The Lieutenant Governors of British Columbia
Jenny Clayton | Harbour Publishing
$26.95, 323 pages
It isn’t always easy to take the lieutenant-governor seriously. Often dressed in ornately braided uniforms straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, the lieutenant-governor of B.C. is most often seen reading an address from the throne as the legislative assembly convenes for a new session. Occasionally, as happened when the last lieutenant-governor invited John Horgan to form the current NDP government, exercise of the office’s reserve powers is more consequential than ceremonial.
Nevertheless, for many the office is a remnant from the past, an unwelcome reminder of Canada’s relationship to British monarchy. For these critics, the office of lieutenant-governor (and its national equivalent, the Governor General) is either risible or offensively colonial, or both.
University of Victoria prof. Jenny Clayton, the author of a new history of lieutenant-governors in B.C., takes a more nuanced view. While she is not blind to the elements of class, racism, colonialism and sexism that have haunted Government House and its residents, she provides a richly researched and respectful account of the lives and careers of the first 29 lieutenant-governors. (No. 30, Janet Austin, provides an introduction that focuses on the dual role of the LG, acting both as the constitutional head of the province and as B.C.’s “promoter in chief.”)
In the course of presenting these mini-biographies, Clayton manages to sketch out a history of B.C. since European contact, and tells some compelling stories along the way. Her account of the pre-Confederation governors who served the Empire on the Pacific coast is particularly vivid, and it provides a context for her stories about the vice-regal figures who followed them.
Her admiring portrait of James Douglas, second governor of the colony of Vancouver Island and first governor of the colony of B.C., is particularly memorable. Douglas, the mixed-race son of a Scots merchant and a “free coloured woman,” was a complex figure who dealt with First Nations (if only at first) more fairly than many who followed him. Douglas also had to deal early on with a threatened American incursion in the wake of gold discoveries on the Fraser River.
Another standout lieutenant-governor, in Clayton’s view, was David Lam, who served from 1988 to 1995, one of the five recent appointees to the office who, she notes, “reflected more of the diversity of B.C.”
This book is a useful account of one corner of B.C. history.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. The last jacket he owned with gold braid went to the thrift shop in the 1970s. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at email@example.com.
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