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NEWS RELEASE · 20th June 2013
Kitimat 60th Anniversary
5th Kitimat Anniversary Story

Sir James Douglas, B.C.’s¬ first governor, was certainly one of our province’s greatest historical ¬ figures. He had a profound influence on British Columbia and his name lives on in our Douglas Channel, the governor’s greatest geographical legacy.

Douglas, was born in the tropics to Scottish parents. Early life in the Caribbean was tempered by schooling at Lanark, a prestigious prep school back in Scotland. His influential father, John Douglas, ensured that his son’s educational background was sound. After graduation, James took on a series of postings with the Hudson’s Bay Company (H.B.C.). With the mercantile giant, he had a tumultuous and colourful career. Some of his jobs were in B.C., including Fort Saint James and Fort Connelly, here in the north. It was during his northern postings, that he married Amelia, a woman of partial First Nations ancestry. James eventually advanced his career enough to become chief factor in Victoria. With an influx of coal miners and immigrant farmers to the Island, London eventually chose Douglas to become the governor of the new colony of Vancouver Island.

Things really heated up in the 1850’s with the Fraser River and Cariboo gold strikes. With a flood of ambitious and unruly miners pouring into Victoria and then on to the Interior, action was needed. As Victoria’s Bishop Cridge later said in the eulogy delivered at the funeral for James Douglas, “the right man was in the right place.” Douglas was decisive and quite autocratic.

He clearly saw the threat of hoards of miners, largely American from the declining gold diggings in California. He acted quickly to protect British interests. Without direct jurisdiction for the mainland, Douglas expeditiously established British authority at New Westminster and Fort Langley. As Commander-in-Chief of the colony he required all miners to obtain British colonial mining licenses. He further imposed British law even before official authorization arrived from London.

By August of 1858, the colonial office at Whitehall had officially installed Douglas as governor of the colony of Vancouver Island and the new colony of British Columbia. Sir James’ early training with the H.B.C. at northern postings certainly gave him a better understanding of his vast territory.

Within months, Douglas had become a fulltime governor, severing ties with H.B.C., and he had quickly established British control. He had a team of Gold Commissioners on the mainland, efficient constables, and a travelling magistrate working throughout the mainland. His judge was the famed hanging judge, Mathew Bailey Begbie. According to Jean Barman, author of two of B.C.’s best known history books, “the gold rush was Douglas’s finest hour.”

Douglas efficiently reduced the threat of annexation by the U.S.A. America was clearly, at the time, weighing their options in the Pacific Northwest. Within two years Douglas had influenced his superiors in London to strengthen the forces at Victoria. The British Empire made station Esquimalt Britain’s primary Pacific forces station, replacing the garrison in Valpariso Chile. At that time, they aimed to keep a force of 12 or more ships on station. As Commander-in-Chief of the two colonies, Douglas became Vice Admiral of the fleet.

Within a few years, Douglas had to manoeuver through the rather explosive crisis between Britain and the U.S., often referred to as the Pig War. In this incident, major violence was narrowly avoided when American miners at one end of San Juan Island got into a dispute with some H.B.C. employees operating a sheep and pig farm on the other end of the island. Diplomatic e_ orts in London and Washington eventually ironed out the situation.

We know of at least one circumstance, where Douglas and his successors had to consider matters from our region. The problems were related to trade difficulties and secret societies. Action was finally taken in 1865, when the Royal Navy battleship Clio was dispatched to the Haisla Village of Kitamaat. The H.M.S. Clio, equipped with both sail and steam propellers, sailed right up to the village. It later anchored at the bay a few kilometers south of the village. (Now named Clio Bay). No doubt, the armed officer’s compliment decked out in military regalia must have made an impression. This is the version of what occurred, according to Elizabeth Anderson Varley in her book, Kitimat, My Valley.

Apparently the Clio’s military mission was a success as the colonial government had no further trouble in Kitimat. Sir James lived in Victoria, B.C. He died in 1877 at the age of 73. He is buried at Ross Bay Cemetery and rests in a plot beside his wife, Lady Amelia Douglas.

Douglas never did live long enough to see his name added to the Royal Navy charts. By the time of the first Quadra survey expedition in 1898, led by Louis Coste, Canadian engineer/surveyor, the fjord here had been officially named Douglas Channel. This was certainly appropriate recognition for Sir James Douglas and all he did in the development of British Columbia.

In recent years, suggestions have been made that our August 1st long weekend, BC Day holiday, be re-named Douglas Day. This would mean changing the official designation from November 19th, commemorating the anniversary of his arrival at Fort Langley. Perhaps Kitimat will someday be able to market Douglas Day with our connection to Douglas Channel. Maybe someday a statue of Sir James will be erected with his arm extended towards the mighty channel that bears his name.

- Walter Thorn