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.