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category: Biography & Autobiography
published: Jul 2021
publisher: Heritage House Publishing

Joseph William McKay

A Métis Business Leader in Colonial British Columbia

by Greg N. Fraser

tagged: native americans, post-confederation (1867-), pre-confederation (to 1867)

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.

About the Author
Greg N. Fraser is an educator with a long-time interest in the history of western Canada. For thirty-three years, he taught Canadian, BC, and Indigenous history in the Vernon and Nanaimo school districts as well as a first-year Canadian history course at Okanagan University-College. Since retiring from full-time teaching, he has continued his career at the post-secondary level, including a course on Canadian prime ministers at Vancouver Island University Elder College, where he was on the board for ten years. Joseph William McKay: A Métis Business Leader in Colonial British Columbia is his first book.
  • Short-listed, Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing
Editorial Review

"Greg N. Fraser’s fast-moving biography of Joseph William McKay is a thought-provoking contribution ... in studies of the Métis in British Columbia."
BC Studies

"This is a non-opinionated, unambiguous, solid, and easily accessible work for readers of all ages."
BC BookWorld

"Fraser’s biography provides us with an excellent introduction to a man who played a very important role in the founding of Nanaimo and more significantly in the history and development of modern British Columbia."
The Ormsby Review

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