The Heritage Cult
The news seemed innocent enough. “There were a hundred and fifty young men, of all walks of life, present at a meeting held in Pioneer hall last evening,” the Colonist reported on March 9, 1899. The intent of the gathering on Broad Street was to create a new society, for “social and recreative [purposes] and for mutual help”. Only the mention that its constitution was “secret in nature” gave any hint that the group would become one of the most controversial in B.C. history.
The Native Sons of British Columbia was the kind of weird organization you’d get if you crossed the Hallmark Society with the Loyal Order of Water Buffalos – or the Ku Klux Klan. Modelled after the Native Sons of The Golden West, a patriotic order created in California, the Native Sons of B.C. was open to any man born in the province over 18 years of age who swore to uphold the values of British Columbia’s white pioneers, and evoke their spirits in secret ceremonies.
Initiates would enter a darkened hall, pledge allegiance to the order, and then, accompanied by torchbearers, receive instruction from dressed-up characters out of B.C.’s past. (First Figure: “I was a member of that lusty crew that sailed from Britain’s shores in 1578, under command of that gallant Admiral, Sir Francis Drake ....”) Sometimes the initiate had to wear a knapsack containing a blanket, pick, and shovel, as if he was a prospector during the Cariboo gold rush.
Once admitted, he could then identify himself to other members by secret handshake, “bending the right arm at the elbow exposing the open palm of the hand on the level with the right shoulder,” or other signals. Priceless example: “A sign of recognition at night or distress call is given by utterance of the words ‘Beaver, Ahoy’ which if heard by a Native Son will be answered ‘I am here, Native Son’.”
(A PDF of the complete Native Sons ritual book can be downloaded here.)
Though never as popular as the Freemasons or Odd Fellows, the Native Sons did accumulate several hundred active members across the province, in 13 chapters organized along the lines of Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts. Forrest Pass, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Western Ontario who’s studied the Native Sons, says most of its members were clerks and labourers and shopkeepers. “Victorian-era fraternal societies appealed to men who had a yearning for the exotic,” Pass says. “The Native Sons succeeded by equating the legacy of the pioneers with the lower middle class.”
Whatever the reason, the Native Sons found a following. By 1900 the Victoria post had 276 members, and it entered a huge float in that year’s Victoria Day parade (photo at top). By the time of World War I, their patriotic declarations were front-page news, and when they presented their annual Good Citizen award in Vancouver, as many as 10,000 people attended the event. Members’ wives formed a sister organization, the Native Daughters of B.C., in 1919. Prominent citizens became Native Sons, including premiers Simon Fraser Tolmie (1928-33) and Byron Ingemar Johnson (1947-52), along with Victoria mayors Reginald Hayward (1922-24) and J. Carl Pendray (1924-28).
The most active of them all was Bruce A. “Pinkie” McKelvie. Managing editor of the Colonist, and later a writer for the Province newspaper, he breathlessly romanticized B.C.’s early history in such books as Tales of Conflict: Indian-White Murders and Massacres in Pioneer British Columbia. McKelvie (left) served as Grand Factor of the Native Sons four times before he died in 1960, and was buried at St. John The Baptist church at Cobble Hill according to the society’s official funeral rite, which he'd created himself. (‘The officers and members shall group themselves about the open grave, wearing regalia and in addition each shall carry a sprig of Douglas Fir, or other native evergreen.”)
Thanks to their devotion to the past, the Native Sons did make many practical contributions to the province. In the 1920s, they successfully lobbied our Empire-oriented school system to start teaching local history, and convinced B.C. to pass the first laws in Canada protecting totem poles, petroglyphs and other works of First Nations art. They saved the Nanaimo Bastion (the symbol of their order) from demolition in 1904 and ran it as a museum, and were instrumental in preserving Fort Langley, and Craigflower School. The old Hastings Mill Store, at Vancouver’s Point Grey, is still maintained by the Native Daughters, who have about 30 active members today.
But such nostalgia had a dark side. At their annual conventions in the 1920s and ‘30s, the Sons and Daughters declared that all “Orientals” should be excluded from voting in federal elections, or even deported. (Pass says the Native Sons’ shopkeepers feared competition from Asian merchants.) And even when commemorating the past, they encouraged portrayals of pioneers triumphing over the aboriginal population. In 1924, the Native Sons commissioned a series of paintings by John Innes of “epochal events” in B.C. history (that's his rendering of the landing of the SS Beaver above left); later some ended at up at Simon Fraser University, where First Nations students demanded that such “Eurocentric fantasy history” paintings be removed. In 1929, McKelvie got George Southwell designated a “provincial artist,” which led to Southwell painting the now-notorious murals in the B.C. legislature.
Time marched on, and the Native Sons couldn’t keep up. After World War II they recanted their anti-Asian declarations, and tried to embrace environmentalism – they opposed logging in the Stein Valley – but their numbers steadily declined. The Victoria post disbanded around 1990. Today only one or two very old members of the order survive, and it was practically airbrushed out of all discussions of B.C.'s history during the province’s 150th birthday last year.
“They’re an embarrassment to some,” Pass says, mainly because of their opposition to Asian immigration, “but that didn’t make them particularly distinctive in the 1920s and 1930s. That’s what they’re remembered for, but it wasn’t their main reason for their existence. And there were all these sites that wouldn’t have been preserved if they hadn’t been around.” (Photo of Native Sons and Daughters in Nanaimo in 1945 above right.)
Our history is more complex than we are willing to allow. That, perhaps, is the lesson of the Native Sons – and something we should remind ourselves every time the B.C. government tells us we live in the Best Place on Earth.