Finalist, 2021 Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing
An intriguing look at the accomplishments and contradictions of Joseph William McKay, best known as the founder of Nanaimo, BC, and one of the most successful Métis men to rise through the ranks of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late nineteenth century.
When examining the history of British Columbia, one would be hard-pressed to find an Indigenous person who so successfully navigated the echelons of colonial power as did Joseph William McKay (1829–1900). McKay was Métis, born in Quebec, and began his career in Oregon during the dispute over the international boundary in 1845–46. After moving north, he met his mentor James Douglas and, at age twenty-three, was given the job of building the city of Nanaimo from the ground up and establishing its coal mines.
McKay made several exploratory trips with Douglas during the Gold Rush, and he surveyed the route for the Overland Telegraph, which ran throughout BC. He rose through the ranks of the Hudson’s Bay Company, eventually earning the appointment of Chief Factor, the company’s highest rank. This was at a time when few Indigenous employees of HBC were permitted to rise beyond the rank of postmaster.
After leaving the company in 1878, McKay began a second career in the Department of Indian Affairs. He was a federal Indian Agent and later the Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs for British Columbia. A product of his time who had found personal success working within the colonial system, McKay is a complicated figure when viewed through a twenty-first-century lens. He advocated on behalf of Indigenous Peoples when he tried to prevent the trespass of CPR crews and European settlers on their ancestral land. Between 1886 and 1888, he personally inoculated more than a thousand Indigenous people with the smallpox vaccine. Yet, he also participated in a system that did untold harm to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. This fascinating new biography sheds light on an accomplished and complex man.