Matthew Begbie was the first Chief Justice of B.C. following Confederation in 1871.  He has been characterized as a  resolute and fair upholder of British law and order, a true Victorian who did his duty, and as a cruel and arbitrary jurist.

His Career

  • Nov. 16 1858 Begbie arrived in Victoria on. The following day he left with Gov. Douglas for Fort Langley on the Fraser River,
  • Nov. 19, 1858 new colony of British Columbia was proclaimed. Douglas and Begbie swore each other into office.
  • 1859 Begbie, though a member of the judiciary, was appointed to the Executive Council of British Columbia. This unusual blending of the judicial and executive functions was necessary because Begbie was the only man in the colony with legal training
  • 1859 Aliens Act, written by Begbie, passed into law.  Allowed for naturalization of aliens after three years residence in B.C.
  • 1859 Gold Fields Act also drafted by Begbie set out the rules and regulations for the mining of gold in British Columbia.
  • January 1859 he accompanied Colonel  Moody and a party of Royal Engineers up the Fraser River to quell an insurrection that had broken out among the miners at Yale and Hills Bar. Begbie convened court and tried ringleader, Ned McGowan.  Begbie imposed a fine for assault.
  • February 1859. Begbie walked from New Westminster to what is now Lillooet and back (a journey of approximately 350 miles) to familiarize himself with the mining population of the Fraser River.
  • 1860 Pre-emption Act, the main feature of the Colony’s land-settlement policy, also drafted by Begbie.
  • 1860 He  walked from New Westminster to Kamloops and back to explain the Gold Fields Act to miners and gold commissioners.
  • Along with Sir James Douglas he worked to counter the move to American annexation.
  • 1865 alone he rode about 3,500 miles to hold assizes in mining camps and small towns all over the colony.
  • He espoused the rights of Chinese  opposing a head tax on Chinese immigrants.
  • In 1860 he told Gov. Douglas that Indians (First Nations) held land rights that must be recognized.
  • Fought efforts to displace Indians from their homes.
  • Became fluent in Shuswap and Chilcotin language in order to understand they cases without an interpreter.
  • Persuaded Ottawa to preserve native fishing rights on the Fraser River.
  • Wrote provincial legislation giving Indian common-law wives of white men a share of his estate if he died intestate.
  • 1864 “Chilcotin War” breaks out. Fifteen whites are killed.
  • Aug. 15, 1864: Eight Chilcotin warriors including chiefs Klatsassin, Telloot and Tapitt come into meet Gov. Seymour. They are arrested.
  • Sep 28-29, 1864: Judge Begbie presides at the trial of Klatsassin and the eight others. Five are found guilty of murder.
  • October 26, 1864: Klatsassin and four others are hanged.

“We have all heard of the sacredness of the pipe of peace … among the Indians,” Judge Matthew Begbie wrote to the governor of B.C. on Sept. 30, 1864. “It seems horrible to hang five men at once, especially under the circumstances of the capitulation.”

  • July 1865 another Chilcotin chief is tried and executed in New Westminster
  • 1872 Begbie commites four Indians convicted of attempted murder to the custody of a missionary rather an impose the death penalty.
  • 1875 He is knighted by Queen Victoria in a private ceremony at Balmoral Castle.
  • 1890 Begbie refuses to imprison a group of strikers at the Nanaimo coal-mines despite their repeated violations of court orders.
  • Throughout his career he championed the underdog. Under his judgements, 22 Indians were hanged  He obtained a reprieve for 11 others.
  • He tried 52 murder cases but hanged only 27 convicted murders, despite rigid sentencing rules of the time.
  • Oct. 26, 2014: B.C. Premier Christy Clark and members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation  (Chilcotin) participate in a redress ceremony, the 150th anniversary of the hanging of five of the six chiefs. The province issues an apology.
  • April 13, 2017 Law Society of B.C. announces it will remove statue of Judge Begbie from its lobby.

You be the judge. Is Sir Matthew Begbie a hero or a villain?  Leave your vote in the comments.

Note:  I have used the word “Indian” rather than “First Nation” as that was the term used during Begbie’s time.  I have also used the spelling Chilcotin, rather than Tsilhqot’in, for the same reason.

SOURCES: Canadian Heritage and University of Victoria

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