City's 100th anniversary built on village's ashes

The sunny blue skies and festive cake on the steps of City Hall made Prince George's 100th birthday celebrations seem like a glorious occasion.

In the modern context, those who attended were sincerely commemorating a city on a sustained surge of civic pride, a true leader among Western Canadian municipalities, a northern capital on the national scale.

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With its civic facilities and transportation infrastructure, its healthcare and education amenities, its sports and arts recreational profile, Prince George has become a lifestyle star within British Columbia. No wonder mayor Lyn Hall could say "now is a good time to reflect with pride on the history we have built, and the opportunity we have ahead of us. It's important now that we all work together as a community to build on the legacy of the past to further develop the social and economic diversity of the city."

Yet the event has a dark side and it lurks unspoken behind the smiles and bites of cake. One hundred years ago it wasn't birthday candles being lit, it was homes set ablaze by the government officials and railroad developers of the day. The Lheidli T'enneh First Nation village that had been the busy centre of civilization in this region for the previous 10,000 years at least was burned to the ground, in some cases with residents left completely homeless in the winter.

The Fort George Herald wrote a story about it. The front page had two stories, one celebrating a local baseball team winning the Carney Cup over the visiting Quesnel team, the other celebrating the destruction of an ages-old townsite still in active use.

"The old Indian village a few hundred yards up the Fraser River from this town will soon be a mass of smoldering ruins," said the article. "Already the houses at the north end of the village have been burned to the ground to give way to the utilization of the land upon which they have stood for years gone by, for the purposes of the dominant race which has purchased their reserve for the future site of a great city."

The article implied it was a smooth and amicable transition to a splendid new village, but history has documented the ousting of the Lheidli T'enneh people as being more thuggish than a mutual agreement.

The so-called Indian Agent of the day - the federal government employee tasked with liaising with the Lheidli T'enneh people - wrote an article in 1948 for the Cariboo And Northwest Digest remembering that time.

"After selling the land upon which Prince George now stands, and spending the money, the Fort George Indians refused to budge off their ancient camping grounds. It took a little (justifiable) arson to get them moving," wrote W.J. MacAllan.

He also admitted that he was the one who negotiated the 1911 sale price and conditions on behalf of the Lheidli T'enneh, striking a deal with the federal government and Grand Trunk Railway company to sell the prime confluence land on which their people lived.

Years later, when the steam ship arrived to pack their belongings up to the partially constructed new village known today as the Shelley Reserve, the people had a sudden and irreversible change of heart, MacAllan explained.

"The (not too young) buck with whom I had been arguing, after glancing around at the rest of the assembly, took a step forward. 'This our home,' he said. 'You tellum govenmunt and railrud [sic] this our home. We no move.' The whole assembly nodded silent approval and turned away, leaving me with no mean problem on my hands."

He and the other colonial officials knew the 100-or-so Lheidli T'enneh people were too large a force to fight out of their homes, so a plan was hatched to burn some of the already vacant buildings to scare the rest into leaving. He also connived to be seen in open public when the fires started so the alarmed residents would go to him first, believing him to be innocent of the fires, in order that he could manipulate their fear into retreating from the village en masse.

"Sure enough! It worked as I anticipated," MacAllan said. "The day before I had been their big bad wolf; today I was their friend and benefactor...I often wonder what the story of the moving of the Fort George Indians would have been had we not resorted to arson."

A great many people wonder that today, but with reverse intentions.

First Nations educator Bruce Allan of the College of New Caledonia said arson was used against the Cheslatta people and the people of Ingenika to forcibly remove them from their homes when dams were constructed in this area. Those transgressions have not been forgotten, if they can ever be forgiven, he said.

"How do we celebrate (a Prince George centennial)? I don't know. I'm not celebrating," he said.

What's more, as part of an aboriginal drum group commissioned to perform for the 2015 Canada Winter Games last week, he and the other performers were told that if they sang songs of protest during the Games, they faced arrest. So in his mind, little has changed.

"Yes, it happened in the past, and yes we live in modern times and (we aboriginal people) take part in modern society, but those past incidents have not been addressed," he said.

Lheidli T'enneh chief Dominic Frederick was one of those on hand at City Hall on Friday when the birthday cake was cut. He has made no secret, over the years, that this land on which the city now stands was never ceded away from his nation's dominion.

Modern culture is literally squatting but, the chief has explained in past conversations, that doesn't mean Lheidli people aren't welcoming, just that protocols have to be respected. Lately, much improvement has been made.

"The history of our people is a big part of the history of the City of Prince George," said Frederick. "Today, we can collectively work together, side-by-side, and build upon the economic prosperity that will see Lheidli T'enneh take its rightful place alongside our local government, the City of Prince George, and the entire region."

Hall added, "As a community, we should be proud of our history and hopeful for the future - and that future includes the Lheidli T'enneh, who are a part of the fabric of our community. Our shared history has not always been easy. But I think it's fair to say the Lheidli and the City have managed over the last decade or so to build a relationship built on trust and a mutual interest in building the future of our community together."

The full celebration of the 100th anniversary takes place in July, when a series of events takes place throughout the City from July 10 to 19, 2015. Visit www.pg100.ca for further information.

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