On a recent trip to the historic destination of Fort Langley, I could not help but notice that many of the exhibits on display has been revamped. There is new furniture, an entire new display in the second storey of the Big House, and new centennial maps to celebrate the 100th year of British Columbia's history.
However, in the typical fashion undergone by Parks Canada, no one seemed to stop and ask if any of these updates were actually an improvement.
The biggest problem many people have with Fort Langley is the lack of agency on behalf of the Kwantlen people and other aboriginal groups that partook in the fur trade. You see paintings and pictures and artifacts strewn about every corner of every building to emphasize their existence, but none of them communicate the authority and affluent nature represented by the European versions of the same items.
One of the largest portraits in the Big House depicts James Douglas and the board of governors signing the proclamation that declared Fort Langley and the surrounding area as a British Colony in 1858.
You would think that this would require the permission of the Kwantlen people, who happened to control this land, but in this work of art there is one lonely chief, who has been isolated in the far right corner.
Their role in the agreement has been, at worst, entirely erased, which completely ignores the fact that, without the Kwantlen people, Fort Langley would not have been able to survive its first years of trading.
While many of the portraits seem to unintentionally depict First Nations people as passive observers, it is the scripted walkthrough given by the Fort Langley tour guides that truly drives this image home.
When walking through the servant's quarters, I was constantly told that aboriginal women wanted to move away from their families and traditional settlements so that they could embrace the European culture for all it had to offer. Not only that, but the reason why so few of the Kwantlen elders were involved in the proclamation of 1858 was because they could not understand what they were being asked to sign. They did not speak English, they did not know how the British legal system worked, and they had no idea how to negotiate.
That is completely false. Thanks to historical records, we know that the Kwantlen elders were actually quite adept at trading with the European settlers. They restricted Fort Langley's ability to trade with other aboriginal groups in British Columbia, they returned goods that were of an inferior quality to the ones they had received previously, and they married their daughters to European men in order to reinforce legal and political bonds with the fur traders.
These were not an ignorant and passive people.
It is unfortunate that none of these aspects of First Nations culture have been included in the numerous updates Fort Langley has received over the past decade, and I truly hope to see an increase in aboriginal agency represented in our historic landmarks over the next few years.
Alyssa Donaldson, via email
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