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On the Cusp of Contact: Gender, Space, and Race in the Colonization of British Columbia

by Jean Barman

Jean Barman has written about the history of B.C. for more than 30 years and has won multiple awards, but fans of her work have had to track down her shorter essays in individual journals. Fortunately, with the publication of this outstanding collection, edited by Margery Fee, readers looking for Barman’s articles on some of her most frequent and important subjects can now find them all in one place.

While many of the 16 pieces in On the Cusp of Contact were originally published in academic journals, Barman’s clear writing and use of non-traditional sources make the essays accessible to all readers. As Barman says in her preface, her training is in education rather than history, and it is perhaps this background that makes her receptive to those whose voices are not often captured in traditional scholarship, particularly Indigenous people, women, and racial minorities. Barman’s sources serve to fact check, interrupt, and explain a history that has been dominated by a settler society whose prejudices and financial interests make them unwilling to consider interpretations that do not fit with their own cultural experiences.

The essays are organized into four parts: “Making White Space,” “Indigenous Women,” “Finding Solace in Family and Place,” and “Navigating Schooling.” There is some overlap, but Barman’s concern with giving space to many perspectives means that any repetition serves only to shed a different light on each topic. In fact, the essays build beautifully on each other so that the findings of one are of use as you progress to the next.

For example, after reading the essays on the erasure of first the physical presence and then the memory of Indigenous Peoples in Victoria and Vancouver, the reader has a solid understanding of the obstacles Indigenous women had to navigate in order to survive and thrive. It is then easy to appreciate Barman’s argument that we should recognize the ways Indigenous women in B.C. made concrete decisions to express their individual power and agency. Rather than assuming they were as subordinated to men as European women, we should recognize that Indigenous women often behaved “in ways not wholly incompatible with notions of feminism.” This agency is in evidence in the decision to work in dance halls, marry non-Indigenous men, or fight for their children’s rights to education.

While the intersection of gender, class, and race may not be as obvious in traditional historical sources, it becomes readily apparent as Barman refocuses her lens. Her writing is equally engaging when she is analyzing data and recounting family histories. And in each essay, the imperative that her recent scholarship is centred in the need for reconciliation is clear: “For me, redress has meant integrating the history of Indigenous education in Canada into the scholarship long before it was fashionable to do so.”

This commitment to refocusing the conversation is shown not only in her choice of topics but also her use of language: the subjects in her essays are identified as either Indigenous or non-Indigenous, a small but powerful shift in focal point that exemplifies why Barman’s perspective is the one all students of history should adopt for Canada as a whole.