Simon Fraser “The Explorer” and the Problem of Contact History

At press time, Justine Jawanda was in her final year of an undergraduate degree majoring in History and minoring in First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University with plans to enter the Professional Development Program (PDP). Outside of school, Justine has a passion for fine arts and spends her extracurricular activities with her partner, her family, and her dog, Koda. Although Justine was born and raised in Vancouver British Columbia, she respectfully acknowledges the traditional territories of the Kwantlen First Nations community in which she resides. In acknowledging that she is a guest to these territories, she plans to continue to reside in the province after she obtains her degree and teaching certificate promoting Indigenous paradigms to the best of her ability within local schools.

Simon Fraser “The Explorer” (1776-1862) was born in Mapletown, Hoosick County, in what is now New York. The son of Scottish Highlanders who were part of a largely Roman Catholic migration to New York in 1773, Fraser was apprenticed into the fur trade with the North West Company (NWC) in 1792, working his way up the ranks of the company. In 1805, Fraser was instructed to extend the company’s operations westward and find the Columbia River, so that the NWC could have an overland and navigable route to markets in Asia.[1] Failing to do so, Fraser instead accidentally discovered the river that now bears his name. On his two journeys, which occurred between 1805 and 1808, to what is now British Columbia, Fraser produced letters and journals intended to record his findings for his employer. The 1808 journal, which is the account of the famous journey to the sea, is what was known in the North American fur trade as a “fair copy,” or “[n]arratives…prepared by traders who had made important journeys, and forwarded as a report to headquarters.”[2] Fraser’s fair copy journal of 1808 was compiled by an unknown author and his original journal that the fair copy is based on, has been lost.[3] Yet, to the present this journal, as well as his other letters and writings, have been used by authors–often uncritically–to accurately reconstruct the journeys of Fraser. Fraser’s most famous biographer, W. Kaye Lamb, though admitting that Fraser’s fair copy journal was the result of perhaps many pens, overlooked or downplayed this fact going so far as to say: though “the manuscript is not in Fraser’s own handwriting…of its authenticity there can be no doubt.” Why Lamb did this we can only speculate; perhaps he clearly admired the historical figure stating: “[o]f the interest and importance of his explorations there can be no question.”[4] Lamb’s elevation of Fraser to hero status, led to numerous other publications, such as Stephen Hume’s Simon Fraser: In search of Modern British Columbia, which continue to overlook the problematic nature of Fraser’s writings, producing an inaccurate version of the past, most importantly, the history of Fraser’s contact with Indigenous peoples.


Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives)

In contrast, Wendy Wickwire acknowledges the value in needing to contrast both written and oral testimony to better understand historical accounts. She argues: “the Nlaka’pamux…recorded their impressions of [Fraser]. Unlike Fraser, however, the Nlaka’pamux transmitted their impressions orally, and the stories passed from one generation to the next.”[5] Recognizing the value in oral histories is crucial, yet, Wickwire argues that, for better or for worse, for many scholars “Fraser’s [1808] journal has become the primary lens through which to view the initial interaction between [Indigenous peoples] and the first white explorers [to British Columbia].”[6]

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A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives). Very little material exists in Fraser’s own hand-writing.

This misrepresentation of Fraser’s 1808 account by Lamb and others becomes problematic as the broader public is exposed to historical events and processes that may not be entirely accurate. Other historians expand on such misconceptions of accuracy; they explain it as if certain concepts of history assume all known information is documented into one intelligible whole.[7] Furthermore, Fraser’s documents are a place where this understanding can be deconstructed within the written work itself and even if they aren’t entirely accurate can still tell us much about nineteenth-century Anglo-European attitudes towards Indigenous people.


A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Ian Lindsay/Vancouver Sun in Stephen Hume’s In Search of Modern British Columbia. Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd. (2008).)

For example, Fraser’s 1808 fair copy journal, no matter who completed it, demonstrates a Eurocentric ideology by placing Euro-American culture above that of Indigenous peoples and whether intentionally or unintentionally, the journal perpetuates an inherent sense of racial hierarchy. For example, the journal records that Indigenous peoples “seemed rather stupid, and not much inclined to satisfy our desires.”[8] This Eurocentric assumption plays a part in establishing profound misunderstandings between settler-colonial and Indigenous relations that only intensified over the centuries as Indigenous peoples were placed as the Other in a hierarchical racial order within the broader narrative of settler-colonialism.[9] In spite of the promotion of supposed Indigenous “savagery’ the journal states that when he arrived in the territories of the ‘Tautens’ and ‘Atnah’ it was “a plentiful country where the Indians were hospitable”[10] and that the people were “happy” to see him upon his return later on.[11] In other words, the region is portrayed as safe, populated by people who would not get in the way of outside colonization. Consideration of Indigenous territories are masked or overlooked in this narrative, exemplified by the fact that Fraser referred to the territory he ‘discovered’ as “New Caledonia,” in honour of his mother’s birthplace (Scotland).[12] By claiming and giving the territory a European name, Fraser promotes a colonial narrative that overlooks Indigenous title. By portraying contact between colonizer and Indigenous peoples as peaceful overlooks conflicts that occurred and the real motivations of a fur trade company keen to expand (with as little fuss as possible) its operations across the Continent.[13]


Fort George in “New Caledonia” (Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana/C-040856)

Ultimately, by uncritically using the 1808 fair copy journal, Fraser’s journey is elevated to that of a heroic “great accomplishment,”[14] rather than the report of a man surveying land for a company seeking to expand its operations. Portrayals of Indigenous peoples are meant to show that future operations would not be hindered by hostile locals. It is not to say that Fraser’s writings don’t have value; they do, but taken alone, these accounts risk perpetuating the colonial narrative in terms of settler and Indigenous relations. Fraser’s 1808 journey has entered the realm of mythology in the history of expansion in what is now Canada, and by extension perpetuates the idea that European expansion was a positive process, neglecting the (historical) accounts of Indigenous peoples. When authors support Fraser’s accounts as authentic, it suggests that historical events can be illustrated in one coherent narrative, thereby assembling them in a chronological order of what really did occur historically.[15] Furthermore, the ways in which Indigenous peoples were represented in Fraser’s journals tell us more about the attitudes of a fur trade company keen to expand its operations in Indigenous territories in the Pacific Northwest than it does about the realities of contact with Indigenous peoples.[16] In this way, Fraser, along with other explorers like him who recorded their travels in new lands, perpetuated the contemporary concept of racial hierarchies through their encounters with Indigenous peoples. To Fraser’s champions, like Lamb, this makes him a hero of Canadian history.

© Justine Jawanda


[1] W. Kaye Lamb, “FRASER, SIMON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2018,

[2] Ibid., 52.

[3] Ibid., 52. The fair copy 1808 journal can be found at the Toronto Public Library.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Wendy, C. Wickwire. “To See Ourselves as the Other’s Other: Nlaka’s Pamux Contact Narratives,” Canadian Historical Review Vol. 75, 1 (1994), 2.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Linda Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books (London and New York; Dunedin: Otago University Press. Second Edition 2012), 31.

[8] Lamb, The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806-1808, 189.

[9] Linda Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies, 33.

[10] Lamb, The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806-1808, 92.

[11] Ibid., 151 & 154.

[12] Stephen Hume. Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia, 21.

[13] Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 7.

[14] Lamb. The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 52.

[15] Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies, 32.

[16] Sean Carleton, “Colonizing Minds: Public Education, the ‘Textbook Indian,’ and Settler Colonialism in British Colombia, 1920-1970,” BC Studies. No. 169 (Spring 2011), 105.


[Figure 1] Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives)

[Figure 2] A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University Archives)

[Figure 3] A Letter by Simon Fraser (Photo courtesy of Ian Lindsay/Vancouver Sun in Stephen Hume’s In Search of Modern British Columbia. Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd. (2008).)

[Figure 4] Fort George in “New Caledonia” (Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana/C-040856)

A Tale of Two Simon Frasers: The Invented and Contested Scottish Tradition of SFU

At press time, Georgia Twiss was in her final semester of her undergraduate (honours) History degree at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on the impact of the British Empire on the urban development of Glasgow, and the legacy of imperialism within Glaswegian heritage, as well as performances of gender, culture, and imperialism in British Columbia. The basis of this research blog was a poster presentation for Georgia’s History honours seminar class in Spring 2018.

On September 9th 1965, Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, Chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat, took to the stage in Convocation Mall to give a speech commemorating the opening ceremonies of Simon Fraser University. He began his speech with a quote taken from Shakespeare proclaiming, “I didn’t come here to talk.”[1] His choice of words rang true. He was not there to talk, but to embody an invented tradition of Scottishness, promoted by the university’s President, Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, and predicated upon SFU’s association to the Clan Fraser of Lovat. While today most people assume the university’s name and Scottishness honour Simon Fraser, the nineteenth-century imperial explorer and fur trader, McTaggart-Cowan’s invented tradition intentionally excluded him in favour of Lord Lovat. As the head of the Clan, this Simon Fraser symbolized a prestigious sense of historical continuity and heritage that was lacking in the locally-branded “Instant University.”[2] It was through this invented tradition that the early university endorsed and enforced an image of SFU as overtly Scottish. An image which, despite contestation, has prevailed through the years, but in truth has little to do with Simon Fraser the Explorer at all.


[Figure 1] Lord Lovat bestowing the Clan Fraser Claymore (Not the mace as the caption of the photo suggests) to SFU at the university’s opening ceremonies, September 9th 1965.


The naming of SFU was a fluke by way of an acronymic oversight. The original name, ‘Fraser University’, was chosen to reflect the region from where its student body would largely derive. However, upon the realization that the school would be colloquially referred to as “F.U,” the prefix “Simon” was added, with no direct statement as to whom it was meant to honour.[3] This addition transformed the intended toponymic name to one that allowed for the forging of a relationship between the university and the Clan Fraser of Lovat, whose Chief at the time was named Simon Fraser. The relationship between SFU and the Clan began when Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, a Scottish immigrant to Canada himself, requested the use of the Clan’s motto and crest for the university’s insignia.[4] It was this relationship that underpinned McTaggart-Cowan’s invention of a Scottish tradition at SFU.


[Figure 2] “Coat of Arms.” Simon Fraser University.



[Figure 3] FRASER, Lord Fraser of Lovat Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure, three fraises (cinquefoils), Argent (for Fraser); 2nd and 3d, Argent, three antique crowns, Gules (for the Lordship of Lovat).












“Invented tradition” is a concept brought forth by historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger, and defined as, “a set of practices…of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.”[5] The invented tradition of SFU, through the appropriation of Clan Fraser of Lovat heritage, projects an image of historical Scottishness. The Clan’s imagery are found in SFU’s official tartan, coat of arms, and motto as well, as in the use of the ceremonial claymore and mace at formal ceremonies and events.


[Figure 4] “Patrick McTaggart-Cowan (left), flanked by B.C. Premier W. A. C. Bennett and SFU Chancellor Gordan Shrum, delivers SFU’s opening address on Sept. 9, 1965”

The exclusion of Simon Fraser the Explorer within the construction of McTaggart-Cowan’s invented tradition in favor of Lord Lovat is clearly illustrated in the university’s opening ceremonies. While Lord Lovat was grandly standing upon the stage in Convocation Mall, Donald Fraser of Fargo, North Dakota, and great-great-grandson of Simon Fraser the Explorer, was also in attendance. Unlike Lord Lovat he received no honours, his presence was not promoted and he paid for his own way to the event.[6] While Lord Lovat embodied the invented tradition of Scottishness McTaggart-Cowan craved, the presence of Donald Fraser had no appeal. A man from North Dakota did not evoke the same esteem or romance as a war-hero and Clan chief from the Highlands of Scotland. It was Lord Lovat who personified McTaggart-Cowan’s image of Scottishness, not a long-dead imperial explorer or his American descendant.

McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottishness was an attempt to formulate a shared identity for the incoming student body. This identity, centred around the prestige and history of the Clan Fraser of Lovat, would allow students to feel pride in their new university. McTaggart-Cowan’s plan however, backfired when met with reality. Rather than accepting this imposed Scottishness, SFU’s new students challenged the invented tradition in order to embrace the modern and progressive identity they saw in the divergent image of the “Instant University.”


[Figure 5] Clan Fraser of Lovat Clan Crest

In a series of “Letters to the Editor” from the university’s first newspaper, The Tartan, written in September 1965, various students contest SFU’s overt Scottishness. James Stuart Patterson writes, “Why must this university be an ethnic eyesore?” and later declares, in reference to McTaggart-Cowan, “the Scottish nut on the planning committee must be restrained.”[7] The most direct rejection of McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottishness comes from another student, John Cole, who argues, “We are Canadians, going to a Canadian university and to tag a Scottish label on us and our university is phoney.”[8] Evidence of Cole’s assertion is witnessed a few weeks later when The Tartan collapses and is replaced by a new paper The Peak. The new name, chosen by the students, illustrates that when given the choice they sought an image rooted in a localized identity, like that of Fraser University, rather than one steeped in the imagery and traditions of Scotland.[9]


[Figure 5] “The SFU Pipe Band has bagged the title of world champions six times. Now it’s ready to take New York, after a stage show here at home.”

The rejection of SFU’s invented Scottish tradition continued following the collapse of The Tartan. In late October 1965, a student named Barbara Chomica wrote a passionate plea to The Peak calling for the paper to take on a hard-line and innovative approach. It was vital to her that The Peak did not become a conservative paper afraid of taking a stance on critical issues. In her concluding sentence Chomica proverbially noted, “The pen is mightier than the sword, even a claymore.”[10] Using the claymore as a placeholder for conservativeness is a clear dig at the enforced Scottishness of the university, as to her it represented an anachronistic identity she did not share. Chomica’s piece again illustrates the wide chasm between McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottish identity and the real, progressive, and modern identity students sought to forge in their new university.

The conflict between the two identities, apparent in the fall of 1965, was soon overtaken by more pressing issues such as enrollment fees and unionization. It would resurface again in 1968 when a student led movement to rename the school “Louis Riel University” was voted down.[11] Despite the disappearance of the figure of Lord Lovat from the university, McTaggart-Cowan’s invented Scottish tradition prevails. By exploring the construction of SFU’s Scottish image it becomes clear that the history of the university, from the beginning, has been a tale of two “Simon Frasers.” Not only the two competing figures of Simon Fraser of Lovat and Simon Fraser the Explorer, but the two divergent identities of instant and invented and the way they continue to shape the legacy and image of the university today.

© Georgia Twiss


[1] Quoted in: Hugh Johnston, Radical Campus (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), 113.

[2] Built in just 18 months, the local press nicknamed the then unnamed university the “Instant University” before it became Simon Fraser University.

[3] Ceremonies and Events Office Fonds, 1963-1969. F-91-1-0-0-1. SFU Archives, Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[4] Lord Lovat, 1965-1995. F-208-1-0-0-5. SFU Archives, Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[5] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992),

[6] Johnston, Radical Campus, 113.

[7] The Tartan and SF View: Issues, 1965. F-17-6-2. SFU Archives. Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Peak: Issues, 1965-2016. F-17-6-3. SFU Archives. Burnaby, BC, Canada.

[10] The Peak (Burnaby, BC) October 20, 1965.

[11] McLeod, Brad. “Simon Fraser vs Louis Riel.” The Peak (Burnaby, BC) January 6, 2015.


[Figure 1] “Lord Lovat and the SFU Mace.” Photograph. [Untitled.] Burnaby, BC, 1965. Accessed on November 13, 2018.

[Figure 2] “Coat of Arms.” Simon Fraser University. Burnaby, BC. Accessed November 13, 2018.

[Figure 3] <accessed 14 November 2018>

[Figure 4] “Patrick McTaggart-Cowan (left), flanked by B.C. Premier W. A. C. Bennett and SFU Chancellor Gordan Shrum, delivers SFU’s opening address on Sept. 9, 1965” [Untitled.] Burnaby, BC, 1965. Accessed, November 13, 2018.

[Figure 5] Clan Fraser of Lovat Clan Crest <accessed 14 November 2018>

[Figure 6] “The SFU Pipe Band has bagged the title of world champions six times. Now it’s ready to take New York, after a stage show here at home.” Meadahl, Marianne. [Untitled.] Photograph. Victoria, BC, 2014. Accessed November 13, 2018.