that local governments in the Cowichan Valley remained supportive of the ICF and its project.

A 2011 estimate from the province puts the cost of commuter rail service between the City of Victoria and the Western Communities at between $70M and $90M.  This estimate does not include the price of improvements made to the rest of the rail corridor. Although the costs seem substantial, consider that the province recently approved construction of an $85M interchange at Mackenzie Avenue to relieve traffic congestion resulting from the unabated growth of the region.

The ICF and local governments have long touted the economic benefits of passenger service on the E&N. Should the service eventually be updated to allow for commuter travel, the economic and environmental benefits seem evident– more communities gaining easier access to employment opportunities and fewer cars on the road.

If a commuter service was to ever take shape, it is likely that municipalities and regional districts along the rail corridor would see significant growth. Ideally, such growth would be limited to city and town centres. However, the effect of the great land grab means that rail service could once again be a catalyst for further expansion into unceded First Nations territories.

Returning the Land

For the Hulq’umin’um Treaty Group, a majority of their territory – about 83% for the HTG – is considered off limits for treaty negotiations. In present-day BC treaty negotiations, the provincial and federal government have excluded any discussions over private land. This injustice prompted the HTG to bring forward a submission to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2007. The group cited violations of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, specifically Article XXIII, the right to property, Article XIII, the right to culture, and Article II, equality before the law.  These legal cases follow a long trajectory of First Nations on Vancouver Island exerting their rights and title. A 1906 delegation of Salish chiefs travelled to London to meet with King Edward VII to press for the return of their territories and petitions to the King in 1909 and 1910 followed. Court cases and international shaming have so far yielded no restitution of lands.

The ever-growing force of real estate as commodity is a transformative one. As residents seek affordability, property values will continue to rise in those communities located outside the urban core. As heirs to the E&N land grant, forestry corporations have spent the past several years enhancing their real estate divisions. They acted early, in an effort to outpace the legal proceedings snaking through Canadian and international legal systems.

As a non-profit charity directed by elected officials, the ICF could be a key pivot in determining a future where the restitution of lands to First Nations peoples is possible. As it did in during the 1890s, passenger service on the E&N will transform communities. The next “flood” is already here – precipitated by historic and present-day demands for land.

There are questions about the future of rail service on Vancouver Island that can no longer be ignored.  I would like to propose a few questions that should be taken up:

  1. Can the ICF, and the communities that direct it, use the E&N corridor as a device that contributes to the restitution of First Nations lands?
  2. How is growth managed in regions that are currently rural or suburban? What strategies need to be developed to address the benefits and the consequences of rail corridor/transit-oriented growth?

Openly discussing these questions could begin a shift in the way that the E&N is talked about on Vancouver Island. The rail corridor is much more than a future bike path, it is central to the past and present of Settler-First Nations relations on southern Vancouver Island.


[1] The HTG consists of six First Nations: Chemainus First Nation, Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation, Lake Cowichan First Nation, Lyackson First Nation, and Penelakut Tribe

 

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Giving Canada’s Past a Future: The Stories of 24 Sussex Drive

1024px-24_Sussex_Drive,_Ottawa

24 Sussex Drive.

Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government face a long list of issues that demand prioritization. Electoral reform, an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, climate change, and the refugee crisis are just a few. One of the first decisions made by the newly elected PM was seemingly unrelated to any of these, but is one that has garnered quite a bit of media  attention: the Trudeau family will not be moving into 24 Sussex Drive. The decision stems from the need to restore the 1868 home that has suffered from decades-long neglect.

The restoration of a historic home may seem insignificant as Canada transitions to the post-Harper era. Indeed, the idea that the building should be restored has faced  ridicule and been dismissed as a waste of money. Prominent architects and former residents of 24 Sussex have gone so far as to say the home should be demolished and replaced with something newer and bolder. For some observers, however, the announcement is being met with cautious optimism as a signal of a clear shift in this government’s attitudes towards the stewardship of Canada’s cultural and natural heritage. It has opened a dialogue regarding our understanding of the past and our vision for the future.

All buildings tell stories. The story of 24 Sussex is a story of Canada. Like Canada, 24 Sussex was built through the dispossession of Indigenous territories and the accumulation of wealth through resource extraction. Constructed between 1867-68, the original owner of this grand stone house, Joseph Merrill Currier, was involved in the Ottawa Valley lumber industry. As a member of the political and industrial elite, Currier was also involved in colonial and municipal politics, railways, newspapers, and banking. According to the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO), the heritage character of 24 Sussex Drive is determined in part by the evolutionary nature of the property. This evolution includes the property’s transformation from the home of a lumber baron to the formal residence of Canada’s prime ministers.

A Building in Decline

The need to renovate and restore 24 Sussex has been known by FHBRO, the National Capital Commission (responsible for managing all six official residences in Ottawa), and prime ministers for the last few decades. Unfortunately, conservation of the heritage building is a political hot potato. To undertake the work needed, the prime minister and their family would be required to vacate the home. Not wanting to be seen as spending government dollars on the prime minister’s “mansion,” federal leaders put off the need for a major overhaul, allowing the NCC and Public Works to undertake only patchwork repairs.

The building’s condition was highlighted in a 2006 Mercer Report special which saw Rick Mercer and then-Prime Minister Paul Martin headed to Canadian Tire in search of materials to winterize its windows; to Mercer’s amusement, he found an Inuit carving covering a stain on a carpet. A 2008 report by the Auditor General noted that the building is essentially on life support. Its HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems are in desperate need of upgrading and its many windows are cracked and failing, all the while being inaccessible for those with mobility issues–the estimated repair bill was set at $10 million. Trudeau’s decision to temporarily reside at Rideau Cottage has provided the opportunity to restore the building. It has also, however, resurrected the spectres of “wasted tax dollars” and “extravagance” that previous leaders so feared.

24 Sussex appears to be just another case of deferred maintenance. Looking closer at the issue, a more complicated story emerges. There are several factors at play with the past, present and future of 24 Sussex. To date, the debate has revolved around cost–should we spend $10 million or not?–and has underscored our continuing preoccupation with the willful erasure of the past–should it be demolished or not?

With all its flaws, structurally and historically, 24 Sussex should be viewed as an opportunity to tell a more inclusive story of Ottawa and Canada’s past, present, future. What story is being told when the discussion around 24 Sussex stagnates on points of money and demolition?

Moving Beyond Demolition

From a pragmatic perspective, the demolition of 24 Sussex is simply wasteful, both environmentally and economically. Popular opinion among those who favour demolition is that it is cheaper to demolish and start anew. This is not necessarily the case. The process for the disposal of a Classified federal heritage building is not as simple as tearing it down and sending the resulting waste to a landfill. Rather, in accordance with Treasury Board procedures, the building would generally be deconstructed and its component parts, its heritage attributes, stored for potential future use.

A growing number of studies have explored the inherent sustainability of retaining existing building stock as an alternative to the process of demolition and new construction. Studies from the Green Building Lab with the US National Trust for Preservation, provide more information. Construction waste accounts for a significant proportion of landfill materials and there are other environmental considerations, including the durability of historic materials and embodied energy. Rather than demanding demolition, consideration should be given to the four pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, economic, and cultural. In most cases, the greenest building is the one already standing, a sentiment echoed by the Sierra Club, the National Trust for Canada, Heritage Ottawa and others.

A ‘heritage-friendly’ approach to 24 Sussex should not be interpreted as a strict adherence to the current, or historic, building form. Heritage is not static and there are opportunities to re-imagine this government residence in modern and innovative ways.

Conservation does not preclude sustainable upgrades, such as solar panels, innovative technology or accessibility features. Rather, the conservation process can provide a ‘road map’ for guiding interventions in a way that strikes a balance between all values of the site–historic, architectural, and environmental. Just about every major city in Canada boasts striking restoration projects in which historic and contemporary elements are integrated into new structures. Far from being ‘mired’ in the past, the conservation process and the rehabilitation of 24 Sussex provide a unique opportunity to bring historic and contemporary  values into the future.

The Locality of Canada’s Past

The landscape of national capitals is a curious one. Often, local history is supplanted in favour of sweeping national symbols in the form of buildings, monuments or parks. In the conflict between ‘town’ and ‘Crown’, Indigenous and local Settler histories can end up being overlooked. Situated within the Algonquins of Ontario settlement area, 24 Sussex is not a disembodied national symbol. It exists on unceded Indigenous territories and was brought into existence through the extraction of the local forest resource. 24 Sussex also has a local history. The demolition of 24 Sussex in favour of a new edifice would continue the trend of erasing Ottawa’s local history in favour of national symbolism – something there’s already plenty of in town.

It also has a history that is contested. Demolition of the current building in favour of a modern architectural vision suggests that Canada is ushering in a new era where the symbols of nation must be reinvented. While Canada and Ottawa may have changed since the lumber barons of the Ottawa Valley, the foundations of a national story–including resource extraction and ongoing colonization–remain encoded in today’s social, political and economic landscape. The suggestion here is not that this past be glorified or celebrated, but rather tangibly explained and highlighted through the existing home.

The Liberal government has committed to implementing all the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, it would be impossible to address our colonial present if we are unable to acknowledge our colonial past. Canada’s relationships with Indigenous peoples are established with the Crown but they exist in a local context. Given the government’s inaction on returning nearby Chaudiere Falls, It seems unlikely that the prime minister will go so far as to return 24 Sussex to the Algonquin peoples. Nevertheless, (re)inserting the story of colonization into local and national narratives of the built environment can be a critical measure that demands all Canadians engage with the questions of ongoing colonialism.

Making Heritage Accessible

Government has a role to play in the conservation of heritage resources. In addition to ‘what’ is to be done, there is a debate about ‘who’ should do it. While the idea of throwing open the doors of 24 Sussex to Mike Holmes could be enticing, it reflects a missed opportunity.

In the past, Canada has been a global leader in heritage conservation. Canadian conservation experts have made significant contributions to the development of the World Heritage system and best practices. They have also assisted other countries in establishing their conservation policies, and have provided assistance in safeguarding international cultural heritage. The federal government is fortunate to have several departments with highly qualified heritage conservation experts. The public service can play an integral role in planning and managing the restoration and renovation of 24 Sussex.

24 Sussex presents an opportunity to engage Canadians with the past and the world of conservation. If the Mike Holmes team, working alongside Federal heritage experts, can dispel the myth that what is old must be demolished, so much the better. But it will be the responsibility of the PM, the NCC, and many others to engage Canadians with the past, present, and future of 24 Sussex. The NCC’s Capital Urbanism Lab is one example of a tool that could be leveraged to initiate this dialogue.

Like science, history and heritage are ways for Canadians to make sense of the world. As with science, the systems that have been established to safeguard, conserve, and interpret heritage were under attack by the previous government, and faced cutbacks, program revisions, and muzzle orders, the impact of which we are only just now beginning to understand. A conservation project like 24 Sussex, led by the government’s own heritage professionals using a public, transparent process, would be a welcome shift away from the previous government’s approach.

Looking Ahead

Canada’s past is complicated and conflicted — it is not discrete or separate from contemporary society. Through built heritage, both the popular and the problematic of history are part of the fabric of our everyday lives.

It is environmentally responsible to restore and rehabilitate 24 Sussex. Furthermore, demolition in favour of a new structure would simply repeat a pattern of false separation between the past and present.

As we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we should not be afraid to make decisions based on a progressive, inclusive vision for Canada. 24 Sussex presents an opportunity to reassert the locality of Canada’s past and recognizes the diversity of place which underpins a national identity.

Chris Uchiyama is an archaeologist and heritage consultant based in Ottawa. Follow Chris on Twitter @cucchiy

Kelly Black is a PhD Candidate in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University. He currently sits on the City of Victoria Heritage Advisory Panel and is an Instructor in the Department of History at Vancouver Island University. Follow Kelly on Twitter @k_elly_b

Nancy Oakley is a public historian and heritage conservationist living and working in the Yukon. Follow Nancy on Twitter @nancoakley

All three are graduates of the Master of Arts in Canadian Studies (Heritage Conservation) program at Carleton University.

Property and the BC Treaty Process: A Summer Reading List for Tom Fletcher

In a July 8th article that claims to explain the political history of the BC Treaty Process, Tom Fletcher argues that the process has been trying to settle treaties and “untangle the legal knot left by Canada and B.C.’s failure to complete historical treaties after 1900.” Yet, Fletcher’s article is devoid of any thoughtful historical perspective on the process. Rather, it reads as though BC has been trying in earnest for many years to address the question of Indigenous title and land rights.

Fletcher begins his article by claiming that Brett McGillivray’s book Geography in British Columbia: People and Landscapes in Transition is a “a good reference, except where it strays from geography into politics.” Here, Fletcher claims that “left-wing dogma” has obscured the ‘truth’ of the treaty process. That is, Fletcher’s truth – one which claims that politicians have always sought the just settlement of treaties in the province.

Although Fletcher mentions the Tsawwassen First Nation treaty signed in 2007, the reality is that the BC Treaty Process has had few results since it began in 1990. Fletcher would do well to read a few more books on Settler/Crown-Indigenous relations in British Columbia.

The failure of the BC Treaty Process is not an invented claim. For example, the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group  (HTG) has been negotiating for a treaty since 1993. For over twenty years the group, representing six First Nations on Vancouver Island, has been in negotiations. After two decades, the HTG are currently on Stage Four of a six stage process and millions of dollars in debt. While a couple of First Nations have been able to make the treaty process work for them, the results to date speak for themselves.

Given that Fletcher makes claims to having historical perspective, there is one paragraph in particular that is truly bizarre:

“What remains true today is that no society has made significant social and environmental progress without individual property rights. See the woeful state of most of Canada’s communally owned aboriginal reserves, where individually owned property isn’t permitted.”

Fletcher might want to be more clear about what he means here: No Western colonial state has made progress without individual property rights. A quick look at just about any book on Indigenous Peoples or property reveals that the concept of property Fletcher puts forward is one that belongs to Western philosophy. Universalizing a non-universal concept erases Indigenous ways of knowing and organizing relationships. On top of all this, Fletcher, in a not so-subtle effort, places the blame for conditions on reserve squarely on the concept of communal property. This is quite an interesting claim given that the reserve system was created by and for a colonial state founded on individual property rights.

Here, Fletcher echoes the thoughts of his publisher, David Black. In 1998, David Black (no relation to the author of this post) published an opinion piece in the Cowichan Newsleader titled Nisga’a Treaty will foster racism (October 28, 1998). In this op-ed Black argues that the Nisga’a Treaty “will establish apartheid throughout British Columbia forever. It will also set up 50 to 60 communistic territories within British Columbia forever…[which is] completely discredited as a workable system because most human beings need the motivation of private property.” Black’s comments present the idea of private, individual property as so normal that it should be desired by all as an obvious solution to the issue of “special rights” for Indigenous peoples. Indeed, the politics of ‘equal rights’ is central to maintaining Settler/Crown control over property and is a notion often espoused in liberal democracies.

Fletcher and Black argue that liberal (capitalist) property regimes are the only reasonable answer to the eventual settlement of the treaty process. Given that it is this very concept of property that is responsible for ongoing colonialism in North America, it seems an odd choice.

Fletcher and David Black might consider taking it upon themselves to read some more before they make any claims to historical truths or “social and environmental progress.” Below, I provide a cursory summer reading list for their consideration. I will keep reading Tom Fletcher’s articles, if only to see if he has learned anything.

-Kelly Black (Twitter: @K_elly_B)

Tom Fletcher’s Summer Reading List:

Alfred, T. (2010). “What is Radical Imagination? Indigenous Struggles in Canada,” Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action 4 (2): 5-8.

Atleo, R. E. (2004). Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Barker, A.J. (2009). “The contemporary reality of Canadian imperialism, settler colonialism, and the hybrid colonial state.” The American Indian Quarterly, 33(3), 325-351.

Blackburn, C. (2005). Searching for Guarantees in the Midst of Uncertainty: Negotiating Aboriginal Rights and Title in British Columbia. American Anthropologist, 107 (4), 586-596.

Blomley, N., & Pratt, G. (2001). Canada and the political geographies of rights. The Canadian Geographer, 45 (1), 151-166.

Bryan, B. (2000). Property as Ontology: On Aboriginal and English Understandings of Property. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, (13), 3-31.

Gray, L (2011). First Nations 101: Tons of Stuff You Need to Know about First Nations People. Adaawx Publishing.

Harris, C. (2002). Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Razack, S. (Ed). (2002). Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Rose, C. M. (1994). Property and Persuasion: Essays on the History, Theory, and Rhetoric of Ownership. Boulder: Westview Press.

Simpson, A. (2011) “Settlement’s Secret.” Cultural Anthropology 26 (2): 205-217.

Thom, B. (2005). Coast Salish Senses of Place: Dwelling, Meaning, Power, Property and Territory in the Coast Salish World. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). McGill University, Montreal.

Frances Kelsey: Unsung Canadian Hero

UPDATE: Click here to listen to a radio interview about Dr. Kelsey from CBC’s On the Island.

UPDATE 2: Help Right the Wrong – sign the petition to support Canadian survivors of thalidomide.

Earlier this week, the federal Department of Canadian Heritage released the results of a national survey that included the question: Which Canadians have inspired you the most over the last 150 years?

Complied from the answers was a list of Top 10 Canadian Heroes. Among this list are the usual suspects of Canadian national personalities: John A Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau, etc. Sadly, this list of heroes does not include any heroines – not a single woman.

In a nation where we are constantly reminded about our national mythologies of old white men, railways, resources, and benevolence, it is perhaps not surprising that a non-male identified person failed to make this list. Unless they were somehow involved in a war, there has been little effort on the part of governments, past and present, to identify women protagonists in the national story. This is, of course, also true for Indigenous, racialized, and Queer communities.

To disrupt a cycle of national identity construction that values men over women and grand narratives over discussion, I would like to make the case for one of my Top 10 Canadian Heroes. Her name is Dr. Frances Kelsey and she was born in Cobble Hill, British Columbia, in 1914. Now 99 years old, she might just be the most famous Canadian you’ve never heard of.

Dr. Kelsey earned both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from McGill University, Montreal, in 1934 and 1935. In 1938, she earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, where she taught until 1950.

In 1960, Dr. Kelsey began work with the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) where she became chief of the Division of New Drugs, director of the Division of Scientific Investigations, and deputy for Scientific and Medical Affairs, Office of Compliance.  During her first month at the FDA, Dr. Kelsey stood up to pressure to approve the release of a sleeping pill for pregnant women called thalidomide.

The United States National Library of Medicine notes:

The task [of approving thalidomide] was supposed to be a straightforward review of a sleeping pill already widely used in Europe, but Kelsey was concerned by some data suggesting dangerous side effects in patients who took the drug repeatedly. While she continued to withhold approval, the manufacturers tried everything they could to get around her judgement. In November 1961, reports began to emerge in Germany and the United Kingdom that mothers who had taken thalidomide during pregnancy were now having babies with severe birth defects. Dr. Helen Taussig learned of the tragedy from one of her students and traveled to Europe to investigate. By testifying before the Senate, Tauusig was able to help Kelsey ban thalidomide in the United States for good. At least 4000 children in Europe were affected by the drug, but thanks to Kelsey’s rigorous professionalism a similar tragedy was averted here in America.

Dr. Kelsey’s warnings about the drug were initially ignored in Canada. The drug was approved for use here and led to hundreds of children born with birth defects. However, Kelsey’s research and work in the United States were eventually recognized in Canada, leading to the banning of the drug and the prevention of much more needless suffering. Kelsey was influential in creating amendments to FDA regulations and bringing about more stringent regulations for the protection of the patient during drug investigations.

Dr. Kelsey has been recognized many times for her accomplishments, including having a high school near her birthplace named after her. She was awarded a President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

This is only a summary of Dr. Kelsey’s career and her fight to ban thalidomide. Her accomplishments are certainly impressive and, given her contributions to the history of maternal healthcare, medicine, and public policy in North America, it seems obvious that Dr. Kelsey should be recognized as a person of national historic significance.

In my opinion, Dr. Kelsey should qualify for recognition under Section 4.5 (Canadians Who Developed an Image of Canada Abroad) of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board guidelines. However, Dr. Kelsey is not eligible to even be considered by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) as a national historic person. Although Parks Canada, the department responsible for the board, has claimed that it wishes to direct “more attention to the history of Aboriginal Peoples, women and ethno-cultural communities in Canada,” there is one policy of the HSMBC that works against Dr. Kelsey’s designation. According to the Board’s General Guidelines, only “Persons deceased for at least twenty-five years may be considered for designation of national historic significance.”

If Dr. Kelsey lives to be 105, under the Board’s criterion she would not be considered for her accomplishments until 2045. This arbitrary clause reflects an antiquated idea of historical significance. If the HSMBC and Parks Canada are serious about working towards a greater recognition for “Aboriginal Peoples, women and ethno-cultural communities,” they must eliminate this criterion and create a more flexible and inclusive set of guidelines.

This most recent list from the Department of Canadian Heritage is a revealing insight into the pervasiveness of male-dominated national myth-making. Without national recognition of persons such as Dr. Kelsey, it is unlikely many Canadians will ever know her story. We must make our own lists, but we must also put pressure on the gatekeepers of national history. The HSMBC criteria for designating people and places reflect a version of historiography rooted in the board’s 1919 creation. Board members, and the minister responsible for the board, Leona Aglukkaq, need to hear from Canadians. Dr. Kelsey’s accomplishments, and the accomplishments of so many others, deserve to be recognized.

If you would like to see Dr. Kelsey recognized as a person of national historic significance, download the application to the HSMBC (below). The application has been filled out but requires your name/address in sections 1 & 7. Complete the application and send it along to the contact provided in the document. Don’t forget to carbon copy the Minster responsible (Leona.Aglukkaq@parl.gc.ca) as she has the ability to override HSMBC decisions. The time to recognize Dr. Kelsey is now! 

ApplicationHSMBC_FrancesKelsey_Application

(Post by Kelly Black. Twitter: @K_elly_B)

Learn more about Dr. Kelsey:

  • Bren, Linda. “Frances Oldham Kelsey: FDA Medical Reviewer Leaves Her Mark on History”. FDA Consumer, March-April, 2001.
  • Geraghty, Karen. “Profile of a Role Model – Frances Oldham Kelsey, MD, PhD”. Virtual Mentor – American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, 7 (7) July 2001.
  • Mintz, Morton. “’Heroine’ of FDA Keeps Bad Drug Off of Market”. The Washington Post. p. Front Page, 1962-07-15.
  • The Story Of The Laws Behind The Labels”. FDA Consumer, June 1981.
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Dr. Kelsey and President Kennedy