Tom Swanky was in Bella Coola last week presenting on his newest novel, “The Smallpox War in Nuxalk Territory.” The book explores in further detail what the author and legal historian proclaimed in his first novel, “The True Story of Canada’s “War” Of Extermination On the Pacific,” which is the assertion that the government intentionally and systematically introduced the smallpox virus to exterminate the indigenous communities in an effort to clear the land for their own proposed projects, in particular a railroad from Bella Coola to the goldfields in the Interior.
“This story begins in Sept. 1860 when the first settlers arrive to stake claims to land and ends in Jan. 1865 when the Crown announces to the local Chiefs in council that their territory is now part of B.C.,” said Swanky. “Nuxalk elders have always taught that this transition was made possible with little other violence because of the catastrophic loss of life due to the intentional spreading of smallpox.”
Swanky reiterates many of the points that he established in his first novel, the most notable being that the spread of smallpox was intentional due to the government’s wish to control the land which is unavailable at the time because it is occupied.
However, Swanky goes even further this time, presenting arguments that link the activities associated with the spread of the disease directly to the Attorney General at the time, George Cary, who was Governor Douglas’s legal advisor at the time. Cary had a legal obligation to deliver vacant land: hence there was the need to clear these sites of their indigenous occupants.
“What I show is the connection between those who spread smallpox, some admittedly, and those making the land claims and the organizers of the Bentinck Arm Road. These land speculators were led by Attorney General George Cary, Governor Douglas legal adviser,” said Swanky. “Smallpox was spread in two waves. One began in June 1862 and a second in Oct. 1862. Agents of Cary were involved in both instances.”
Swanky says that his research points to a purposeful genocide brought forth by the highest office in the land, which was to become British Columbia, with the “purpose to overthrow the existing systems and laws of the resident Ancestors, to bring Nuxalk territory under administration by para-military agents of the Crown, and to take control of the resources formerly administered by the Ancestors.”
“The Attorney General was at the heart of all of this,” Swanky states. “This makes it policy and therefore makes it genocide.”
Swanky also says that his findings are concurrent with his conclusion that this was not a natural epidemic. As in his first novel, Swanky states that the epidemic spread far too rapidly to be considered natural. Most Nuxalkmc who came in contact with the virus were dead in a matter of weeks, where a “natural” epidemic should take much longer to spread.
It is a bold argument and Swanky states that his intention is simple: to tell the truth.
“I’m not beholden to anyone in this work,” he said. “No one asked me to say anything in a certain way, they just trusted me to say what I thought was true.”
The pain and grieving that these revelations spark in the Nuxalk community should not be underestimated. While many Nuxalk members believed Swanky’s assertions long before his work was formally presented in this book, to see it recorded in such a format was a difficult but important acknowledgement of this dark time period.
Smallpox very nearly decimated the Nuxalk people. There are estimations of 10,000 – 12,000 people living in Bella Coola area; smallpox reduced them to 150 individuals.
“I tried to do a similar study for my Master’s degree,” Nuxalk Health Director Peter Tallio shared with the crowd. “But I couldn’t. I simply became too depressed.”
While critics of Swanky’s first novel agreed with many of his claims, they were critical of his methods of investigation.
Dr. Robin Fisher earned his PhD. at the University of BC, where he became a scholar of the history of British Columbia and, in particular, of First Nation-European relations.
“There can be little doubt, as Swanky argues, that governments and settlers in British Columbia deprived First Nations peoples of their land and undermined their traditional systems of government. Nor can there be any question that Europeans introduced smallpox and that the disease, along with others, resulted in a sharp decline in the Aboriginal population,” said Fisher.
However, Fisher remains unconvinced that Douglas was carrying out a genocidal policy in regard to smallpox, coming to different conclusions than Swanky based on his analysis of the similar evidence.
When questioned about this, Swanky replied that he expected such a reaction and that, in least in part, these revelations would take time to surface and be explored more deeply.
The evening marked an important milestone for Nuxalk people as it opened up a new discussion about the impact of smallpox on their communities, past and present, and their willingness to face a difficult past that is still full of unanswered questions.
You can learn more about Swanky’s newest work by visiting his website at www.shawnswanky.com