Michael Dawe: In 1892, mayor had little sympathy for victims of racial rioting

There are an incredible amount of dramatic events taking place around the world right now.

Social unrest, in combination with epidemics and economic downturns, is not unknown.

One instance in Alberta, about which surprisingly little has been written, occurred in the summer of 1892, when a race riot took place in Calgary, following an outbreak of smallpox in the community.

On June 28, 1892, a smallpox case was discovered in a laundry located on Stephen Avenue East in Calgary. Those found to be ill and all the others living and working in the laundry were quickly sent to a special quarantine facility set up at the mouth of Nose Creek. The North West Mounted Police were tasked with guarding the quarantine.

As a health measure, the laundry building and all the contents were ordered burned. That caused great unhappiness in the community, as many people lost their household linens and clothing with the measure.

Despite the quarantine, the smallpox spread. Before long, there were several more smallpox cases in Calgary and three deaths reported.

Matters came to a boil on Aug. 2, when the authorities announced that some of those in quarantine could be discharged. A mob estimated at 200 to 300 persons descended upon the local Chinese Canadian businesses and residences. Buildings were ransacked, property was destroyed and several Chinese Canadians were assaulted.

Mayor Alexander Lucas purportedly left town before the riot broke out, so there was no reading of the Riot Act. The Calgary police refused to act. Finally, at 11 p.m., the NWMP intervened.

A number of Chinese Canadians were transported to the NWMP barracks for their safety. Because there was concern that the residence of the medical health officer, Dr. Henry George, might also be attacked, a young clerk was sent to guard it.

He fell asleep, so Barbara George stayed up all night, armed with a poker and an old revolver, in case the mob attacked her home and family.

The Mounties were understandably very upset with the lack of action by the mayor and municipal police.

Lucas initially stated that while he “deplored” the violence, he “understood” the feelings of the rioters against the Chinese Canadians, since by “sheltering” a smallpox victim, the whole community had been “endangered.”

A few days later, Lucas made his official report to town council on the disturbance. Incredibly, he now claimed that after “careful” investigation, he found that “no Chinaman had suffered violence.”

He also stated that since the Chinese Canadians had “ample warning” of the pending riot, they had lots of time to “remove any valuables” before the rioters appeared.

The NWMP, on the night of the riot, had pressed charges against some of the ringleaders. Lucas refused to allow the cases to be heard before a local magistrate.

He also stated that if any of the Chinese Canadians felt they had suffered harm or loss, they could pursue civil actions in court for redress.

Lucas then went to Regina to ask the territorial government for compensation for all the costs he said the town had incurred in dealing with the epidemic.

He argued that the “prompt action in Calgary to suppress the smallpox prevented the spread of the disease throughout the territories” (i.e., Alberta and Saskatchewan).

The $2,500 he asked for (a large sum in those days) did not include any compensation to the Chinese Canadians.

By the end of August, the epidemic had abated. However, six people lost their lives and many more had fallen ill. Moreover, the opening of schools was delayed in case of a new outbreak.

Within a year, Dr. Henry and Barbara George, with their young children, moved to the more peaceful village of Innisfail.

While there, they founded the Alberta Natural History Society. In 1905, Barbara George designed the official crest for the new province of Alberta. In 1907, the Georges moved to Red Deer.

In 1897, Alexander Lucas moved to B.C. He became an MLA and served in the government of Premier Richard McBride. His son later became a justice of the B.C. Supreme Court.

Historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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