The Northern tribes were not alone in their dissatisfaction with Peter O’Reilly and the reserve process generally. All along the coast people were bewildered by the government’s highhandedness and angry at not having their concerns understood or even considered. “We have felt like men trampled on,” a number of Coast Salish chiefs complained in 1874, “and are commencing to believe that the aim of the white men is to exterminate us as soon as they can, although we have always been quiet, obedient, kind and friendly to the whites.”
But it was no use. Where convenient, O’Reilly tried to consult with the local people, but in the end it was his decisions, backed by the coercive powers of the provincial government, that prevailed. “You know very well that what you say about the country belonging to the Indians is nonsense,” he told a chief at Alert Bay. “It belongs to the Queen.” At his retirement in 1898, there were 1,003 reserves allocated in the province.
The work of O’Reilly and the other reserve commissioners turned the life of the Aboriginal people upside down. Yet it was accomplished almost as an afterthought as far as the government was concerned. Little time was spent consulting with the First Nations and every effort was made to keep costs to a minimum. The creation of reserves was not high on the agenda of the provincial government. The official policy was assimilation, and for this Aboriginal people needed not land to carry on their traditional lifeways but education, and then jobs.
Meanwhile, the federal government had its own official-on-the-spot, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for British Columbia. From 1872 until 1889 this position was occupied by Israel Wood Powell, who appointed agents to take control of Aboriginal affairs in different parts of the province. Powell named the first six agents in 1881 and by 1890 there were ten agencies, five of them encompassing coastal areas: Fraser, Cowichan, Kwawkewlth, West Coast (Vancouver Island) and Northwest Coast. Some of these were vast territories; the Northwest Coast Agency, for example, extended from Rivers Inlet to the Nass. Agents were expected to assist the Aboriginal people to make their difficult transition to “civilization” while at the same time protecting them from the worst depredations of settler society. Along with the missionaries, agents were the front-line troops in the assault on Aboriginal culture.
In 1909 the land question took on a new urgency. While provincial and federal officials continued to bicker over reserve policy, the coastal First Nations organized the Indian Rights Association, an alliance of northern and southern tribal groups formed to press for protection of their lands. Like so many of his predecessors, Premier Richard McBride was indifferent to the First Nations’ concerns. In his view, White settlers would make much better use of reserve lands than Aboriginal people. McBride was willing to deal with Ottawa, however, and in 1912 he agreed to work out their differences over Indian policy in time-honoured Canadian tradition by appointing a royal commission. The McKenna-McBride Commission -- named for the premier and a federal official, J.A.J. McKenna – was charged with the job of settling the matter of reserve lands once and for all. After three years of hearings, it submitted a report in June 1916. The commission recommended that 35,353 hectares of land should be added to existing reserves or used to create new ones. At the same time it recommended that a little more than 19,000 hectares of land be removed from reserves and made available for sale to Whites. The land that was “cut-off” was estimated to be worth about three times as much as the land that was added. Despite repeated promises that no changes would take place without the consent of First Nations, and despite the opposition of Native leaders to the royal commission report, the federal government implemented the cut-offs.
The final skirmish in this phase of the land war occurred in the spring of 1927 in Ottawa. The federal government agreed to appoint a select parliamentary committee to hear the grievances of the BC First Nations. These were presented by Andrew Paull from the Squamish Nation in North Vancouver and Peter Kelly, a Haida preacher and activist. They were supported by their legal adviser, Arthur O’Meara, whom many people on the government side blamed for filling the heads of the Natives with false hopes and misinformation. After listening to the representations, the joint committee rejected any claim that the Aboriginal people might have to their land. Soon after, the government, with O’Meara in mind, amended the Indian Act to make it illegal to receive payment for helping to pursue a land claim, a prohibition which remained in force until 1951. In effect, legal work on behalf of a land claim became a criminal activity and as a result, the issue disappeared from the public agenda in BC.
Next time: the potlatch