International Women’s Day 2019 – Amelia Douglas

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In honour of International Women’s Day 2019, JFK members are highlighting the contributions of a number of Indigenous women.

The written history of post-contact Canada has largely washed out or downplayed the role of Indigenous people in building the country that came into being in the first century or so following contact. Occasionally a nod is given to important figures such as Joseph Brant, but most Canadians would be hard pressed to name five Indigenous people who were part of those initial generations who established Canada. Few, even of those who could, would know or be able to name Amelia Douglas despite her quiet roles in the establishment of British Columbia and the first case to begin the ongoing process of furthering the recognition of Indigenous law as part of the law of Canada.

Amelia Douglas was born Amelia Connolly in 1812 either at Fort Churchill or Fort Assiniboine. She was the daughter of William Connolly, a prominent trader with the Northwest Company (the great rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company) and Suzanne Pas-de-Nom, a Cree woman. Amelia was brought up in two cultures – on one side the child of an Irish officer of the Northwest Company and on the other side a Cree woman knowledgeable in her language and culture. In 1828, when she was just 16 years old, she married the 25 year old James Douglas, at that time an up and coming officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company posted in Fort St. James. Douglas’ rapid promotions led Amelia to Fort Vancouver (near present day Vancouver, Washington) and then to Vancouver’s Island, where Douglas commanded the HBC interests. In 1851 Douglas became the Governor of Vancouver’s Island and then the first Governor of the unified colony of British Columbia in 1858 – a post he remained in until his retirement in 1864. Throughout this period then Amelia Douglas then was at the centre of the development of what ultimately became the Province of British Columbia.

In this same period though, Amelia’s position as the child of Hudson’s Bay Company officer and a Cree woman who had never solemnized their marriage through the Church or formal state processes came to the fore. As was often the case with Indigenous women who had relationships with traders or other early European visitors to their land, her relationship was on tenuous legal ground and in time, despite the fact that they had had two children together, William Connolly abandoned his family and established a new family in Montreal. On his death, the status of Amelia and her brother became a source of legal debate as Connolly’s daughter by his second marriage sought to exclude them from any inheritance on the basis of that they were illegitimate. This controversy took a toll on Amelia who felt excluded by European society and embarrassed by the serious stain that was been cast on her origins. She and her brother fought their half siblings in court and eventually succeeded in having the relationship between William and Suzanne recognized as a true marriage – made in accordance with Cree custom and law – that had not been formally renounced or ended in accordance with either Cree or colonial law. As such, the court ruled, there was a proper marriage in place and Amelia and her brother were legitimate children given the application of Cree law and custom.  Connolly v. Woolrich .(1867), 17 R.J.R.Q. 75 was recognized in Campbell et al v. AG BC/AG Cda & Nisga’a Nation et al, 2000 BCSC 1123 as the first Canadian case to recognize that Indigenous laws existed before the coming of the Europeans and continued after contact.

In time Douglas retired as governor and was knighted and so Amelia became Lady Amelia. She continued to live in Victoria but remained true to her Indigenous roots. She was friends with the Songhees chief who visited her and her children. Two of her grandchildren remember how she taught them Cree and Cowichan stories and songs which her granddaughter Martha Douglas Harris included in a collection of Cowichan and Cree stories she compiled in 1910. In this way Lady Amelia was part of a long tradition of Indigenous women keeping the culture of their people alive in the face of settlement, enfranchisement, and the residential schools system. Amelia, like so many other Indigenous women, ensured that her children and grandchildren heard the stories of their people and learned not to be embarrassed of or ashamed of their non-European ancestry. Instead she taught them pride and ensured that the knowledge of the past was passed into the future.

Lady Amelia — born modestly in the then distant parts of the Northwest Territories — died in 1890 and was laid to rest in Ross Bay Cemetery.