LETTER – Please stop sullying the reputation of Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie

Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie.

Dear Mr. Rothenburger,

I agree with your criticism of the proposed removal of Judge Begbie’s statue in New Westminster (I don’t know if the city has done it or not). When the Law Society removed their Begbie statue, I wrote to them (letter attached) but received no reply.

It makes me very angry that the reputation of Judge Begbie (who was never known as a “hanging judge” when he was alive) is being sullied. The rewriting of history to suit modern tastes is a terrible precedent.

Do you think there’s any chance of starting a movement to restore the good judge’s name? I wrote a novel, The Judge and the Lady, (TouchWood Editions) to show people what he was really like, but clearly that’s not enough.


Herman Van Ommen, QC
President, The Law Society of British Columbia

Dear Mr. Van Ommen,

By removing the statue of Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie from your lobby, the Law Society has done a grave disservice to the memory and reputation of the first chief justice of BC.

As you should know, from the meticulously researched biography, …The Man for a New Country, by the late David Ricardo Williams, himself a lawyer, QC and Bencher of the Law Society, Judge Begbie was never called a “hanging” judge in his lifetime. That ghoulish label was affixed years after his death, based on an entirely fictitious story in a magazine.

When Begbie sentenced the six Tsilhqot’in men to death for their killing of the roadbuilders and others, he was adhering to the laws of both Britain and the First Nations. Begbie had learned to speak Tsilhqot’in fluently; he interviewed Klatsassin, one of the accused, and also spoke with the whole group in court. In his Bench Book, he recorded, “I asked them what their law was against murderers. They replied, ‘Death.’ I said, ‘Our law just the same.’”

In a later report, Begbie wrote that Klatsassin was “the finest savage [a term commonly used at that time] I have met with yet. … It seems horrible to hang five men at once. … Yet the blood of twenty-one whites calls for retribution.” Begbie was a great admirer of the First Nations, writing, “My impression of the Indian [also a term in use at that time] is, that they have far more intelligence, honesty, and good manners” than many people of any European country, “England included.”

Removing the statue that commemorates a fair and honourable man does not contribute to making sure that people “understand the truth,” as Grand Chief Ed John is quoted as saying on your website.

The Law Society should not have cast aside the historical record. You have just reinforced the public’s inaccurate and unjust impression of one of the founders of this province.

EDITOR’S NOTE; For an excellent analysis of Judge Begbie’s career and the assassination of his reputation, read the article A Crime Against Sir Mathew Begbie’s Humanity by Maclean’s magazine editor-at-large Peter Taylor in the C2C Journal.

About Mel Rothenburger (6402 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

10 Comments on LETTER – Please stop sullying the reputation of Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie

  1. Tony Brumell // June 9, 2018 at 11:32 PM // Reply

    Nobody knows the truth and where was the proof that the chiefs he hung were guilty.Lets have some hearings that include F/n Chiefs and maybe we can all get closer to the truth.Until then keep the statue out of our sight.

    • Mel Rothenburger // June 10, 2018 at 7:15 AM // Reply

      This is one of the most documented colonial conflicts in the history of our province, including eye-witness accounts, trial transcripts, jailhouse interviews and statements of the accused. Begbie made his decision based on the law.

      • Tony Brumell // June 10, 2018 at 11:04 AM //

        Who’s law ? and of what era ? Maybe white privilage played a part ??? I have an idea !!! Lets re enact the trial using all transcripts used in court but with a separate and independant jury .Maybe have a few First nations chiefs on it .Maybe Ron Ignace or Judy Wilson. or Mike Retasket.I think Western Canada theater would do a good job.Ian Weir could adapt it for theater..The play could be set in the old Kamloops court house where Begby reigned

      • Mel Rothenburger // June 10, 2018 at 1:14 PM //

        Actually, Judge Begbie died 15 years before that courthouse was built.

  2. Robert Fennell // June 9, 2018 at 8:07 PM // Reply

    Begbie’s legacy should be left alone. If one can glean anything from the facts that are available, it is that he was a tough but fair man who adhered to the laws he was given to uphold.

  3. We simply must stop responding to situations that require us to change or alter historical fact, when it happens it is what it is and no amount of tearing down can change that.

  4. Grouchy 1 // June 9, 2018 at 9:00 AM // Reply

    Like apologists, revisionists rule our world. History has already happened, and no amount of rewriting it will change what it was.

  5. Rod Totten // June 9, 2018 at 7:40 AM // Reply

    The PC have not done their homework (research) on Judge Begbie as I remember from when I was in school (in the 60’s) that it was taught that he hung very few people and that both the First Nations and white people respected him as a very fair judge.
    To many people are just getting onto the bandwagon without doing their homework on the destruction of people that did great things for BC and Canada.

  6. Doug Ford // June 9, 2018 at 7:24 AM // Reply

    I for one am disgusted with this latest movement of the politically correct to rewrite our history and try to erase any historical figures that don’t fit the new narrative. Learn your history, learn from your history lest you be damned to repeat it.

  7. Dale Shoemaker // June 9, 2018 at 6:11 AM // Reply

    I agree, after reading this article, he was an honourable man following the law. The statue should not have been removed and the Judges honour restored

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