Category Archives: Violence and War

My Scary Trip through Ukrainews, Victoria

When it comes to complex international issues, does following the news increase or diminish our understanding?

I want to talk about something that’s difficult to talk about in person: Ukraine. But not the actual place or events surrounding it, which I know less than nothing about. (Emphasis on less, an issue I’ll return to shortly.) I want to discuss the local Victoria aspect of “Ukraine”— which is more influential over my own life.

It seems we’re talking, writing and posting online about Ukraine a lot more than we used to. We debate what’s happening there, who’s to blame, and even about what actions we should be taking: providing financial support, boycotting, brokering negotiations, sending troops, the whole gamut.

So what caused this local cultural shift? Events in Ukraine? Many dramatic international events happen that we don’t talk about. And even though a million Canadians have some Ukrainian ancestry, many more have German or Irish ancestry, and I haven’t noticed any heavily-funded Victoria-Ukrainian PR operations. So I’m guessing it’s safe to suggest that this shift has been caused by the upsurge in news media reporting about Ukraine.

I find that extremely concerning because the reporting that’s reaching most Victorians tends to be misleading and utterly de-contextualized, and can’t be trusted as a basis for reasonable conversations. Read the rest at Focusonline.

Infected at Birth

150 years ago, on August 2, 1862, the townsite of Fort Victoria was incorporated as the City of Victoria. But while Victorians get ready to don their party hats, a new book by Tom Swanky presents evidence that the circumstances surrounding that birth are nothing to celebrate.

 Originally published in Focus, July/August 2012.

Most written histories of British Columbia record that an unknown, ill traveller—what modern epidemiologists would identify as a “patient zero”—arrived with smallpox in Victoria on March 12, 1862, on a ship from San Francisco called the Brother Jonathan. The British Colonist newspaper reported that the smallpox case was “not considered a dangerous one,” so the disembarking passenger was not detained or quarantined. Yet in fact, Patient Zero would within days ignite one of the most devastating epidemics in Canadian history. That’s why Tom Swanky interrupts right here and asks: Is any case of smallpox ever “not dangerous”? Who promoted this falsity, and why?

A former news editor and businessman from Quesnel with a law degree (University of Alberta) and a degree in political science from UVic, Swanky has spent much of the past ten years uncovering and re-examining the facts of the calamitous smallpox outbreak of 1862. Even by conservative estimates, this outbreak killed tens of thousands of indigenous peoples within 15 months and completely reshaped this province’s cultural and political landscape.

Swanky began his study when helping his filmmaker son write a screenplay about the 1862-64 Cariboo goldrush and Chilcotin War. Historians agree the period was a seminal turning point in modern British Columbian history, but Swanky kept noticing that most whites describe the smallpox epidemic that began in Victoria as accidental and incidental to the major events, while most First Nations oral history sources say the epidemic was deliberately orchestrated and pivotal.

“I made a transition from writing a screenplay to trying to figure out what actually happened,” says Swanky. “It became a mystery that I had to solve.”

So Swanky conducted interviews with indigenous descendants of eyewitnesses, delved into books, archives, and nineteenth-century newspapers which have only recently become indexed in databases, criss-crossed the province giving presentations and soliciting new information and, this May, finally released his self-published book, The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific. In it, Swanky builds an expansive, detailed and complexly interwoven evidentiary case that smallpox was deliberately spread, through a plan masterminded by Victoria’s colonial leaders, in an effort to eradicate BC indigenous peoples and steal their land. “This was ethnic cleansing,” he says. “This was an instance of genocide.”

The notion is not in principle preposterous—for example, an eighteenth-century British forces commander famously proposed using smallpox as a weapon against American Indian populations. But Swanky’s bold analysis cries out for independent evaluation and discussion.

However, that will take time. Swanky self-published so he could ensure the story was told “in a responsible and respectful way.” Unfortunately, various self-editing decisions make the book challenging to digest. Swanky takes a crime-solving approach and tells much of the complicated history going backwards in time, too often paints over weaker evidence with strident speculating, and struggles to distinguish between the truly significant and abjectly minor (there are two pages about the linguistic roots of a nickname). Nevertheless, it’s still an epic piece of scholarship, with an admirable respect for First Nations’ perspectives and nearly a thousand footnotes, which no experts familiar with Swanky’s work are dismissing out of hand.

John Lutz, a University of Victoria professor and author specializing in BC history hasn’t read Swanky’s book yet, but has had discussions with him and seen one of his presentations. Lutz is intrigued by some of what Swanky’s detective-like approach has uncovered.

“Nobody’s looked at the Chilcotin War or the smallpox epidemic in the same depth he has,” comments Lutz. “His ability to connect Cavendish Venables [involved in surveying the road from Bella Coola] and A and B and C and D and track them over the province is astonishing. I’ve never seen anybody do that.” Lutz is also keen to examine the relationships between government, land speculators and developers Swanky has dug up. “I haven’t done the kind of corporate connection research—and nobody has honestly, before Tom—to make all of those links. I think that it’s remarkable in its own right, the whole history of those companies and their relationships.”

Anthropologist Marc Pinkoski, who has taught indigenous studies and BC history at UVic and in his community-based Free Knowledge Project, managed to get through half of Swanky’s 500-page tome by press time.

“It’s quite amazing in that it’s so different. It’s such an affront to the history that we’re normally told,” says Pinkoski. “It’s impressive…But at the same time it makes my head spin.” Because Swanky’s book is so provocative and vast in scope, says Pinkoski, it’s going to take time for independent historians to cross-check facts and sources and develop their own perspectives. “It’s very challenging and very important, and I still feel cautious about the conclusions, the data, all of it.”

Grand Chief Stanley Stump of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, where most of the book’s action occurs, is chairman of the Chilcotin National Congress and a descendent of prominent leaders killed during the Chilcotin War. He’s spoken extensively with Swanky over the years. Does his community see Swanky’s understanding of their history as accurate? “Yes, we do. From our stories of our elders that I remember, a lot of it had to do with smallpox.”

Even Swanky admits, though, it took years of study before he was ready to accept what he was uncovering. “My mind just wasn’t open to the awfulness of it,” he says. “It just seemed so terrible.”

So what was Patient Zero’s actual condition, why did authorities allow him to roam freely, and where did he go? To answer these questions, it’s crucial to first understand the context into which he was walking, says Swanky.


“Fort Clique”

By 1862 in Victoria, smallpox vaccine—made from cowpox virus—was generally available, effective and safe. It had replaced inoculation, a much older form of prevention, in which a tiny amount of smallpox virus was inserted into a cut to produce a mild form of smallpox followed by immunity, but the patient was still dangerously infectious for weeks. With smallpox spreading through air, quarantine was the only safe approach. Considering the knowledge and experience colonial authorities had from previous epidemics, they undoubtedly knew all this, says Swanky. “These guys are not ignorant about smallpox. They’re not naïve about any of this.”

And who are “these guys”? Although they’re somewhat dishonourable in most historians’ accounts, by the end of Swanky’s investigations it’s difficult not to feel as though our early colonial authorities were a tight-knit cabal of power-hungry, profiteering, racist thugs.

James Douglas—previously Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor and agent for HBC’s colonization arm, the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC)—had recently been appointed governor of the Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Islands and British Columbia colonies. This made Douglas “the unchallenged controller of political and commercial affairs,” wrote George Woodcock in British Columbia: A History of the Province. Despite a straw-man elected assembly, wrote Woodcock, “No approach had been made towards responsible government…Douglas ruled in Cromwellian style…” His leadership team of mostly former HBC associates included top physician (and Douglas’ son-in-law) Dr John Helmcken, Vancouver Island Chief Justice (and Douglas’ brother-in-law with no legal training) David Cameron, top BC judge (with no criminal law training) Matthew Begbie, PSAC manager Dr William Tolmie, and Surveyor-General Joseph Pemberton and his uncle, Victoria Police Commissioner Augustus Pemberton. Newspapers often referred to Douglas’ incestuous, powerful inner circle as “the Company Compact” and “Fort Clique.”

But Swanky draws particular attention to colonial second-in-command and Douglas appointee Attorney-General George Cary, who was described even by Helmcken as “very brilliant” but “not overburdened with the ordinary ideas of right and wrong.” Cary’s acts of despotism, violence and greed were infamous—he frequently brawled and once tried to covertly purchase Victoria’s public water supply from under it. One Grand Jury complained about Cary’s in-court “outrages of decorum committed with impunity.”

Racist attitudes infused these leaders. For example, Victoria as a trade centre by 1862 had grown to a population of 8,000 with nearly as many local and northern natives as European colonists and, in an official report to Britain, Douglas lamented the “troublesome and disagreeable” presence of all these indigenous “savages” and “barbarians.” Even though Europeans had been settling here for only 20 years, and had barely ventured into the BC interior, Swanky’s book highlights the astonishing speed and presumptiveness with which colonial leaders sought to impose their wills, laws and ways of life on all indigenous nations.

The broader social and economic context, says Swanky, was important, too: Fur trading was declining, colonization increasing. British law required colonial governments to make treaties and land settlements with First Nations, but the British government had told Douglas they wouldn’t be providing money for such efforts. Without treaties, though, the influx of Europeans marching deeper into BC towards interior gold fields was sure to foster bloody conflicts with indigenous peoples, as had happened elsewhere.

According to Swanky, all this set the stage for what came next. “They have to solve this problem of how do they deal with native occupancy, and how do they deal with control of resources,” he says. “The colonial project cannot proceed as long as the Indian regimes are in place. Because the Indians will not accept the British institutions. That’s the reality. They know that.”


Disease is spread

Fourteen days after Patient Zero’s March 12 arrival in Victoria, smallpox symptoms were appearing amongst children at the Songhees village. But Swanky points to something other historians haven’t: It takes 10-14 days for someone who has contracted smallpox to become visibly symptomatic or infectious. Therefore, Patient Zero must’ve personally infected those children. “This timing shows that, after leaving the Brother Jonathan, the first carrier immediately visited the reserve and spread the disease there,” says Swanky.

Many of the local Songhees soon moved to Discovery Island and familiar forest areas to quarantine themselves, and would relatively successfully wait out the coming calamity. And that’s further evidence, points out Swanky, that it wasn’t only colonial authorities who were knowledgeable about smallpox by 1862—natives often sought vaccinations and practised quarantining.

So why did the disease rapidly fly out of control amongst northern natives living in encampments in and around Victoria?

On March 31, as smallpox spread amongst the natives, top physician Helmcken publicly rejected any plan to quarantine ill colonists because that would be “alarmist” and restrictive of liberties. Helping quarantine natives wasn’t even discussed. “They never consider the issue of quarantine for anybody,” says Swanky. “And they don’t consider it from the beginning.”

Swanky found three independent reports indicating that, at the end of April, the smallpox was limited to 20 or 30 people in two Tsimsian settlements near where the disease had first emerged. “The disease is confined and it looks like it’s actually under control,” says Swanky.

But on May 1, police suddenly began attacking entire native settlements, driving the natives out and burning homes by the hundreds. And Swanky noticed something else no historian before has: Various nations had their own distinct settlement areas, and police ran these raids on them like clockwork 10-14 days apart. On May 1, police hit the Tsimsian settlement in Rock Bay; on May 10-12, they attacked the Tsimsian near the Songhees reserve and Haida near Rock Bay. On May 26, police burned all the Haida homes at Ogden Point, and then the Haida settlement at Cadboro Bay on June 9.

“This two weeks apart, as you’ll recognize, is the rhythm of the disease,” says Swanky. Considering how smallpox spreads, he explains, authorities did the most dangerous thing they could possibly have done. With each village burned, the bedlam forced the ill and the healthy to mix, and in turn to flee to the other nearby native camp areas. Two weeks was the precise time it then took for a new generation of people to become infected and infectious, and then they were all forcibly scattered and mixed again.

By mid-May, halfway through this exercise, chaos reigned and natives from all nations were dying daily around Victoria by the scores. “I have never witnessed such horrible scenes of death, misery, filth, and suffering before,” wrote a religious leader.

Natives were also constantly being driven north—twice, hundreds of natives were rounded up, put in canoes and escorted by colonial gunboats to villages up both sides of the island and along the coast.

“What this does is it ensures that there are new people with the disease at each one of these expulsions,” says Swanky. “And then they go up in waves. Up the coast every two weeks there’s another wave of smallpox infected people.”

Were the colonists trying to protect themselves?

“This whole epidemic does not occur in the European population,” says Swanky. “The Europeans have all been vaccinated, there’s no sense of panic amongst the Europeans, they carry on just as they always have.”

And indeed, near the height of the chaos in mid-May, the British Colonist reported, “there are no white persons afflicted with smallpox in Victoria and only one at the hospital.”

“This is an ethnic cleansing exercise underneath, and the disease is being used as an excuse,” argues Swanky. “Because diseased or healthy natives are treated the same way. They don’t target the disease, they target Indians.”

Did it simply show an appalling lack of concern for the natives?

“It’s way beyond a lack of concern with helping them,” responds Swanky. “That’s how they try to pass it off, is that they’re just not concerned. ‘We stood by innocently and watched them die.’ That’s the good story…That’s as innocent as it gets.”


Over their graves

By the end of June, there was no cohesive native group left in Victoria. Police Commissioner Pemberton reported to Governor Douglas that “since the tide of immigration [of northern natives] set in, the town has not at any time been in a healthier state…”

When news reports surfaced that nearly 1200 natives lay in a mass grave next to a makeshift native hospital, the commissioner said the claim was “exaggerated,” because he’d personally paid for the burials, per body. Nevertheless, amidst his descriptions of various costs, Pemberton side-stepped stating the actual number buried there.

“Who knows what’s accurate? He’s a participant in the genocide and he’s trying to minimize the effect,” says Swanky. “It’s significant that he’s very careful not to give a number.”

Pemberton further claimed that all the northern native groups had been offered free vaccinations, but had refused them for some unknown reason.

And though most white historians have put all these police actions down to a mixture of fear, “bias”, and chaotic lack of control without genocidal intent, notably, colonial journalists weren’t so apologist. A June 17, 1862 Victoria Daily Press editorial, for example, wrote that the government’s decision to drive the natives away would “disseminate the fell disease along the coast. To send with them the destruction perhaps of the whole Indian race in the British Possessions on the Pacific. There is a dehumanizing fatuity about this treatment of the natives that is truly horrible—a callousness to suffering humanity that one can scarcely credit…”

Douglas soon took management control of vacated Songhees reserve land, and Europeans moved quickly to take control of land previously occupied by natives from the north. Within the year, the British Colonist would write, “From every indication, all the unoccupied land in the neighbourhood of Victoria will soon be taken up.”

But Victoria was only the beginning, says Swanky. BC’s colonial leaders had bigger prizes in mind.


Rush to the western terminus

By 1862, a race was already in full flight between political and business leaders in Victoria and New Westminster in the lower mainland, to establish which fledgling metropolitan centre would become the endpoint of the transcontinental rail and road corridor and the British gateway to the Pacific, with all the power and riches that would entail. New Westminster’s candidacy was hampered by an assessment that the Fraser River’s swift currents and steep banks made it unsuitable as a western terminus. Meanwhile, Bute Inlet and Bella Coola (on Bentinck Arm) both offered excellent ocean-access points deep inland to join a potential route through the BC gold rush region to Fort Edmonton. Ships would be routed from these ports to Victoria.

So Victoria’s leaders were pushing for Bute Inlet or Bella Coola (both occupied by indigenous populations). But prior to Swanky’s research, no historians knew how hard they were pushing, and how deeply invested they were.

“I came across this guy called Edward Green and I couldn’t figure out who he was,” says Swanky about how he first fell upon the plans in a seemingly insignificant news article. “I contacted several people in Victoria, several historians…and nobody knew who Edward Green was or who he was connected to.”

Swanky found documents indicating Green was an acting manager for two companies, the New Aberdeen land syndicate and the Bentinck Arm Company (BAC). “Eventually I discovered he was a personal friend of George Cary, the attorney general, and then it turns out the attorney general is the other key investor in this whole scheme.”

That led Swanky to a web of business dealings at both potential Pacific gateways.

According to Swanky, Joseph Pemberton, Tolmie and Helmcken had made substantial investments in efforts to get control of land and road rights at Bute Inlet.

Similarly, Attorney General George Cary steered the New Aberdeen land syndicate, whose stated mission was to gain control of land at Bella Coola. Cary was also operational director for the Bentinck Arm Company, whose mission was to build a toll road from Bella Coola into the Fraser River near the interior gold fields. Bypassing his own commissioner of lands, Douglas had quietly issued a licence to build that very road to his personal friend Ranald McDonald, who’d quickly transferred it to Cary’s Bentinck Arm Company in return for money and shares in BAC. Were Douglas, Helmcken, Pemberton and Tolmie directly invested in BAC as well? Even in the context of a later lawsuit against BAC, says Swanky, “Cary refused to disclose who the other shareholders were, even to the court.”

Around this same time, Douglas ordered Pemberton and Begbie to write arguably the most important and controversial law in BC history: The Pre-emption Act. Essentially, this stipulated that anyone could stake a claim on land that was unoccupied and then register to own it. However, indigenous peoples weren’t notified about it and, in fact, would soon be explicitly excluded from using this new law. Even worse, points out Swanky, the Pre-emption Act created a potentially lucrative motive for investors to try to get indigenous peoples off the high-value valleys, waterfront and trail routes they’d been occupying for centuries.

“In order to enjoy the lands,” Swanky explains, “they have to get rid of the Indians that are on top of the land.”


Smallpox travels

Swanky’s book then tracks through many different sources the movements of several parties of people who seemed to leave smallpox epidemics behind wherever they went.

One group included Jim Taylor, who staked land at Bentinck Arm, had a close relationship with Tolmie, and would later be accused by several prominent Europeans of deliberately spreading smallpox.

Another group was led by Francis Poole, who would later admit amidst “many mournful hours of reflection” that men from his party started a smallpox epidemic at Bella Coola. According to Swanky’s findings, though, Poole was responsible for more than he admits. Poole’s group left Victoria in the summer of 1862, then left two men with smallpox behind  in Nanaimo. The group then left two more men with smallpox at Fort Rupert. Then came Bella Coola. Poole left two more men with smallpox behind at Nautliff village (“to the tender mercy of the savages,” wrote Poole) and again two more with natives at Chilcotin Lake. According to eyewitnesses, First Nations villages were decimated in all these places within 30 days. In his book-length memoir, Poole never disclosed the supposed intent of this junket nor who funded it, but his entire journey had followed the exact route of the proposed transcontinental transportation corridor, where colonial road houses and ultimately towns were projected to grow and New Aberdeen and BAC were deeply invested.

Swanky’s contention is that, first, Poole’s men were being inoculated with smallpox. “The probability is near nil that the disease would occur in just two men at a time, every few days,” contends Swanky. “After diseased passengers were found at Nanaimo, it was inconceivable that the rest would leave unvaccinated. Nanaimo had doctors and vaccine…Fort Rupert had vaccine.”

Second, he suggests, these men must have gone from home to home breathing on natives because of the unnatural speed and extent of the spread of the epidemic (and Swanky says numbers of indigenous oral historians have stated that this happened). “I think it’s impossible that a natural epidemic would have occurred the way this did,” says Swanky. “This whole epidemic occurs along where there are colonial interests.”

Douglas’ friend and BAC director Ranald McDonald had a similarly remarkable spate of smallpox related “accidents.” Swanky locates him on the Brother Jonathan’s passenger list with Victoria’s “patient zero;” at Bella Coola when Poole’s party introduced smallpox there; at the Cariboo goldfields when smallpox started there; and on it goes. “So he’s either the unluckiest guy on the face of the earth or smallpox follows him around for some reason,” comments Swanky.

Swanky has also found records indicating these colonial leaders and their associates were registering land claims under the Pre-emption Act shortly before or after smallpox epidemics depopulated and freed these lands from native occupation. One particular “tipping point” for Swanky’s own conviction about the deliberate planning at work occurred when he discovered that George Cary went to New Westminster to register New Aberdeen’s Bella Coola land claim on June 10, 1862.

“He went there the same day that they introduced smallpox at Bella Coola,” says Swanky. “And I recognized that that could not be by chance. That the attorney general, who was the governor’s legal advisor, had foreknowledge that they were going to introduce smallpox at Bella Coola to clear the land for the New Aberdeen syndicate.”

Going against more common lower estimates, Swanky used newspaper and other eyewitness writings to calculate that, by mid-1863, some 100,000 natives had died in the biggest, fastest massacre in Canadian history.


Purged history?

In The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, anthropolgist Robert Boyd wrote, “The 1862-63 smallpox epidemic served as the final blow to the Native peoples of British Columbia and paved the way for the colonization of their lands by peoples of European descent.”

In this context, Dr Helmcken’s published reflections on these years take on a chilling new quality: “[W]here once the aborigines were omnipotent we now reign and will be obeyed: The survival of the fittest…All men must die. Indians obeyed the mandate perhaps a little earlier than they otherwise might. Socially, probably, their death is of little consequence; politically, it may be of more importance…they are Indians still. The breed remains and will require a great deal of crossing to make a superior race.”

Swanky calls our dominant history’s apologetic dismissals of evidence such as this “wilful blindness.”

“It shows that, in essence, this is an ongoing genocide,” says Swanky. “Because we deny that it happened and we cover it up.”

If we’re seeking explicit planning and confessions, Swanky adds, Douglas’ executive council probably discussed these operations in the months leading up to Patient Zero’s arrival on March 12, 1862. However, in the pertinent section of the official Archived Journals of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, there is simply this note: “Minutes of the Council between 6 Feb. 1861 and 19 March 1862 have not been located in either the Provincial Archives of BC, the Public Archives of Canada or the Public Record Office, London.”

“The Council minutes have been published in five volumes, it’s 3,000 pages, they cover the entire colonial period,” observes Swanky. “This is the only period that’s missing.”

Swanky’s book tracks more missing records, and also investigates in detail other provocative questions: Were several corrupt doctors infecting blankets? Were repeated allegations that Helmcken provided ineffective vaccines true? Who struck a Tsilhqot’in leader’s key testimony about smallpox from the court record of Begbie’s most famous Chilcotin War trial, and why?

It still seems difficult for many of us to call it genocide, though.

In his own research, historian John Lutz says he’s personally felt colonial leaders were not so much malevolent towards indigenous peoples as “callous” and “patronizing but paternalistic.” He’s seen only what he would describe as selective, “conjectural,” and “circumstantial” evidence for charges of genocide. “The more convincing explanation,” says Lutz, “is that smallpox is simply an efficient killer.”

While much of Swanky’s evidence does seem circumstantial enough to have alternative possible explanations, on the other hand, he provides abundant examples of murderous intent. How destructive, coordinated and convincingly explicit does it have to be before we call it genocide? And when trying to answer that, we must consider that use of a biological weapon like European smallpox would in any case never leave as clear an evidentiary trail as German gas chambers, Hutu machetes or Bosnian bombs.

Either way, Lutz agrees the topic is well worth examining and discussing further. “I think the smallpox epidemic of 1862 is the most important event probably in modern BC history and we don’t know enough about it. Tom does us all a service by reminding us that this is a really important event that needs to be understood, both its causes and its impact. And we’re overdue in that.”

Chief Bev Sellars of the Xat’sull Nation agrees. She saw one of Swanky’s presentations and was “amazed” and “impressed.”

“There’s a lot of the history of aboriginal people, the smallpox being a big part of it, that the rest of Canada and the world doesn’t know,” she says. “So anything that brings to light the real history of aboriginal people in this country is important.”

“I think that it needs to be put out there,” says the Tsilhqot’in’s Stump. “I would say that these people that will be reading this book, I think they need to have an open mind as to what we went through.”

“I’m not going to go forward and say this is the true history of BC. I don’t know,” says Pinkoski. “I think the real strength is that this book raises these questions and that it’s getting us to talk about this.”

For his part, Swanky is glad to have others more closely review his research, but he has no expectation of change.

So why has he spent ten years digging all this up? “I’m not a politician or an activist,” he says. “It’s just so important it takes on a life of its own. It sort of becomes a duty.” But he does feel the facts compel us somewhere. “Our task is like the innocent third party receiver of stolen goods. We shouldn’t feel guilty because we didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t steal this. But it then becomes our responsibility to divest ourselves of these, or to get to the original owner and see them restored somehow.”

Swanky and I take a stroll from a coffee shop, and then stand together on the edge of a grassy area in Vic West where the old maps, newspapers and letters have told us a mass grave for hundreds of northern natives lies, forgotten even by descendants of their long-departed brethren. There’s only the trumpeting of the wind, passing cars, and distant children to commemorate the moment.

“The first time I was here I felt…” Swanky’s words dissipate. Then he begins again. “It feels like you can get a sense of what was going on at the time. The panic and the disease. You can get a sense of that, if you just stand here and close your eyes…”

I ask him if this place symbolizes his ten-year effort.

“Yes,” Swanky replies. “How do you take a picture of nothing? How do you describe something that isn’t there? That’s the challenge of this story, isn’t it? It’s the documents that are missing. It’s the graveyards that are missing. It’s the Indians that are missing…It’s the absence of recognition in the historical record…How do you call attention to that?”




The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific by Tom Swanky is available at Camas Books or can be purchased through

Let Me Tell You Why

Someone blows up a bus or a building or a bunch of people, and then everywhere, every time, a universal, almost archetypal cry goes up asking, “Why? Why?! How could anyone do such a thing? What kind of a person would do this? Why?!” And the question is always repeated everywhere in the media, too, even as they splash the blood and guts across every screen and page: “Why?!”

And it’s an understandable question. You might ask it yourself sometime.

When soldiers in airplanes blast your neighbourhood into the stone age and everyone you know and love is mangled or killed, you might ask, “Why?”

When your child is caught under the bombed rubble, unreachable, screaming to her death, you could ask, “Why?”

When you’re stumbling alone through the burning city with your skin dripping off your charred bones, you probably will ask, “Why?”


Well, I can tell you why.

Let me tell you why.

Because we glorify killing. Around the world, humans have glorified killing. We build monuments to warriors and honour them on anniversaries of battles.

And we teach our children to kill. We tell them that war can be important, noble and beautiful. We tell them killing can bring peace. Killing can be a moral, righteous act, and sometimes it’s the best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and your country — even the only way. Killing can be an expression of the deepest love. Killing can be God’s work. We tell them war has toppled evil, godless tyrants and liberated legions of the enslaved and downtrodden. We tell them that often through history the real, final solution has not been widespread changes of heart, not insight, not creative cures, not concession, not diplomacy, surrender or compromise; we say killing was the cure. Killing has been a natural, normal act throughout human history, we tell them, and preparing to kill is sober and wise.

We even advertise it. Would you let a serial murderer praise the greatness of killing on a series of primetime television commercials about being the best you can be?

Yes, you would. You do.

And we’ll pay them to kill. We take teenagers who may be lonely or depressed, who may have behavioural problems, who may have sexual confusions, who may be spiritually vacuous or filled with religious or political propaganda, who may not be particularly intelligent or sensitive, who may know little of life, who may drink alcohol often, who are simply teenagers, who may have grown up in a culture obsessed with portrayals of gratuitous violence either aggrandized or imaginatively, grotesquely splattered, and we encourage them and pay them to enter into training to learn to kill on command without questioning.

Then finally we act surprised. We act shocked and outraged when our soldiers rape women and murder children. When they torture with glee, when they wantonly massacre families, we all wonder in supportive togetherness, “Why?”

Of course, there’s nothing at all surprising about it. Let’s get this straight: We practise and endorse an official policy of training hormone-charged, out-of-control kids to kill. Duh.

And then we support and encourage each other in reacting with utter shock when some of these kids end up uncontrollably killing. What th-?? How stupid are we, exactly?

And of course, basically, this whole charade of pretending we don’t understand the true nature and consequences of what we ourselves believe and do makes us look like such pathetic, stupid, ugly, violent hypocrites, that some people sometimes become overwhelmed with a desire to kill us.

Kind of obvious really, isn’t it?

So that’s why.

Next time, you’ll understand.

The Yoga of Imprisonment

Between rocks and hard places, flexibility is desperately needed.

I taught yoga at the prison for five years. If you’ve ever taken yoga, you know it’s common in the first class for instructors to ask if anyone has had any major injuries or surgeries during their lives. It’s a safety protocol, so the instructor can provide extra guidance to vulnerable students. Typically, two people in 20 mention a car accident or appendectomy.

My first day teaching at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, though, was different.

“I broke my hand when I punched a guy a few weeks back,” explained one inmate. He followed that with an incredible childhood tale of an abusive father, run-down truck, and backyard scrap heap. “My feet were crushed.”

Read more

The De-indoctrination of Sgt. Nikolai Lanine

Nineteen years ago, former Soviet soldier Nikolai Lanine lost many friends in Afghanistan. Last August, he lost a relative in the Canadian army. Now, he worries that we’re making the same mistakes the Soviets did, and part of the problem, he argues, is our “Sovietized” media.

Nikolai Lanine didn’t know Corporal Andrew Eykelenboom. Nevertheless, at his funeral in Comox, Lanine was overcome with memories and emotions.

Having just moved to Victoria in 2000 with his Canadian wife and two sons, Lanine hadn’t met his young cousin-in-law from Edmonton before he was killed in Afghanistan last August. So while feeling terribly for the family’s loss, the painful memories and emotions being stirred up inside Lanine came mainly from another place and time altogether.

Nineteen years earlier, Lanine had been drafted into the Soviet Union’s army and sent to Afghanistan. Many of his friends died there. Certain he’d long ago left that behind, it was a nightmarish experience of deja vu to be at yet another soldier’s funeral in Canada in 2006.

Some would say no meaningful resemblances exist between the communist “evil empire” invasion and occupation that utterly devastated Afghanistan, and today’s NATO efforts to assist in stabilization and democratization there. But his experiences in Afghanistan lifted a veil of propaganda from Lanine’s eyes, and now he worries that, in fact, we’re making many of the exact same mistakes today that the Soviets did.


Nikolai Lanine was eleven years old when troops of the former Soviet Union marched into Afghanistan in 1979. Far away in Kamchatka, Russia’s north pacific peninsula, only in his teens did he begin noticing the news reports.

“I read some things about it in the newspaper; mainly that we were there to help the Afghan people to build a stable society,” says Lanine. He didn’t pay much heed. “I was interested in going on camping trips with my friends and reading Jack London’s books about Alaska.”

In late high school, however, it struck home. Lanine’s best childhood friend, two years older, had been drafted to Afghanistan. “We were standing outside, in a group. It was dark, it was winter. Somebody walked up to us and said, ‘Sergei was killed’. It was a mix of shock and fear and disbelief.”

Lanine is eager to talk, but I eventually also discern a certain circumspection. He often qualifies his feelings, or recounts emotionally difficult stories in fragments. He’s told me about his best friend’s death and about a ghastly surprise attack on several occasions, before I finally put together that Sergei was in that group of soldiers who’d been ambushed and savagely mutilated, then executed.

“The idea was in my teenage mind that there’s gotta be a good reason he died, and the people who killed him must be very wrong or very bad who did that.”

The next year, like every Russian of eighteen, Lanine was drafted.

“[Sergei] made an ultimate sacrifice,” Lanine thought at the time. “It wouldn’t take much from me just to go do my two years; it was not much to ask.”

After training, he was driven into Afghanistan in 1987, eight years into the Soviet military intervention.

“It was medieval,” remembers Lanine. “Biblical. Mud houses, mud compounds, poor peasants bowing to the local rich guy… And everyone was armed to the teeth.”

At the remote mountain base, for many the army dress had been stripped to jogging pants, t-shirts and flip-flops. But a menacing tension pervaded like the weapons ready-to-hand everywhere.

“Guys who were just one year older than us, their faces looked like they were ten or fifteen years older,” recalls Lanine. “And you could overhear people talking about who got shot, what happened to that guy, what happened to those prisoners, how they were taken away and the Afghan government executed them… The whole background was unbelievable.”

His new platoon commander barked, “What are you doing here?”

“Fulfilling my international duty to help people in other countries,” Lanine replied.

Soon, that reply would not come so automatically.

Once a rich, diverse cultural hub, when ships revolutionized commerce, the landlocked, centrally-located Afghanistan became “less a country than a highway along which armies, peoples, religions and cultures moved” wrote John Fullerton in The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The legacy of turmoil and unforgiving terrain, he added, created a fierce “fighting tradition”.

Why did the Soviets invade? The Soviets stated they were “invited” by Afghanistan’s “legitimate” government to “suppress terrorists”, and to help “stabilize” and “reconstruct” the country. Soviets themselves had already suffered terrorist attacks, and with 50 million Soviet Muslims near the border, the central government “Politburo” certainly had reason to want to quell growing extremism in Afghanistan.

Ardently committed to understanding his past, Lanine’s library includes 1980s articles from Soviet state newspapers Pravda and Izvestiya. He translates sections to illustrate how the military intervention was presented.

“Working together, Soviet and Afghan government forces this month successfully cleared Kandahar of insurgent activities. Now, driving through the city, one can see reconstruction work resuming.”

“The goals of the new Afghan constitution are to establish peace and guarantee the rights of all Afghans. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what the terrorists are fighting against.”

“Fundamentalist extremists recently burned a new school for girls and executed the teachers. The terrorists don’t spare any means to disrupt the process of stabilization.”

Lanine says these humanitarian perspectives, remarkably like those in contemporary Canadian news and opinions, weren’t just official propaganda; many Soviet citizens genuinely felt them, including him early on.

“We wanted to stabilize the situation through our presence and help the warring parties to reconcile and stop the fighting,” the former Commander of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan would tell CNN even many years later. “We had set ourselves the task of turning Afghanistan into a stable, friendly country.”

That’s another reason Eykelenboom’s funeral brought back so many difficult memories, Lanine adds. The personal eulogies, politicians’ condolences and military tributes “were basically repeating quote after quote things I’d heard before… We said the same kinds of things at our funerals. That it was done for the higher purpose of helping the Afghan people. For establishing a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan, and protecting women’s rights, and having a better future for children.”

Conversely, though Lanine had no access to western media then, he’s since learned what most North Americans over 40 remember: These Soviet claims that they were trying to “help” Afghanistan were ridiculed as twisted propaganda by western leaders, pundits and organizations across the political spectrum. Motives regarded as actually plausible included blatant colonizing, propping up an unpopular pro-Soviet regime, creating a buffer zone, expanding towards a warm water port and, most importantly, reaching for oil.

The Soviets had advanced into “a strategic position that poses a grave threat to the free flow of Middle East oil”, announced U.S. President Carter.

In any case, few believed the Politburo was so naïve as to think anyone would actually stabilize and help Afghanistan by sending in combat troops. “The Russians called their operation ‘temporary and limited’,” summarized a 1980 London Times article. “If they believed that were true, their military appraisal and their knowledge of Afghan history and character were seriously awry.”

Western counterspin didn’t stop there. Not unlike what some Arab countries are doing today, anti-communist U.S. President Reagan soon dubbed violent Afghan rebels “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers”, and sent waves of covert aid, including to the early Taliban and Osama bin Laden. This massive U.S. support transformed disparate, ragtag Afghan mercenary bands into major, modernized fighting forces. And though the despotic, misogynist religious beliefs and merciless savagery of many factions was hardly veiled even then, a 1985 state department statement exclaimed, “The Afghan freedomfighters–the mujahidin… are writing a new chapter in the history of freedom.” A typical Los Angeles Times article called for heaping “admiration” and “military hardware” on Bin Laden’s “courageous” ilk.

In retrospect, it’s doubtful if, beneath all these layers of propaganda, many outsiders could still have seen the true perspectives of average Afghans. And this was the quagmire into which eighteen year old Nikolai Lanine stepped.

Soviet forces immediately came under siege while hurriedly buttressing the Afghan government, army and police. Like NATO since 2002, they then launched counter-insurgency operations, relying heavily on air bombings, search-and-destroy operations, and house-to-house invasions to “root out” the “terrorists”. But also like in more recent years, the slapdash governing system faltered, and the hammer-fisted combat operations mainly started converting average Afghans into enemies. Reconstruction slowed, destruction skyrocketed.

By the time Lanine arrived, the Soviets were choosing battles more carefully and primarily trying not to make things worse. “A lot of it was, well, shoot if we have to, but we’re not going to actively seek opportunities to engage,” he describes. “It was a so-called ‘policy of a national truce’, trying to pacify the resistance by one-sidedly stopping active fighting.”

His own unit mainly performed counter-insurgency operations along supply routes. And like NATO’s “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” today, they also tried to win hearts and minds. When not fighting, Lanine’s unit delivered food, firewood, clothing, school books and other supplies to ordinary Afghans, built hydro lines, protected Soviet doctors working in villages, and loaned trucks for home construction. Also like today’s PRTs, they gathered intelligence and forged alliances by giving weapons or training that empowered certain warlords or factions over rivals.


Unfortunately, says Lanine, all of this together principally created widespread distrust and shifting allegiances. “There were some villages around our base which had support for us. But some other villages you wouldn’t even go in their direction, even to help them, because the population was very hostile.”For similar reasons, a coalition of 160 international relief agencies has requested NATO basically shut down PRTs.

And maintaining “stability” amidst all this, explains Lanine, also much like NATO is experiencing today, became an intermittent but never-ending barrage of low-level fighting.

Skirmishes typically erupted between small numbers over weapons shipments or control of small pieces of territory. “I kind of doubt the military value of it, in terms of gaining military advantages.”

Lanine worked a grenade launcher with a 2 km range. “Often, you don’t even know who you’re shooting at. You see fire flares going in a place where they’re not supposed to go, so you open fire. You don’t know who you killed or didn’t kill.”

Didn’t he question the wisdom and morality?

“You’re given orders to go somewhere and hold some patch of land for a few hours, and the way back home lies through that patch of land,” he explains as any soldier would. “You see what’s in front of you, and say, ‘Okay, we better get the job done.’

In addition, he clarifies, whenever he saw someone he knew who’d been injured by the enemy, “it put things in black and white very quickly. And when I was shot at personally… You don’t have much time to have philosophical thoughts.”

Nevertheless, as layers of indoctrination peeled away, philosophical thoughts crept in.

Previously, Lanine had never known much about Afghans. “Like now,” he notes. “Who is the suicide bomber trying to attack Canadian soldiers in Kandahar? You don’t see that side of the story; it was the same in Soviet media. They’re bad guys, terrorists, bandits. Yet their right, the right of people to resist a foreign armed presence, wasn’t even considered. It was taken for granted that whoever resists us must be bad.”

Through interpreters and “on an intuitive level”, he says, he began to see “not everyone was just a political fanatic. They were just regular people; a lot of them who’d lost family members.”

Lanine shows me excerpts from his old journals where he’s struggling with his growing moral doubts after their unit, in an accident tragically similar to a 2002 U.S. airstrike, mortared an Afghan wedding. And after he saw an infant wounded by Soviet shrapnel, and fellow soldiers’ acting abusively towards villagers, he wrote, “I’ve realized this war is not as righteous from our side as I had perceived it to be before.”

One day, these growing sensitivities to Afghan perspectives erupted.

He was mired in malarial fever, slipping in and out of consciousness during a ride back to base.

“I was sick, and I was unarmed, and it was the first time I was on the road in Afghanistan with no weapons,” he recounts.

They passed an Afghan whom Lanine knew as someone who’d implausibly survived such brutal and lengthy torture that he’d attained legendary, holy status. He lived at the entrance to a major valley passageway, yet all sides left him alone. “Only Allah can kill him now,” said the locals.

This time, Lanine’s soul was gripped by the man’s face and body, “broken at every angle you can imagine”.
“I started feeling all that misery he went through, like something you and I cannot even understand…”

Lanine has written a memoir about it: “Inside the hot, dusty truck, I gasp for air like a fish… [The holy man] stares at me with his single, scarred eye, and I feel that I start to fall apart… My will to resist disease and to shut off the brutality of life is gone. I start shaking and crying without tears. My belly contracts in a painful twist and I open my dry mouth, but no sound comes out. My mouth stays frozen open and I don’t understand if I’m wailing or vomiting…my last connection to reality snaps…”

Lanine goes on to describe experiencing an immense, empathetic, almost metaphysical pain for this solitary man.

“There were very few moments when I could let down my guard, let the emotional wall down and allow myself to feel,” he says. “It was one of those days that they say changes your life.”

Arriving at the base’s mud-shack clinic, Lanine maneuvered through bodies of Afghan government soldiers whose helicopter had just crashed.

“People were lying on the ground… they were broken, most of them were unconscious… and there was a lot of blood on the floor, because I remember actually stepping in it, and it was already getting coagulated, sticking like maple syrup or honey… I could hear somebody’s leg being amputated with a manual saw… One guy was putting his hand up towards me…”

Lanine now found himself sympathizing deeply with every Afghan on all sides, understanding them simply as humans, just like him, caught in chaotic, miserable circumstances. “It was very hard to go back to the initial state of emotionally disconnected observer.”

This heart-rending experience reinforced an enduring personal revelation.

To elucidate, Lanine describes once leading a squad which included a new recruit. It was pitch black and roaring with wind. Suddenly, they heard a shot, incomprehensible voices, and screaming. Lanine found the recruit with a gaping bullet wound in his leg, his bone fractured and artery severed.

“He was severely bleeding. And I was literally holding my palm over his pulsing blood. I could feel it between my fingers.”

Lanine called out defensive commands and swung into emergency first aid. Simultaneously, a new sensation emerged out of his deepening moral confusion about his role in Afghanistan. Upon learning later he’d saved the young man’s life, he fully grasped that sensation. “It was that whole, almost indescribable feeling of doing something unequivocally GOOD. There was no doubt. There couldn’t be anything wrong with [saving a life]… And nothing I experienced in my life to that point could compare to that feeling of gratification.”

Lanine later learned that, terrified and seeking a way out of this war, the young man had shot himself.
Yet even after all these revelations, Lanine admits, “I went back to my role as a soldier, behind the emotional walls.”

Today, however, Lanine is studying nursing at the University of Victoria.

Through 1988-89, the Soviets withdrew. “I don’t think anybody questioned why,” comments Lanine.
Estimates say 15,000 Soviets and 1.5 million Afghans had been killed. One-third of Afghans were refugees. And haunting flashbacks to horrified faces told Lanine there’d be still more deaths.


“Some people were crying out, ‘When you leave, it’s going to be the end of us!'” he recalls. Many Afghans had worked with the Soviet-backed government or simply lived peaceably with them; they were now exposed to revenge attacks by resistance groups. “And it was the end for some of them, as I learned later.””I don’t feel good about it,” concludes Lanine. “Would I do it again? No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t go back… The whole decision-making process [of the Politburo] was so incompetent and so flawed, and the consequences of that were devastating.”

The Soviet Commander in Afghanistan himself publicly conceded, “[W]e should have refrained from introducing our troops into Afghanistan.”

But it was the final fall-out which taught Lanine a penultimate lesson. Once Soviet combat troops withdrew, instead of launching coordinated disarmament and together calling for independent peacekeepers, both superpowers left the warlords to battle their differences out over the bodies of the civilian population. To Lanine, this disastrously illustrated that, underlying all the self-aggrandizing bluster from westerners and Soviets alike about their noble intentions in Afghanistan, there lay a basic lack of real concern for the Afghan people themselves.

It upsets Lanine to see it happening all over again. He recognizes the Soviet intervention was orders of magnitude worse, due to its sheer scale. But it wasn’t, he argues, fundamentally different than NATO’s intervention today. They’re both, says Lanine, “acts of aggression”, where foreign armies try to make a nation fit their vision for what it should be. Afghans themselves, he points out, like the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, make the comparison, too.

The other obvious parallel, he adds, is the most insidious: the propaganda. He calls it our “Sovietization”. He points to government gags on reporting the Canadian wounded, for example. After 9/11, he particularly noticed the increasingly self-righteous drumming as Bin Laden, the Taliban and the “failed state” of Afghanistan were portrayed this time as purely tyrannical agents of destruction that arose out of some unknown wellspring of evil, and therefore could only be changed positively through violence.

“Nobody was really seriously discussing the roots of the whole militant Muslim movement in Afghanistan. It was very shocking for me, how wrong the memory was. It wasn’t something I expected to see here,” says Lanine. “I couldn’t believe how much a supposedly democratic society was shifting towards unquestionable acceptance of war.”

Yet since Canadians are freer, and have more access to information than Soviet citizens in the 80s, we have an even greater responsibility, he suggests, to educate ourselves and learn from history. “Unfortunately, I don’t get the sense that people really understand what they’re getting themselves into.”

Indeed, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls’ new book, Bleeding Afghanistan, contains reams of evidence dispelling many common beliefs about our impacts. The authors describe in detail botched elections, a government riddled with notorious warlords, shocking setbacks to women’s rights, legalized private and religious militias, civilian massacres, and stalled reconstruction, all fueling popular disaffection. As a result, with the U.S. still refusing to allow UN peacekeepers anywhere but Kabul, attacks against NATO forces have increased fourfold this year to 600 monthly and rebels effectively control over half the country.

“I’m not sure what we should be doing,” comments Lanine. “I only know that what we’re doing right now was tried before, and it failed. Are they feeling better about being bombed by NATO than they were under the Soviets?”

For their part, our leaders keep calling for more combat troops. But the Soviets used six times as many as NATO currently, and still described it as “fighting an octopus with one hand”. And it wasn’t confidence-inspiring in September when the Scottish aide-to-camp to the Commander of British forces in Afghanistan quit while describing NATO’s general strategy as “grotesquely clumsy” and “completely barking mad”, with too much “bombing and strafing villages”.

According to Kolhatkar and Ingalls, we should do what surveys show most Afghans want: Bring in peacekeepers under UN control. Stop hunting combat. Make disarming sufficiently lucrative. And direct reconstruction money through grassroots, Afghan-led initiatives that give poor Afghans employment, rather than through multinational contracts.

Lanine agrees, but advises patience: “There’s no quick fix.” Apart from the political conundrums in Afghanistan itself, Lanine believes we foreigners must solve our own tendency to worsen matters by confusing our propaganda for unequivocal fact. “We have that ability, to a certain degree, to believe people who are opposing us must be wrong. It must be us who are right. People are capable of dehumanizing their enemy.”

Though it’s emotionally difficult, and he recognizes some people won’t like his perspectives, Lanine feels compelled to speak out. He says he wouldn’t want to see his boys, both Canadian, sign up for a war “where, again, incompetent decisions are made by incompetent people with huge consequences to everybody else.”

Distraught about yet another death, Lanine recently visited the casket of a local Canadian soldier. He sat for a long time in the empty room, wanting to write something to the family. He couldn’t think of what to say, and departed.

“After so many years of trying to find meaning in my best friend’s death, I failed,” says Lanine. “Sergei was part of something very big and very wrong. Just because he was such a good guy, it doesn’t make it right.”
Originally published in Focus magazine January 2007.