Biological Warfare in the Pacific Northwest

Settlers enjoyed a seeming free permission: to dispossess natives at will of all the best land, turn them out of traditional fishing locations, disrespect elders, women, children and religion, leave whole communities without political representation and punish men for breaking laws which they could have no means of knowing existed. It was inconceivable that all this change could happen overnight without violence. Instead, there was the greatest imaginable violence: genocide.

— Tom Swanky, The Great Darkening

The charge of genocide in the colonial-imperialistic dispossession of the Original Peoples of Turtle Island, in particular the northern landmass designated Canada by the dispossessors, is rare, but it is not new. As contact and conflict with Europeans became more frequent, the Beothuk, after whom the term Red Man was coined, came under increasing pressure and finally ceased to exist on the island they once inhabited, nowadays called Newfoundland.1

Professor David Stannard revealed, in his book The American Holocaust, that the monumental genocide had enveloped the entire western hemisphere.2

Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal host Holocaust museums dedicated to the Shoah. There are, however, no Holocaust museums dedicated to the genocide against Original Peoples in Canada. It is not acceptable to suggest or claim a “homeland” genocide within most spaces in Canadian society if one wants to be taken seriously.

Yet others have dared to charge genocide. Robert Davis and Mark Zannis wrote a book titled The Genocide Machine in Canada.3

Kevin Annett, a former Anglican minister in the logging town of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, charged genocide had occurred during the Indian Residential Schools period, in which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and submitted to deculturation. For that Annett was defrocked. This did not silence Annett’s conscience, however, and in the Annett film Unrepentant, 50,000 Indigenous school children are claimed to have perished untowardly.

greatdarkening_DVSome people are aware of the letter written by Jeffrey Amherst strategizing biological warfare against “the disaffected Tribes of Indians.”4 This genocidaire is memorialized by an eponymous city in Nova Scotia, a province erected on Mik’maqi, the traditional territory of the Mik’maq Nation. That smallpox caused devastation among First Nations in British Columbia (a province whose territory is, for the most part, unceded by First Nations)5 is known by many. Tom Swanky, a lawyer, has studied in depth the Great Calamity and finds that the smallpox epidemic was not purely an act of nature. He wrote the deeply researched The Great Darkening: The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations Resistance (Burnaby, BC: Dragon Heart Enterprises, 2012).

The Great Darkening is a book that analyzes lethal historical events in the Pacific northwest province of BC. Swanky’s legal background and expertise are apparent throughout the book. As he examines the evidence, he identifies the genocidaires, their motives, and how the crimes were committed. He discusses the historical record and narratives, the documents (extant and missing), testimony, etc., and he pieces it all together in a coherent and riveting charge. His verdict is clear: the colonialist apparatus — its brain trust and all its cogs and wheels — is guilty of the monstrous crime of genocide.

Swanky argues that First Nations retain sovereignty; what they have lost is de facto control over their sovereignty, but legally (and morally) they still retain their sovereign rights as nations. The colonialist administrations and legacy administrations of colonialism refuse to entertain this legality. Bruce Clarke, a PhD lawyer, knows this well, having fought unsuccessfully for several years to have indigenous sovereignty addressed in Canadian and international courts. This legal route is blocked.6

Swanky writes, “The ongoing failure to address these wounds with honest diligence and good faith leaves the whole country weakened by a festering abscess.”

The only image that exists of Klatsassin. Archive

The only image that exists of Klatsassin. Archive

The Great Darkening takes the reader on a historical forensic tour of much of BC, and the reader will be introduced to several of the First Nations in the telling. The Great Darkening tells of colonists desiring to reach gold fields in the province’s interior which meant surveying the construction one possible route through the territory of the Tsilhqot’in, a people inhabiting the plateau in BC’s Coast Mountain range. The road crew arrived at Bute Inlet at the tail end of a deadly smallpox epidemic. Suspicious of the origin of the smallpox, the Tsilhqot’in did not welcome the Europeans. In 1864, Swanky informs that 14 or 15 Tsilhqot’in warriors killed 13 of the 20 settlers working a joint venture with the Bute Coast Tsilhqot’in. Thus, war had broken out. A militia was dispatched to hunt the Tsilhqot’in warriors. After much unfruitful tracking the colonialists changed tactics and lured Klatsassin, a Tsilhqot’in leader, and seven of his men under a flag of truce to smoke a peace pipe. It was a dishonorable deception, and the Tsilhqot’in were taken prisoner, tried in colonial court, and five men were hanged.7

Swanky comments,

Given the context, the number hung, their status as officials, the size of the crowd and the stunning disrespect for the dead, is this perhaps the most telling silence in the whole founding of Canada? 100,000 indigenous people died in mere months. How would Canadian historians treat a similar European death toll? Native survivors said the Colony used weapons of mass destruction to kill them.

Describing the trials of the Tsilhqot’in as show trials, Swanky compellingly flays the so-called legal process, calling into question the very legitimacy of colonial jurisdiction and law. The colonists, he writes, “had gained no more color of right, so it would seem, than some fanciful mobsters terrorizing a neighborhood where some few held a business license.”

On the dereliction of the Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court of Canada, which has a duty to make this case, consistently has failed to do so. Nor would any Canadian court today welcome a foreign power attempting this same precedent to avoid Canadian law. Imagine China making rules governing its nationals working in Ottawa for a Chinese entity created under Chinese authority. Would Canadian courts accept these rules as superseding Canadian law? Then imagine those nationals pretending their rules gave them a legitimate right to try, convict and hang our Prime Minister.

While teaching BC history to Chinese students, I asked them to consider the situation in terms of their own history when the British, Portuguese, Germans, French, Russians, and Japanese came and carved out colonial fiefdoms in China. Did they see this as legitimate or acceptable on any level outside the morally reprehensible claim that might makes right? None ever have.

Who was behind the genocide? The Great Darkening points its finger at corporations (Hudson’s Bay Company/Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company and other companies), the colonial administration, speculators, miners, the Church, military, police, newspapers, colonists (Swanky refers to them as “settlers”), and doctors.

How was the genocide carried out? Succinctly put, smallpox was deliberately seeded in First Nations throughout BC. Why? Because there were non-White people occupying land where valuable resources were located, where White people wanted to put roads through to get to valuable territory, where good land for agriculture was situated (never mind that it was already under cultivation by First Nations), because land, per se, is a valuable commodity, and racism: hatred of the different Other.

Heading the colonial outpost for HBC was a man highly regarded in BC lore and history, James Douglas.8 Douglas had low regard for Indigenous peoples referring to them as “savages” and “barbarians.”

James Douglas

The Great Darkening describes Douglas, “A glorified clerk, Douglas had no education, training or experience in statesmanship or nation-building.” More scathingly, Douglas “seems a murderer, a thief, an outlaw, a usurper, a liar, a profane violator of sacred customs, prone to abuse of authority and a keen practitioner of amoral virtues.”

The Douglas Regime saw First Nations “dispossessed, subjugated, and marginalized. All this was illegal under both systems. But the Calamity rendered native systems ineffective and natives had no access to the Colonial system, except as its victims.”

The tool to dispossess the First Nations was devised by Douglas’ colleague, Matthew Begbie, the hanging judge of the Tsilhqot’in “martyrs,” who drafted the Pre-emption Act.

For the Tsilhqot’in, the issue is clear: a war to prevent smallpox at Bute Inlet had been authorized in the usual way. “We meant war not murder.” This was a just war of self-defense, against the “Whites,” under any view even of European international law dating to Aquinas in the 13th Century.

It was genocide for land. “Natives ‘universally believed’ settlers deliberately imported the disease to kill them for their land.”

The Great Darkening explains how the smallpox was spread, who did the spreading, and who were the master planners — Douglas and his ministers.

Among those accused in the spread of smallpox among First Nations are physicians, violating the medical creed of doing no harm. Dr. Deschene is called “the medical mastermind behind the smallpox genocide” while Drs. Helmcken and Tolmie are complicit.

The scope of the review precludes going into details on the “methodical genocide,” but The Great Darkening gives an example:

Simple: send infected people from house to house methodically breathing on as many as possible. Each house then would have at least one disease carrier to expose the whole house before anyone knew the disease was there. They would start dying in about two weeks; most would be dying or already dead in 30 days. If no one has any other reason to be suspicious, the perpetrators can be a week away before the disease breaks out. With the whole community exposed, defensive measures would be futile. This was what targeted attacks with smallpox used as a weapon of mass destruction looked like.

The genocide was followed by dispossession.

Besides motive, the evidence shows premeditation, opportunity, access to the means used in the crime and an operational connection with those who applied the means. All in all, proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Provincial authorities denied genocide, which trapped “unthinking historians and educators later … committing the crime of complicity in genocide through inflicting serious mental harm to survivors and descendants of the victims by assisting or endorsing the perpetrators’ paths of denial. Indeed, denial of its true history by the dominant group seems one sign of a still ongoing genocide. That seems the probable truth of our case.”

Douglas ordered the expulsion of all Indigenous peoples from burgs, smallpox infected or not. Infected people were kept moving among an unprotected population exacerbating the epidemic. Writes Swanky, “Once again, this proves genocidal intentions.”

“While elders across many native nations have always taught that these smallpox epidemics were genocide, Canadian historians instead have lent their own authority to Colonial propaganda created to mask the operation and provide deniability.” This suggests something about the wider society of non-Indigenous Canadians. It seems there are two choices: 1) Indigenous people are deluded or liars, or 2) they are telling the truth. If the Indigenous narrative is veracious, then it seems the historians have been either ignorant, biased, or complicit in a cover-up of genocide.

What should about the high crimes and dispossession? Swanky says some kind of restitution must be made.

The Great Darkening presents extensive evidence and discussion; I took copious notes from the book, and the scope of the material in this review can only reflect a veneer of the historical and evidentiary record that leads to the author’s conclusion.

The book is well footnoted and comes with many maps and timelines that summarize and provide a geographical and chronological perspective for the reader. The writing flows, but at times I felt irritated by reading of actors without knowing who the actors were. I also wondered why in choosing his analogies, Swanky chose countries demonized in the western state/corporate media, such as China, Iraq, and Iran. Why select a narrative conforming to a media that marginalizes and disinforms about its own history vis-a-vis its Original Peoples? For example, in a digression, Swanky writes, “Canada has recognized the attack on Halabja as a crime against humanity. The Iraqi government there used a weapon of mass destruction to kill 5000 Kurds.” No sourcing is provided to support this claim made by “Canada” — an entity whose legitimacy and credibility Swanky has called into question. The claim is disputed.I know well because I grew up where the mountain behind my parents’ house was named after Douglas, and I went to a high school named after the mountain named after Douglas, in a city, Camosack (colonial designation: Victoria) where the main street was named after Douglas.9

If ignorance of our history leaves us open to recommit the follies and crimes of our ancestors, then knowing and grasping the impact of the Great Calamity has profound significance for contemporary society. Therefore, despite some quibbles, The Great Darkening should be read and contemplated by those people who care deeply about justice and social justice.10


  1. See Ingeborg Marshall, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996) and Telefilm Canada, Vanished in the Mist: Lost Newfoundland, Part 1 (Toronto: Lynx Images Inc., 2002).
  2. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (London: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  3. Robert Davis and Mark Zannis, The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North (Montreal: Black Rose, 1973).
  4. “In July 1763, General Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, sent a memo to colonel Bouquet, a Huguenot in the service of England, asking:
    ‘Could it not be contrived to send the Smallpox among the disaffected Tribes of Indians?’
    Bouquet replied: ‘I will try to inoculate the Indians with some blankets that may fall into their hands and take care not to get the disease myself.’
    Amherst answered: ‘You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets.’”
    In Daniel N. Paul, We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Press, 2000): 165.
  5. Although I use the term British Columbia (BC) throughout this essay, I do so reluctantly and without granting legitimacy to such a designation; I know of no indigenous designation for this colonially demarcated landmass that was shared among many First Nations.
  6. See Bruce Clark, Justice in Paradise (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999) and Splitting the Sky with She Keeps the Door, The Autobiography of Dacajeweiah, Splitting the Sky, John Boncore Hill: From Attica to Gustafsen Lake (John Pasquale Boncore, 2001).
  7. BC high school textbooks equivocate on the deception. See Michael Cranny, Graham Jarvis, Garvin Moles, & Bruce Seney, Horizons: Canada’s Emerging Identity (Don Mills, ON: Pearson, 2009).
  8. I know well because I grew up where the mountain behind my parents’ house was named after Douglas, and I went to a high school named after the mountain named after Douglas, in a city, Camosack (colonial designation: Victoria) where the main street was named after Douglas.
  9. See Don Sellar, “Did Saddam Hussein Gas His Own People?: Reality Checks Needed During War,” Toronto Star, 1 March 2003.
  10. I finished this review on a day when the local newspaper contains an article in the back pages about the legacy of colonialism: a dead girl. See Chinta Puxlay, “’Colonialism’ killed girl: lawyer,” Times Colonist, 25 July 2013, A9. The seeds of genocide continue to reap a harvest.
Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.