Cod, beavers, doctors, the Rubik’s cube, and BC Day

My beloved wife is in the unreachable depths of her dementia. She often wakes up in the middle of the night with moans and groans of unexplained etiology. She is being looked after by our highly valued caregivers, but her cries do wake me, and my mind goes in all directions before I fall back to sleep. The other night I was tossing and turning and somehow (how?) Rubik’s cube came to my mind. That clever puzzle has always defeated me but its challenge keeps reminding me of the human condition: facing bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence to solve at least some of them. The reality is, however, that while failing to solve the cube’s challenge may lead one to frustration, solving human challenges often leads to unintended catastrophic consequences.

These thoughts coincided with my intention to write a blog about BC Day. On the first Monday of August we celebrate the people of BC and their accomplishments, and we will have family fun, picnics, and fireworks. As doctors, we might celebrate Drs John McLaughlin (1784–1857), William Fraser Tolmie (1812–1886), John Sebastian Helmcken (1825–1920), James Trimble (1818–1885), Israel W. Powell (1836–1915), and several other physicians of the 1800s, not so much for their medical accomplishments but for their leadership, which brought the land that now we call British Columbia from fragmented colonial status to its provincial presence and eventually to the membership in the Canadian Confederation. 

The historical events in the 1800s that brought these physicians to prominence represent unique moments that are interwoven with the whole, like the individual colored cubicles of Rubik’s cube.

The story starts in the mid-1500s. Hunger in Europe and search for food in the Atlantic Ocean led to fishing for cod in the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn led to contact with long-time inhabitants of the East Coast of today’s Canada. Observing the value of beaver fur worn by the Indigenous people led to an immensely profitable beaver-based fur industry to satisfy a demand for felt. And what was the felt used for? Top hats, lady’s hats, and military head gear. In the next 200 years the beaver population in the East was killed off—one click on my historical Rubik’s cube unit—right or wrong—and that led the fur business to reach out for the beavers believed to thrive in large numbers in present day British Columbia. Another click to solve the historic Rubik’s puzzle: how to overcome the then-impenetrable Rocky Mountains? Humans’ intelligence led to exploration on foot from the North, and by ships (taking 8 months to go around the bottom of the world to the Pacific Northwest). 

The newcomers finally reached the hidden territory in the early 1800s, and met people whose ancestors have lived on the islands and the mainland for some 15 000 years. The Hudson’s Bay Fur company and their competitors sent doctors to this remote place, including our revered Drs McLoughlin, Tolmie, Helmcken, and others, not only for their medical knowledge, but for their trustworthiness—and because they could read, write, and make decisions in truly difficult situations. Solving the organizational, transportation, human resource management, and other bewildering problems of the fur-harvesting enterprise again required the triumphant intelligence of the human mind, but the consequences to the Indigenous population still reverberate today. 

Then more of the historical Rubik’s cubicles remained to be turned the right way or the wrong way. In the 1850s the accidental discovery of gold and other natural resources on the mainland brought hordes of people to the territory with demands for roads, food, social order, and some semblance of law. Coincidentally, the extermination of beavers and the change in hat fashion from felt to silk led to the collapse of the fur industry and the associated business-based colonial political developments. 

Agricultural and industrial developments opened up, and stable settlements formed, all of which led to changes in the political field. The then recently formed Vancouver Island House of Assembly voted to unite with the other colonies of the territory, royal assent was received to form the new Province of British Columbia and to relocate its capital from New Westminster to Victoria in 1868. 

Turn the historical cubes to the next challenge to be solved. The small local European population had to decide to join or to stay out of a confederation with the newly formed Dominion of Canada. Each of our physician forefathers mentioned above had crucial leading roles in all of the political manipulations and developments of the times. Almost as an aside, they introduced public health measures and established regulatory bodies for the practice of medicine. 

But the challenge of my historical Rubik’s cube is still unsolved. One cube is sticking: I have not elaborated on what we do not like to mention: the intended or unintended exploitation of the Indigenous people, the resulting decimation in their numbers, the irreparable damage to age-old cultures, and their palpable political, social, economic, health, and many other issues still demanding solutions.

So with my unfinished illusory Rubik’s cube in hand, on BC Day I will first salute the countless generations of the original people of this land and their achievements, then close my eyes to acknowledge our helplessness to change the history that engulfed them.  

After a while I will re-open my eyes to reality. In contradiction to my conflicting emotional responses to events of the past, I will salute the doctors who in their bewildering circumstances selected a path to where we are today, and where I, an immigrant to this country, have lived safely and happily for 71 years. 
—George Szasz, CM, MD

This posting has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJEditorial Board.

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