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Shared Histories

Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973

by (author) Tyler McCreary

Creekstone Press
Initial publish date
Aug 2020
Native American, Indigenous Peoples
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2020
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Shared Histories looks deeply into what happened at the intersection of settler dreams and Witsuwit’en reality in the small northwestern British Columbia town of Smithers. Planted in a swamp at the base of a mountain, this railway town tried to exclude the region’s first inhabitants. This collection of hidden histories reveals how generations of Witsuwit’en made a place for themselves in town despite local, provincial, and national efforts push them, and indeed all Indigenous peoples, to the fringes.

About the author

Tyler McCreary is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Florida State University.

Tyler McCreary's profile page


  • Winner, Lieutenant Governor's Medal for Historical Writing
  • Joint winner, Jeanne Clark Local History Award

Excerpt: Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973 (by (author) Tyler McCreary)

Recovering a Silenced History

The intent of Shared Histories is not only to add to the academic literature but also to make a significant contribution to expanding the community dialogue about local history. It is a project designed around the idea that research needs to engage community members.7 Although there is a single author listed on the cover of the book, it is a co-production of the many knowledge- holders, readers, and researchers who have continually guided and reshaped the narrative. As community members read chapters, they identified gaps in the argument that required further research. This collaborative process strengthens the book as a reflection on the history of Indigenous-settler relations and informs its particular efforts to recognize Witsuwit’en contributions to building the town and the forms of discrimination that they endured in Smithers. Witsuwit’en and other Indigenous people came to be in Smithers for a variety of reasons. For some Witsuwit’en people, the townsite was introduced into their family’s territory, lands on which they already lived. For others, the decision to relocate to town was forced upon them, for instance, after the destruction of their rural homesteads by settlers or the removal of Indian status and reserve rights by the federal Indian agent. For others still, moving to Smithers provided access to jobs and opportunities in the developing northern economy. For many Witsuwit’en people, finding a place in town was complicated. While Witsuwit’en labour helped build the town, Indigenous people often existed at the fringe of the community. In Smithers, a number of Witsuwit’en families moved to a strip of land along the highway out of town which became known as Indiantown. For years, its residents worked in and contributed to the local community while maintaining connections to a broader Witsuwit’en geography, spending time on reserves for fishing season and feasts, visiting relatives living on the fringes of other settler towns, as well as hunting and trapping on the territories. Within Smithers, Witsuwit’en participated in community events, particularly baseball games and the Fall Fair. But they mostly remained apart from the settler community. Discrimination endured in restaurants and hotels, policing, medical care, and education. As the town developed in the postwar period, pressure to redevelop Indiantown increased. Growing settlement and technological change decreased the need for Indigenous labour. Infrastructural development—particularly the introduction of water and sewer systems—transformed the built environment around Indiantown but did not include Indiantown itself. Provincial social workers targeted poor Indigenous homes, while municipal authorities began to enforce housing standards. The Witsuwit’en community in Smithers was devastated by the imposition of middle class, white norms to evaluate their lives, losing children to state apprehensions and homes to municipal redevelopment projects. As the town redeveloped the area into a new business district and a redesigned residential neighbourhood, Indiantown was displaced. However, Witsuwit’en organizers maintained a connection to the history of Indiantown, continuing the fight to construct Indigenous space in Smithers and against colonial dispossessions. Thinking about this history invites further and deeper community dialogues about the appropriate ways to recognize the past and ask some difficult questions about how the past influences our present. Parts of Shared Histories will be hard to read. Despite moments of camaraderie and mutuality that have punctuated the history of Witsuwit’en-settler relations in Smithers, the broad arc of this story is one of injustice. Many of the Witsuwit’en families that helped build the town have been mistreated. However, the intent of this book is not to unearth individual villains to blame. Instead, it aims to expose the structures that shaped relationships between settlers and Witsuwit’en in Smithers. Often settlers were guided by provincial and federal policies and acted in what they understood to be the community’s best interest without questioning how we determine community interests or define who belongs to our community. One of the tragedies of history is that injustices have often been perpetrated not by malicious individuals but by caring people operating within a corrupt governing system of ideas. Shared Histories aims to use the history of a small northern town to open a space of reckoning through which we can revisit the relations that have shaped the collective histories of Witsuwit’en and settlers in Smithers. While Shared Histories intends to provide a starting point for reflection, it is an imperfect beginning. For all my efforts at collaborative research, I still write from the position of a member of the Smithers settler community. Shared Histories attempts to document Witsuwit’en-settler relations, but it cannot provide an insider’s account of the resilience of Witsuwit’en families who lived in the developing northern town. Moreover, for much of the early history, the research relies heavily on archival records. These early records were written and maintained by settler authorities and often tell us as much about how bureaucrats thought about Indigenous-settler relations as they do about those relationships. Records rarely include the reflections of the early Witsuwit’en residents of Smithers or the poorer white workers who lived and worked alongside them. Thus, the records more strongly preserve the moral condemnation of settler authorities about racial intermixing than what Witsuwit’en and their white friends and neighbours thought or did. By using available records, Shared Histories aims to document the dominant regimes governing racial relations in town on the northern frontier, as well as the ways in which local residents established forms of community that bridged racial boundaries. While unabashedly a local book, Shared Histories aspires to examine how relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers entwine in a particular place with relation to broader regional, provincial, federal, and Indigenous structures. Understanding the historical conditions that led to the present brings attention to what was taken for granted in particular periods and how relationships could have followed different historical trajectories. While settler society has often conveniently forgotten the historical discriminations that produced enduring forms of inequality, Indigenous peoples remember past injustices. Reflecting on the past invites readers to reconsider what we take for granted in the present. While acknowledging the past does not immediately resolve historical injustices, it creates opportunities for the dialogue and learning necessary to create a new and different future.

Editorial Reviews

From Ormsby Review Long before the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015, many observers struggled to figure out how we got to a place in Canada where an investigation like that conducted by the TRC was necessary, let alone what “reconciliation” might mean to future relations between Indigenous peoples and those of us of settler descent.

A similar impetus to the conditions that drove Canada to investigate past injustices has resulted in a growing body of literature exploring the history of Indigenous-settler relations — writing that seeks to reverse the erasure of Indigenous peoples in the stories Canadians tell each other about our collective past, and which considers how the lessons we learn might be helpful in providing a path to a much more equitable future. Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973, by historical geographer Tyler McCreary, is a valuable, nuanced, and richly local addition to this corpus of study.

Other titles by Tyler McCreary