New Westminster votes to remove controversial statue from courthouse

Michelle de Leon  /  May 7, 2019

New Westminster City Hall
(Caden Fanshaw/ BCIT Journalism)

Judge Begbie is responsible for hanging five Tsilqot’in Chiefs

In a vote on Monday evening, City Councillors in New Westminster made the decision to remove the statue of B.C.’s first chief justice that stands outside the provincial courthouse.

Council was debating Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie’s controversial background and the value in symbolizing B.C.’s colonial past.

The timely issue comes after the city’s newly passed commitment to explore truth and reconciliation in the city. According to New Westminster City Councillor, Nadine Nakagawa, the statue continually comes up as a barrier to progress in reconciliation.

“We’ve heard from the chiefs of Tsihqot’in First Nation that they want the statue removed and I think as the city of New Westminister moves forward on truth and reconciliation that we need to heed their calls.” – Nadine Nakagawa, New Westminster City Councillor

How did the ‘Hanging Judge’ get his name?

Sir Matthew Ballie Begbie became the first Chief Justice of British Columbia when the province was a colony of the British Empire. He then continued as a judge after B.C. joined the confederation.

Begbie is possibly most known for presiding the murder trial of five Tsilhqot’in chiefs who were part of the Chilcotin War. They were deceived into a peace talk meeting where they arrested and sentenced to death by hanging.

The name of the “Hanging Judge” was coined after Begbie died at age 75.

In 2014, the Tsilhqot’in leaders were exonerated of any wrongdoing by the B.C. governement and the province apologized to the Tsilhqot’in nation.

Photo of Matthew Begbie

(G.R. Fardon / B.C Archives)

Here’s a look back at the highlights of Begbie’s legal and political career:

The Parliament Building in Victoria, BC.

Canada takes ongoing steps to reconciliation

This is not the first time a statue has been removed in B.C. with the hopes of improving First Nations relations.

In August 2018, Victoria City Councillors passed a motion to remove the statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, from the steps of city hall.

However, critics say that the process was too rushed and other voices were excluded during the removal debate.

“So to do both sides of the coin, I can see how it represents to some people a history and past that they don’t want to remember so that constant reminder is challenging. For other people it’s a slippery slope, you remove this statue but when does it stop?” – Kory Wilson, Executive Director of Indigenous Services at BCIT

Balance in the consultation

Part of the motion in New Westminster includes having a community consultation on what to do with the statue and how the history should be presented.

The New Westminster councillors say that Judge Begbie is a nuanced character in B.C.’s history and there’s more to him than the controversy, but it is important to also include the Tsilhqot’in wars.

The statue removal affects some people more than others, explains BCIT Executive Director of Indigenous services, Kory Wilson. Wilson says when taking into account multiple street signs, names of buildings, and statues in the Lower Mainland, the challenge of removing one statue would mean considering the interpretation of many structures.

“… I think (the decision) has to come out of consultation with the understanding that only 3.5% of New Westminster identifies as Indigenous so there has to be a balance in that consultation and we have to really respect the history and the injustices to the First Nations community.” – Chuck Puchmayr, New Westminister City Councillor

While New Westminister City Councillor, Chuck Puchmayr, says it all comes back to the importance of engaging in discussion with all members of the community.

Statue of the “Hanging Judge” in front of steps of the New Westminister City Hall.

(Caden Fanshaw / BCIT Journalism)

With files from Erin Laforet, Ali Pitargue, Caden Fanshaw