Did Governor James Douglas Deserve to be Knighted?

Grades: 5-12

Courses Key Topics
Author: Lindsay Gibson
Editors: Roland Case, John Lutz and Jenny Clayton
Historical Researcher: Jenny Clayton, PhD, Department of History, University of Victoria
Developed by: The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2)


Upon retirement as the Governor of both the Vancouver Island and British Columbia colonies in the spring of 1864, Queen Victoria honoured James Douglas by making him a Knight. Officially he was made a Knight Commander of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath. He was given this award for the “performance of public personal duties to the crown that have merited royal favour.” The appointment of a knighthood to “Sir” James Douglas, as he was now known, was high recognition for Douglas, who emerged from humble origins as the son of a Scottish merchant and Creole woman in British Guiana. “Sir James Douglas’s career as governor has been a remarkable one,” an official at the Colonial Office acknowledged. “He now quits his two Govts. leaving them in a state of prosperity, with every prospect of greater advancement.”

In this critical thinking lesson, students assume the fictional role of a “Knighthood Reviewer” for the British Government who has been asked to investigate unsubstantiated claims that Douglas’ actions in three incidents during his time as governor were not worthy of a knighthood. Students begin by identifying the important positive and negative aspects of Douglas’ time as governor. They investigate primary and secondary sources from one of three assigned case studies to determine whether or Douglas’ actions were worthy of a knighthood. After presenting their evidence on their assigned incident, students provide an overall assessment of Douglas’ nomination for a knighthood in the form of a report to the British Government.

Step 1: Introduce Douglas’ historical legacy

Explain to students that celebrated historical figures such as Sir James Douglas, the so-called “Father of British Columbia,” are rarely as perfect as many of the biographies and histories written about them would have us believe. In considering Douglas’ historical legacy it is important to examine both the positive and negative aspects of his life.

Use the ideas described above in the Introduction to explain to students the focus of the lesson and outline the activities they will undertake.

As an opening activity, invite students, individually or in pairs, to identify three positive aspects and three negative aspects of Douglas’ life based on their reading of a short biography of him. You may want to use the account found in the Canadian Encyclopedia. Direct students to consider Douglas’ actions in the Pacific Northwest as both an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company (1821-1858) and as Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island (1851-1864) and of the Colony of British Columbia (1858-1864).

Upon completion, invite several students to share their findings. You may want to draw students’ attention to the positive and negative aspects listed in #1 Sample: Positive and Negative Aspects of Douglas’ Life.

Step 2: Introduce the three case studies

Organize students into three teams and distribute to each team member a copy of one of the following briefing sheets:

Explain that these sheets outline the events associated with three incidents that students are to investigate to help them assess Douglas’ behaviour. To begin, ask students to identify the important details of their assigned incident using the questions on activity sheet, #5 Investigating the Incident, as a guide. Invite students individually or in pairs to read their assigned overview and record the important information on the activity sheet.

When completed, invite students to share their findings with other team members. After discussing the incident, ask each team collectively to complete a final “master” copy of activity sheet #5 that accurately summarises the most important information about their assigned case study. Explain that students will present their summaries to the rest of the class in a future lesson.

Step 3: Discuss the criteria for knighthood

Inform students that determining whether or not Douglas was worthy of a knighthood is not the same as judging how nice a person he was. Rather students must think of the factors the British Government might have used to determine who would receive a knighthood. During the discussion, guide students to consider the following criteria for awarding a knighthood:

Invite students to refer back to the information they have acquired about Douglas thus far and to identify evidence to suggest that he might have met or not met these criteria.

Step 4: Assemble three teams

Students are now ready to examine multiple historical documents from their assigned incident to determine whether Douglas was worthy of his knighthood. Inform students that the documents for each case study have been organized chronologically from the start of the conflict to the end. Distribute relevant copies of the following documents to the appropriate team:

When allocating documents, consider the following options:

Optional: Distribute multiple copies of the activity sheet, #9 Reading Around a Document, and encourage students to use the questions on the activity sheet as a pre-reading guide for each document they are assigned. Direct students to the information at the beginning and end of the document to identify clues about its nature. You may want to require older students (individually or in groups) to provide a completed copy of this activity sheet for each text document analyzed.

Step 5: Analyze the assigned documents

Distribute copies of activity sheet, #10 Evidence of Douglas’ Behaviour, to each student. Ask students to identify pro and con evidence from their assigned documents for each of the three criteria discussed earlier (loyalty to the Crown, effective leadership, and fair manner). Model for students how to complete the assignment by working through several documents with the class. Encourage students to look for evidence both to support and to shed doubts about Douglas’ worthiness for the knighthood. Ask students to indicate the document number associated with each piece of evidence they find. If students are struggling, display the information on #11 Sample: Evidence of Douglas’ Behaviour that has been compiled from Documents #1-3 of the murder of Peter Brown.

Inform students that when gathering evidence and making judgements about Douglas they should be careful about using modern-day values and expectations to judge events that took place in the past. Instead, encourage students to try to understand the common beliefs and practices of the time before judging the merits of the actions. For example, it was not uncommon in the Colony of Vancouver Island to make an arrest, hold the trial and announce the sentence in one day; whereas nowadays such a speedy process would be criticized for being unfair to the accused.

Step 6: Reach consensus as a team

After students have analyzed their assigned documents, invite teams to share the evidence they have collected from their documents. Ask each team to reach a consensus decision about whether or not they have reservations about recommending Douglas for knighthood. Distribute copies of activity sheet, #12 Rating Douglas’s Worthiness to each student. Ask students to rate Douglas’ worthiness on each of three criteria and to provide an overall assessment of his behaviour based the evidence from their assigned case study.

Before embarking on the activity, review with students the rubric, #13 Assessing the Evidence, to highlight the need to identify accurate and relevant evidence and to offer plausible ratings. If desired, after completion of the activity arrange for students to assess their own or each others’ ratings and justifications.

Step 7: Present the conclusions

Arrange for each team to present its findings to the rest of the class. Ask students to structure their presentation in the following manner:

Before beginning the presentations, distribute two additional copies of activity sheet, #12 Rating Douglas’s Worthiness to all students. Instruct students to complete one of these sheets while each of the other teams delivers its presentation.

Step 8: Make an overall recommendation

After students have recorded the ratings and evidence from the presentations, invite them to assume the fictional role of a “Knighthood Reviewer” for the British Government. This person has come to the Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia to investigate claims that several of Douglas’ actions during his time as governor were not worthy of the appointment as a Knight Commander of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (KCB).

Direct students to prepare a one- or two-page report to the British government indicating whether the three incidents are grounds for having reservations about recommending Douglas for knighthood and to support their conclusion with evidence from the case studies.

Before embarking on the activity, review with students the rubric, #14 Assessing the Report, to indicate the need to offer a plausible recommendation, provide accurate and important information about the three incidents and communicate clearly. If desired, after completing the activity, arrange for students to assess their own or each others’ ratings and justifications.