Robert Tomlinson: The Man Behind Meanskinisht

In 1867, a young Irishman named Robert Tomlinson landed in Victoria to begin his new life as a medical missionary in northern BC. Over the next thirty years, Tomlinson would work together with the First Nations people to advocate for land rights and establish a utopian village called Meanskinisht.

Though Tomlinson came to Canada with little prior knowledge of First Nations’ people, he had experienced colonialism firsthand in Ireland. Since the 1800 Acts of Union, Ireland was ruled by its English neighbours. Anti-Irish racism fuelled their policies, including national schools that taught only in English and preferential treatment for English Protestant farmers over their Irish Catholic counterparts. The English government also chose to withhold aid during the initial years of the Great Famine. The Famine killed over a million people and drove another million to emigrate between 1845 and 1849. Tomlinson left Ireland just as civil unrest was rising — and arrived in another colony.

Tomlinson arrived in Canada on March 15, 1867. He spent several months in Victoria where he met Alice Woods, and a year later they were married. The two spent sixteen years working in Kincolith and Kispiox. During this time, Tomlinson got to know the different First Nations groups in the area, as well as their customs and languages. He was even adopted into the Raven Clan after two Tsimshian boys noticed a small black bird that Tomlinson had drawn on the corner of his sheets along with his initials, and assumed he belonged to their clan.

Alice Woods Tomlinson and Robert Tomlinson Sr. at Meanskinisht, courtesy of Sue Tomlinson Durbin

By all accounts, Tomlinson’s interactions with the First Nations people he met were respectful, even as he encouraged them to convert to Christianity. Tomlinson first decided to become a medical missionary when three of his siblings died from tuberculosis; he did not charge for his medical services, and was reportedly willing to work alongside traditional medicine men.

By the early 1880s, Tomlinson, Alice and their six children were living in Metlakatla, BC with Tomlinson’s friend and colleague, William Duncan. Duncan was an abrasive character, often in conflict with church leadership. He had been in the northwest for a long time, and started Metlakatla as a self-sufficient Christian community — and somewhere where he had absolute control. Several other villages, including Kincolith and Meanskinisht, would be modelled after Metlakatla, and represented alternatives to government reserves.

Reserves were introduced as a form of government-sanctioned displacement, and are still controversial today. While they may offer some benefits, including distinct political and legal status for First Nations residents, they also represent the carving up of traditional territories and attempted assimilation. First Nations groups were confined — through treaties in Eastern Canada and often less formally in the west — to small portions of their original territories. This was done in order to introduce agriculture and European ways of life on reserves, while freeing up more land for white settlement.

First Nations people were simultaneously deprived of their traditional food gathering methods, and were not given the equipment or instruction to farm properly; in the 1860s, reserve lands were further restricted because of poor agricultural output. The reserves were held in trust by the Crown for band use; therefore, according to the federal government, their First Nations residents did not own the land, and were effectively made wards of the state.

Tomlinson opposed reserve policy on both humanitarian and religious grounds. In 1884, Tomlinson wrote to the Provincial Secretary on behalf of a group of Kitwanga chiefs, including a petition claiming they had been given their ancestral territories by God. Tomlinson infused land rights advocacy with his Christian beliefs, and considered government policy an affront to both.

In a letter published in the Daily British Colonist newspaper in Victoria in 1886, he wrote:

“This [reserve] policy is based upon the fallacy that the Indians are a set of irresponsible beings, ignorant like of what is good for them and how they can obtain this good; that the government without consulting them or listening to their appeals known exactly what is best, and that the Indians should simply acquiesce in these measures and thank the government for proposing them; that any attempt on the part of the Indians to show the government that the proposed measures are sure to prove detrimental to their welfare, is to be looked upon as an attempt to rebel, and must be repressed with force and even the sword if necessary, and that any white man who would endeavour to support the claims of the Indians is ipso facto exciting them against the government. In one word it is a policy of ‘coercion’…”

By 1887, both Duncan and Tomlinson had resigned from the Christian Missionary Society, due in part to its complicity in both the reserve system and residential schools. Duncan and his most loyal followers headed north to establish a new village called Metlakatla, Alaska. Tomlinson had a similar dream, to create a village that prioritized education and religion, and allowed First Nations people to live on their traditional territory even as the country worked to push them out.

Tomlinson approached several chiefs before meeting Chief Joah. Chief Joah was intrigued by Tomlinson’s faith, and what the promised village would mean for the Gitxsan people.

Chief Joah must have been weighing his options: his people were under pressure to move onto a reserve, but joining Tomlinson would also mean a significant change to both their spiritual practices and way of life. Tomlinson’s plan would allow the Gitxsan to live on their territory year round, rather than their seasonal, semi-nomadic way of gathering food. It would also mean converting to Christianity. In the end, Chief Joah accepted Tomlinson’s proposal, and held a feast to mark the occasion.

Tomlinson clearly respected the chief’s right to his territory, as he did not legally require Chief Joah’s consent to purchase the land. Once Tomlinson received Chief Joah’s permission, he and his eldest son Robert Jr. bought the land from the federal government and leased it back to the Gitxsan for 999 years. This was the only way to make the federal government recognize their legal claim to their traditional territory, though the lease was void after Tomlinson’s death.

In 1888, Tomlinson, Alice and their six children (Robert Jr., Alice, Lilly, Richard, Annie and Nellie) came together with eight Gitxsan settlers — Moses, Eliza and Peter Hap; Samuel and Hannah Bright; and Edward, Elizabeth and Esther Stewart — to create Meanskinisht.

Meanskinsht (meaning “under the pitch pines”) was modelled on Duncan’s Metlakatla. It was designed to be a self-sufficient, non-denominational Christian village. It’s founding principles were:

  1. To follow with one heart and mind what is written in God’s Word, and to glorify God
  2. To love one another, and to acknowledge all who love the Lord in sincerity as brethren, and to deal lightly with all men
  3. To be peaceful, law-abiding citizens and to advance in the ways of civilization

These principles clearly illustrate the village’s Christian character and Tomlinson’s vision for the future of First Nations people in Canada. He wanted them to “advance in the ways of civilization,” or, in other words, to become more like European settlers. Though Tomlinson may have believed this would benefit his Gitxsan neighbours, it still demonstrates a level of condescension towards indigenous ways of life.

Unlike previous generations of explorers and colonists, Victorian-era Britons like Tomlinson believed in improving the people they ruled over. This approach was based on the belief that indigenous people around the world were inferior to their English rulers. The Victorians introduced agriculture, Christianity, and English models of government and law — with little regard for the traditional institutions and livelihoods they destroyed in the process — in order to ‘civilize’ their colonies’ native inhabitants.

Though Tomlinson advocated for First Nations land rights, he did so through the lens of Victorian colonialism. And, like many missionaries and colonial administrators, he probably believed that he was acting in the best interests of the First Nations people he encountered. Meanskinisht offered an alternative to living on a reserve and provided education outside of residential schools. However, it’s impossible to say whether the original Gitxsan settlers would have embraced Tomlinson’s project had they not been so marginalized to begin with.

Tomlinson wanted his village to be self-sufficient and democratic. He built a sawmill that was to be the village’s main source of income for decades. He and the other settlers built log houses and a log church that doubled as a school house. Tomlinson believed that children should be educated within their communities, not removed to residential schools, representing another break from federal policy. He taught all the Gitxsan settlers and their children to read and write in English as they did not have a written language. The residents fished, hunted and grew vegetables to survive. They also raised chickens and other livestock, allowing them to live at Meanskinisht year round.

Meanskinisht was a family affair. The Tomlinson children grew up around the Gitxsan people, and Robert Jr. learned to speak their language before he spoke English. Tomlinson’s daughters Annie and Nellie taught in the village school while Robert Jr. ran the sawmill.

Meanskinisht flourished. The population grew to over 80 people and the village was nicknamed “Holy City” because of Tomlinson’s strict rules. Drinking, gambling and tobacco were prohibited, and the entire village shut down on Sundays to observe the sabbath. If the mail arrived by boat on a Sunday, it was left on the shore to be collected the following morning.

Robert Tomlinson Sr.’s pump organ from the church at Meanskinisht, donated to Heritage Park by Haida artist Freda Diesing. Currently on display at Heritage Park.

In 1907 a second church was built to accommodate the village’s growing population. The new church was made from lumber from the Meanskinisht sawmill and donated labour. The only items the community purchased were stained glass windows and a church bell — which, after being displayed at Heritage Park for several years, was recently returned to the Meanskinisht Village Historical Museum.

The village was governed by an elected council of elders. In 1908 Tomlinson left the council and his youngest son Richard in charge of the community while he, Alice and Robert Jr. left to visit Duncan in Metlakatla, Alaska. They stayed until 1912 when Tomlinson and Duncan had a falling out, and the family returned to Meanskinisht.

1913 brought drastic change to the village. Robert Tomlinson died at 71 years old and, shortly afterwards, Grand Trunk Railway construction required that the village sawmill be demolished. The village was renamed Cedarvale and still exists today.

By all accounts, Tomlinson genuinely respected the people he worked with. He had experienced colonialism firsthand in Ireland and disagreed with the federal government’s treatment of indigenous people. He used his privileged position, both within the Anglican Church and as a white man, to advocate on behalf of First Nations people, and Meanskinisht was an extension of that advocacy. At the same time, he thought indigenous beliefs were primitive and savage, and favoured those who converted to Christianity. Meanskinisht represents a common paradox: it was founded in order to preserve First Nations land rights, but also radically altered their spiritual beliefs and ways of life.

Special thanks to Sue Tomlinson Durbin for all her help with researching this article.

Erika Loggin is a recent graduate from Simon Fraser University and will be continuing her studies this fall at the London School of Economics. She is the current Collections Researcher at Heritage Park.

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