More or Less Human: Colonialism, Common Law, and the Social Construction of Humanity on Vancouver Island, 1849-1864
40 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2018
Date Written: October 18, 2018
Focusing on the colony of Vancouver Island in the mid-nineteenth century and the colonization efforts of James Douglas, this paper seeks to make three separate but related points about the meaning and relevance of being “human” in that place, at that time. First, practices of humanization and dehumanization were used in the construction of a consequential set of legal categories, including alien, Indian, corporation, white and citizen. In some sense, this period marked the beginning of colonial legal ‘sorting’ or ‘ordering’ in the region. Many of the most visible categorical contests surfaced through or in connection to contests about land and citizenship, but there was another story there, too: a much more basic story about who counted as fully human in the nascent colony. Second, notwithstanding colonial/settler practices of dehumanizing Indigenous people in the process of colonization, James Douglas believed that they were in fact human, and this was evident in his land policies and practices, including treaty-making. While Douglas is sometimes valorized for having recognized Aboriginal title in unceded land, however, the underlying assumption that Indigenous people were in fact human does not reveal a robust and nuanced view of humanity, nor was it especially progressive except in contrast to the even more discriminatory views of others. Rather, it was fundamentally liberal in the sense that it recognized that Indigenous people could be legal persons, capable of holding and exercising rights in property. Conceived thus, human being was a status which entitled the status-holder to something like membership in humankind; and humanity was essentially the totality of human beings. Finally, this conception of what it meant to be human would likely not have made sense in the context of Coast Salish justice systems and other traditions. Being human was not so much a status to which legal rights attached, as a largely relational way of being in the world, and even then, potentially transitional or temporary, and invariably subordinate to more powerful, nonhuman forces. In that view, humanity was not so much the totality of human beings, or at least not just that, but something one expressed towards others, both human and nonhuman. Ultimately, this disconnect between Douglas’s and Coast Salish understandings not only complicated treaty-making, it had lasting impact on the evolution of laws in the territory we now call British Columbia.
Keywords: : Indigenous studies, Indigenous legal studies, humanization, dehumanization, colonial studies, constructivism, legal personhood, legal subjecthood, James Douglas, Douglas Treaties, First Nations, Coast Salish, Songhees
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation