Part Six - The Land Question
In the summer of 1886, a provincial land surveyor named Captain William Jemmett arrived near the mouth of the Nass River where he and his party pitched tents opposite the village of Kincolith. Curious about what was going on, the Nisga’a sent a young man in a canoe across the river to investigate. He returned to report that the strangers were measuring the land with their instruments. Early the next morning all the canoes from the village crossed the river. The Nisga’a, led by Chief Sgat’iin, confronted Jemmett, tore up his survey stakes and told him in no uncertain terms to get off their land. Later that summer the Tsimshian at Metlakatla similarly drove a surveyor from their community. It looked to fearful southerners that the north coast was in a state of insurrection.
The following January, a delegation of Tsimshian and Nisga’a chiefs travelled by steamer to Victoria on what historian Paul Tennant called “the first modern Indian political action in British Columbia”. They met with officials from both the federal and provincial governments, including Premier William Smithe, who invited the emissaries to his home. (Smithe excluded the missionaries who had accompanied the delegation, mistrusting their influence over the chiefs.)
The Premier was not a generous host. He refused point blank to consider the Nisga’a request for a treaty. As for their claim to own the land, his attorney general, Alexander Davie, dismissed it as “nonsense”. Smithe lectured the delegates who had come so far to see him as if they were naughty schoolchildren. “When the whites first came among you, you were little better than the wild beasts of the field,” he told them. “It is the Queen’s land…, but the Queen gives it to her Indian children because they do not know so well how to make their own living the same as a white man, and special indulgence is extended to them, and special care shown. Thus, instead of being treated as a white man, the Indian is treated better.” The chiefs were stunned. Along with their culture, they were expected to give up their land. The government was giving them tiny reserves, and asking them to be grateful. The meeting ended with an agreement by the governments to establish a commission to discuss matters further. However, unknown to the northern First Nations, the two commissioners received explicit instructions not even to discuss the issue of land title.
The Commission Appointed to Enquire into the Conditions of Indians of the North-west Coast arrived at Kincolith in October, 1887, and the people learned to their dismay that their concerns would fall on deaf ears. “We cannot believe the words we have heard, that the land was not acknowledged to be ours,” said Chief Charles Russ of Nass Harbour. “We took the Queen’s flag and laws to honour them. We never thought when we did that she was taking the land away from us.” After five days of hearings, the commissioners returned to Victoria and a short time later issued their report in which they dismissed out of hand all the major concerns expressed by the Nisga’a and Tsimshian. “The beasts of the field have as much ownership in the land as [the Indian] has,” remarked one of the commissioners. Despite the fact that treaties were being signed across the rest of western Canada, there would be no treaty, no recognition of title. Instead, there would be an increased effort by the government to pacify and assimilate the Native people of the coast.
If land was under the jurisdiction of the provincial government, Aboriginal people themselves were the responsibility of Ottawa under the terms of the agreement that brought BC into Confederation in 1871. Both governments were committed to the policy of assimilation, but they often disagreed about how best to achieve this objective, particularly when it came to recognizing the First Nations’ claims to their land. Prior to Confederation, when British Columbia was still a British colony, Governor James Douglas had signed agreements with selected bands on Vancouver Island, transferring their lands to the Crown in return for nominal payments. As part of these agreements, the government set aside reserves—mostly village and food-gathering sites—for the continued use of the people. At this point, all treaty making ceased, and under Douglas’s successors the colonial government refused to recognize any Aboriginal claim to the land, though more reserves were created so that by 1871 there were eighty-eight of them throughout the province.
Smaller than the tracts set aside for tribes in the rest of the country, these reserves became a matter of dispute between the federal and provincial governments. Ottawa believed that the province was unreasonably stingy when it came to allotting reserve land, while Victoria argued that Aboriginal people were incapable of making use of larger grants. To resolve this difference of opinion, the two governments created, in 1875, the Joint Indian Reserve Commission. For reasons of economy, after barely more than a year of activity, the joint commission became a single commissioner. The first commissioner was Gilbert Sproat. When he was considered to be too generous to the First Nations, he was replaced in 1880 by Peter O’Reilly, a well-connected member of the colonial ruling elite who did not share Sproat’s sympathies for his Native constituents.
The job of the commissioner was to travel around the province revising old reserves and designating new ones. As much as possible the commissioner made sure that the land he set aside did not disrupt the activities of white settlers. During O’Reilly’s first season in the field, 1881, he made an excursion north up the coast to Fort Simpson and the Nass River. O’Reilly arrived in early October when most of the people were away fishing. Without telling the people what he was doing, he made a quick tour of the area and decided where reserves should be located. He understood almost nothing about tribal structures or the way the people allocated their land. As geographer Cole Harris has observed, there was “no hint of respect, much less of friendship, in the air.” No wonder his whirlwind visit, well remembered by the Nisga’a and Tsimshian for years afterward, touched off a firestorm of protest and began the long land-claims struggle with the government.
Next time: The Land Question (cont.)