Indigenous B.C. treaties, recordings on first Canadian UNESCO memory register

Seven Canadian items, including the works of communications pioneer Marshall McLuhan on display

A mother, son and uncle performed together Tuesday at a ceremony that added British Columbia’s first Indigenous treaties and decades-old recordings of traditional First Nations’ songs to Canada’s national memory register.

Guy Louie, his mother Pamela Webster and uncle Hudson Webster sang the Paddle Song and Farewell Song, using their voices, dances and drum beats to mark the occasion that identifies the music as significant to Canadian history.

The pre-Confederation Douglas treaties, which are some of the only signed land-claims agreements in B.C., were also on display during the ceremony at the Royal B.C. Museum.

The songs are part of a museum collection of more than 500 recordings, transcriptions and handwritten notes made during the 1940s by musicologist Ida Halpern, who travelled to remote West Coast villages to record Indigenous music.

Jack Lohman, the museum’s chief executive officer, said the B.C. items are the first historical materials west of Winnipeg to make it into the national memory archive.

“Each embodies a great moment in history,” he said. “They capture a rare moment of human thought. Both truly are remarkable collections and rightly deserve to be seen alongside of other human achievements in Canada.”

The Canada Memory of the World Register is part of a United Nations program that encourages preservation of documentary heritage. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization strives to safeguard cultural treasures against neglect, destruction and collective amnesia.

Seven Canadian items, including the works of communications pioneer Marshall McLuhan and documents chronicling the discovery of insulin, are already part of UNESCO’s World Memory Program, but were also added to the new Canadian register.

“To get these on the Canadian register among the insulin papers at the University of Toronto, among the Hudson’s Bay archives, that’s putting the Royal B.C. Museum on the map,” said Lohman.

Halpern fled the Holocaust and arrived in Vancouver from Austria in 1939. She had a music PhD, studying the works of classical composer Franz Schubert, and taught music appreciation courses at the University of British Columbia.

But she was drawn to Vancouver Island, the northwest coast and Haida Gwaii looking to record and preserve Indigenous music.

The treaties were signed in the mid 1800s between fewer than two dozen First Nations on Vancouver Island and B.C.’s colonial governor, James Douglas.

The documents, recently translated into Indigenous languages, include hunting and fishing areas and the signatures of tribal members.

The majority of B.C.’s more than 200 First Nations have not signed treaties despite decades of efforts by Indigenous, federal and provincial governments.

After the ceremony, Louie said his great-grandfather Peter Webster sang the songs he, his mother and uncle performed at the museum.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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