While colonialism was all but universally supported among Upper Canada’s socio-political elite, one University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) English professor’s research has revealed a surprisingly-contrarian view towards the subject in a former Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.
For more than 15 years, Dr. Kevin Hutchings has studied the life of Sir Francis Bond Head, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1836–1838.
But in a time where colonialism and anti-Indigenous sentiment was high, Hutchings’ research into Bond Head paints a picture of an individual with contrarian views towards the policies of assimilation that would come to inform Canada’s residential school system.
The UNBC professor recently was awarded a grant for $67,000 over four years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) Insight Grants program which will allow him to further his research into the life and literary works of Bond Head.
In an interview with The Interior News, Hutchings said that, while the majority of his research has been narrowly focused on one 1836 treaty that Bond Head negotiated with Anishinaabe people, it was something he came across reading one of his old books that initially sparked his interest in the historical figure, who has largely faded into obscurity as being most well-known for being Lieutenant-Governor during the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.
“The thing that originally sparked my interest in Francis bond head was in reading through some of his books I came across quotations or assertions … that Francis Bond Head made criticisms of European colonialism.”
Pointing to a number of essays published by Bond Head, Hutchings said that many of the comments he made — especially since many were made after his time as Lieutenant-Governor — were essentially unheard of at the time among Upper Canada’s political elite.
In one 1838 essay published by Bond Head in the Quarterly Review, he called Indigenous North Americans “the real proprietors of the New World.”
In that same essay he called Europeans “usurpers of their soil.”
“He actually criticized what he called the cruelties and injustice of European colonialism. And then he went so far in one of his books to call the European treatment of Indigenous people in North America ‘the most sinful story ever recorded in the history of the human race’,” said Hutchings.
“These kinds of criticisms of European colonialism really stood out for me because they were rare, especially rarely articulated by people who held positions of power.”
Now as a result of that funding from the SSHRC, Hutchings will have a chance to delve even further into the life of the relatively-unknown Canadian figure through the first ever detailed literary study of Bond Head’s life.
The overall study has a goal of demonstrating a conscious exploitation of his literary celebrity to support his often-controversial political work.
This was done, Hutchings said, through a series of writings and essays published by Hutchings, both in the lead-up to his time as Lieutenant-Governor and afterwards when he returned to England.
“They were popular travel memoirs about his travels in places like Germany and South America and these books became bestsellers … so by the time he came to Canada he had established himself as an author and a journalist [and] used those connections to help him during the time that he was in power.”
Likewise, Bond Head used his pull in the international media community in an attempt to garner positive coverage about his administration, as well as subsequently justify his actions while in power.
The former Lieutenant-Governor was, for example, friends with famous publisher John Murray and was frequently featured in his Quarterly Review.
”[He] would cut out clippings from the colonial newspapers in Upper Canada that provided positive reflections on the things that he was doing. And he would send them to John Murray and ask him to get them into the London papers.”
This literary fame persisted into Bond Head’s career post-Upper Canada and would see him publish a number of books about his time in power.
Two notable ones were “A Narrative” published in 1839 and a literary memoir of sorts, “The Emigrant”, published in 1846.
“He used these publications to justify and defend his administration during the period in which he was the governor of Upper Canada,” said Hutchings.
But the UNBC professor also noted it wasn’t as simple as classifying Bond Head as pro-Indigenous.
“He had come to Upper Canada to fulfill his duty and to promote the colony. And the continued settlement and the economic development that the colony.
“But at the same time he had great misgivings about the consequences of settlements and economic development for Indigenous people who were the ‘real proprietors of the land.’ That’s something that — at least in my experience as a researcher — I have rarely encountered that kind of strident critique of British colonialism in North America.”
Hutchings said that, in addition to research, grant funds from the SSHRC will allow him to present his findings as far away as New Zealand.
It will also allow Hutchings to employ a number of research assistants to assist him in his investigation into Bond Head’s life.
As for Hutchings, he said despite years of research into Bond Head’s life there are still large elements to his story that remain enigmatic.
“I’ve read the stuff that praises him and I’ve read the stuff that critiques him — I think that the truth is more complicated than either flat out criticism more or a full-blown praise. And so I’m wanting to … consider that complexity as I approach him.”