1316 Colonial law vs Gitxsan tradition
Murders on the Skeena: True Crime in the Old Canadian West, 1884-1914
by Geoff Mynett
Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2021
$24.95 / 9781773860671
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
Not a Hollywood murder: move aside Deadwood and make room for BC’s wild north
When people exist on the extreme edges of a place, unexpected yet sometimes predictable events happen, particularly when one culture subsumes another, as was the case in Hazelton, BC, about 130 years ago. Those events took the form of several grisly murders that occurred from 1884 to 1914.
Historian Geoff Mynett meticulously, almost clinically, describes the crimes in an account that both reports the details of some fascinating cold cases but also explores the racial divide between wilderness settler society and the Gitxsan First Nations people who have lived there for thousands of years.
Mynett pays exacting attention to the plight of the Gitxsan, as gold-hungry white society planted its foothold in the Omineca Valley where the Skeena, Bulkley and Nass rivers provided the transportation network of sternwheelers that brought the interlopers from the south.
Here he summarizes the situation: “The pre-eminence of Canadian law, the giving away of Gitxsan land to settlers and the racial intolerance of many of the newcomers led to increasing resentment and hostility.” He also notes that with the settlers came the illegal sale of liquor to the Gitxsan. Totally predictable troubles came with it.
From the preface on, Mynett states his understanding of the Gitxsan ways and expresses sympathy. He documents the grossly unfair replacement of tribal law with white government law. The resulting cultural conflict is an object lesson all too familiar in every North American community.
But this is not a sociological study. Rather, it is at times an almost forensic examination of the facts surrounding half a dozen unsolved murders recalled in depictions of Wild West shootouts that took place in mining camps near Gitxsan villages.
When the alleged murderers were apprehended, two sets of opposing cultural rules clashed as both attempted to ensure law and order and peaceful co-existence in a single community. As Mynett takes care to show, the rules — one imposed by the colonial government, the other by Gitxsan tradition — were a recipe for racial conflict in B.C.’s far north.
The scene of the crimes was the little town of Hazelton and readers are given several photographs to assist their imaginations as Mynett takes us into rough backwoods country in search of the truth.
The most deadly of the scenes features a group of Russian bank robbers, a preacher-veterinarian nicknamed “Doc” who can shoot straight, and several townsfolk who chased after the escaping bandits with guns blazing. What transpires reads like an episode from the TV series “Deadwood.”
In the chapter headed “The Gun-Toting Preacher and the Union Bank Robbery,” Mynett describes the scenario: “After the shooting stopped, two dead bodies and one man mortally wounded were stretched out on the wooden boardwalk outside the Union Bank in New Hazelton.” The Omineca Miner added its own colourful account with this headline: “Masked Bandits Boldly Rob Bank in New Hazelton — Dastardly Attempt to Kill Teller McQueen.”
With much assistance from worn testimony at the various murder trials, Mynett re-imagines the incidents that rocked the pioneer northern community and challenged its dual set of rules.
Using testimony as a much-quoted source, the book risks reading too much like a court transcript and that leads to repetition. Fortunately, Mynett keeps a steady hand on the tiller, providing a linking narrative. Still, there are long passages that would have benefitted from a careful paring. The book is footnoted and includes three appendices adding more helpful detail to the characters. A future edition would benefit from an index.
The factual material Mynett employs to mould these stories could easily prompt a fiction writer to shape the murders into a detective mystery. For example, the late L.R. “Bunny” Wright might have transferred her Mountie from the Sunshine Coast to investigate the Hazelton crimes. But Mynett stays on point with the known facts to deliver his murder histories using a strong non-fiction punch.
Murders on the Skeena offers the real thing in a reportorial style that is careful to respect the Gitxsan First Nations while also portraying a rugged settler society at odds with nature and the pre-existing culture.
The book’s subtitle, “True Crime,” suggests a newspaper yarn of the yellow variety. But Mynett does the deeper historical probing that makes these stories deliciously raw tales of BC’s Wild North.
Ron Verzuh is a Victoria-based writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker. His work has appeared in The Ormsby Review since it was founded in 2016. Editor’s note: Ron’s book Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for Its Life in Wartime Western Canada will be published soon by University of Toronto Press. See here for Ron’s essay in The Ormsby Review on Trade Unionist Harvey Murphy and here for Mike Sasges’ review of Ron’s Codename Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb. Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Bonnie Henry, Bonnie Henry & Lynn Henry, Tim Cook, Greg Nesteroff & Eric Brighton, Nick Russell, Jim Christy, John Jensen, Charlie Hodge & Dan McGauley, and Eric Sager for The Ormsby Review.
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