An Informal Chronology of the Aboriginal Land Question in B.C.

Posted on October 2, 2010


Joseph Trutch, 1867:

The Indians really have no right to the lands they claim, nor are they of any actual value or utility to them. . . .

Joseph Trutch made Indian land policy from 1864 to 1871.

During his regime, the standard reserve allocation became a maximum of ten acres per family of five.

During the same period white settlers could pre-empt (that is, homestead) 320 acres in the interior of the province, and 160 acres on the coast.

Land Ordinance, 1865, ends the First Nations right of pre-emption which existed during the Douglas era.  It states:

Such right of pre-emption shall not be held to extend to any of the Aborigines of this Continent, except to such as shall have obtained the Governor’s special permission in writing to that effect.


Cowichan refuse to fence their lands for fear of weakening their claims to unfenced lands.

Secwepemc Chief Nisquaimith charges white ranchers rent to range cattle on Secwepemc lands

Trutch reduces a reserve along a 40 mile stretch of the Thompson River to three reserves totalling 12 square miles.

Reserves on the lower Fraser are reduced by some 40,000 acres (16,190 hectares.)  Trutch offers no compensation.

Joseph Trutch, 1869:

Our system of treatment of Indians was more humane than in any other country. Our laws entitled them to all the rights and privileges of the white man; they have thriven under them and had vastly improved in every respect by contact with the white man. The laws when applied to the Indians were always strained in his favour.

1871–B.C. joins Confederation. Clause 13 of the Terms of Union states:

The charge of the Indians, and the trusteeship and management of the lands reserved for their use and benefit, shall be assumed by the Dominion Government, and a policy as liberal as that hitherto pursued by the British Columbia Government shall be continued by the Dominion Government after the Union.

Joseph Trutch is generally credited with the wording of this clause.

As an inducement for entering Confederation, Canada agrees to build a railroad to B.C.

1872–Indians (and Chinese) excluded from voting in B.C. At this time, First Nations outnumber the non-First Nations population more than two to one.

Professions barred to persons not having the provincial vote:

Law, pharmacy, chartered accountancy, political office, police, forestry, post office work, public health nursing.

1873–Canada suggests Indian reserve allocations of eighty acres per family. B.C. is only prepared to offer ten.

1875–Canada renews its request that B.C. accept the 80 acres per family of 5 minimum standard of reserve allocation.  In response B.C. agrees to set up a committee to look into the issue.  At the same time it reluctantly agrees to publish Papers Connected With the Indian Land Question, 1850-1875.  The committee set up to deal with reserve allocations meets several times, but without the participation of the governing faction.  In the end it recommends acceptance of the 80 acre minimum.  The recommendation never becomes a part of the official government record owing to manoeuvrings of the governing faction, and the recommendation is not adopted.

1875–Joint Reserve Commission established.  Reserves are to be alloted without a preset or fixed acreage.  Lands removed from a reserve are automatically to revert to the province–the “reversionary interest.”

1876—A three man Joint Reserve Commission begins work, including Gilbert Sproat as the joint commissioner.

1877-78--BC tries to get the Joint Reserve Commission disbanded. Succeeds in 1878 in having it reduced to one commissioner, Sproat.

1880–Sproat is replaced by Peter O’Reilly, Joseph Trutch’s brother-in-law. O’Reilly spends much of his time in the next five years revising Sproat’s work and reducing reserves.

FN pop. ……Total pop.

1881 ……..25,661…………49,459

1891 ……..28-35,202…..98,173


1884--B.C. transfers 10,976,000 acres of land–the Railway Belt–to the Dominion to help finance the building of the CPR. An additional 3,500,000 acres–later known as the Peace River Block– are transferred in the Peace River area.

1885–Canadian Pacific Railway completed.

Nisga’a Chief Skadeen, to white trespassers, 1886:

Saayeen! Saayeen!–Get off my land!

1887–Royal Commission sent to Tsimshian/Nisga’a Territories to hear their grievances. They lacked any authority to change any decisions. Their conclusion was that it was unthinkable to recognize aboriginal land rights because that would bring settler rights into question.

Kincolith Chief to Royal Commission, 1887:

We nearly fainted when we heard this land was claimed by the Queen.

1889–O’Reilly resigns as Reserve Commissioner.

1890--Nisga’a land committee formed under the leadership of Lakalzap Chief Arthur Calder and with the help of missionary Alfred Green.  The purpose of the Committee was to lobby politicians and government officials in respect of the Royal Commission of 1887 and in regard to the federal fishing permit system lately introduced which restricted Nisga’a fishing.

1899–Treaty No. 8 is signed with the First Nations of northern Alberta and part of the Northwest Territories.  The intention is also to include First Nations from the Peace River area of British Columbia.

1900-1914–Various Dene groups in north-eastern British Columbia are brought under Treaty No. 8.  Reserve land is allotted to them from the Peace River Block, under the control of Canada. B.C. is not consulted and is not present at the negotiating table.

1906–Tsimshian in Prince Rupert surrender land the federal government wants for railway purposes.  B.C. claims the reversionary interest in the land, parcels and sells it to private individuals. The Tsimshian are not compensated.

1907–Nisga’a Land Committee (newly re)formed to press the land issue.  The NLC is composed of 16 chiefs–4 clan chiefs from each of the 4 villages of the Nisga’a in the Nass Valley.

1908–Government of Premier Richard McBride refuses further provincial co-operation in reserve allocation.

1909–Nisga’a Land Committee approaches other coastal First Nations groups.  The Indian Rights Committee is formed to lobby against Premier McBride’s policies.

Interior First Nations meet at Spences Bridge to form the Interior Tribes of B.C.  The Nisga’a meet with them to discuss the land question.  The meeting results in a delegation to PM Wilfred Laurier who showed a willingness to support an appeal to the JCPC. Laurier loses the election shortly afterwards.

A white group, Friends of the Indians, offers support to the Indians at this time. A prominent member of this organization, Arthur O’Meara, an Anglican minister, 20 years a lawyer, becomes associated with the land question thereafter.

1912–McKenna-McBride Agreement reached between the federal government and the government of BC establishing a royal commission to adjust the size of reserves in British Columbia.

1913–Royal Commission of Indian Affairs for the Province of B.C. (McKenna-McBride Commission) is formed and begins work. Its mandate does not include aboriginal rights or title, nor fishing, hunting, water or foreshore rights. The Commissions promises First Nations appearing before it that no lands will be cut off from their reserves without their consent. At the end of this process the Province is supposed to give up its reversionary interest, allowing it to reclaim any Indian reserve land that loses legal reserve status.

The 5 member commission travels the province listening to First Nations, but also to farmers, mayors, railway representatives, and so on.

1913–Nisga’a petition the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, the highest court in the British Empire, in regard to the land question.  Their Statement of the Nisga’a Nation or Tribe of Indians claims title to their lands under the Royal Proclamation, 1763, as a human right.  They ask for a treaty and self-government. The Judicial Committee refers the matter back to the Canadian government. [Note: At this point the Royal Proclamation becomes generally known to BC FNs. Pan-Indian sentiments grow as different groups see themselves as one of the “nations or tribes” recognized by the Proclamation and denied justice in B.C.]

Proclamation of 1763

“WHEREAS we have taken into Our Royal Consideration the extensive and valuable Acquisitions in America, secured to our Crown by the late Definitive Treaty of Peace, concluded at Paris the 10th Day of February last; and being desirous that all Our loving Subjects, as well of our Kingdom as of our Colonies in America, may avail themselves with all convenient Speed, of the great Benefits and Advantages which must accrue therefrom to their Commerce, Manufactures, and Navigation, We have thought fit, with the Advice of our Privy Council, to issue this our Royal Proclamation, hereby to publish and declare to all our loving Subjects, that we have, with the Advice of our Said Privy Council, granted our Letters Patent, under our Great Seal of Great Britain, to erect, within the Countries and Islands ceded and confirmed to Us by the said Treaty, Four distinct and separate Governments, styled and called by the names of Quebec, East Florida, West Florida and Grenada, and limited and bounded as follows, viz.

 First — The Government of Quebec bounded on the Labrador Coast by the River St. John, and from thence by a Line drawn from the Head of that River through the Lake St. John, to the South end of the Lake Nipissing; from whence the said Line, crossing the River St. Lawrence, and the Lake Champlain, in 45 Degrees of North Latitude, passes along the High Lands which divide the Rivers that empty themselves into the said River St. Lawrence from those which fall into the Sea; and also along the North Coast of the Baye des Châleurs, and the Coast of the Gulph of St. Lawrence to Cape Rosières, and from thence crossing the Mouth of the River St. Lawrence by the West End of the Island of Anticosti, terminates at the aforesaid River of St. John, etc. etc. etc. Given at our Court at St. James’s the 7th Day of October 1763, in the Third Year of our Reign.

God Save the King

1914–Canadian government approves hearing the Nisga’a case in the Exchequer Court of Canada under certain conditions:

If the Nisga’a win, they were to immediately surrender the lands for settlement and accept whatever compensation the government offers. The size of reserves were to be determined by the McKenna-McBride Commission, after which all claims against B.C. were to cease. The B.C. government could appoint its own lawyers; the Nisga’a lawyers were to be appointed and paid for by the federal government.

The Nisga’a reject these conditions.

1916–Allied Tribes of B.C. formed at a meeting at the Squamish reserve in N. Vancouver organized by Andrew Paull and Peter Kelly, with representation from both coastal and interior groups excluding just the Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwaguilth. The coastal organization, the Native Rights Assn. is dissolved; the Interior Tribes of B.C. continues.

The Allied Tribes’ demands include reserves of 160 acres per person, recognition of aboriginal title and compensation for lands already taken. They want to take the court case all the way to the JCPC.

1916–McKenna-McBride recommends the addition of 87,000 acres of reserve land and the cut-off of 47,000 acres. The value of the lands to be cut off is more than three times the value of the lands to be added.

1920--To implement the recommendations of the McKenna-McBride Commission, Canada passes the B.C. Indian Lands Settlement Act. The Act removes the necessity of obtaining First Nations consent when cutting off land from reserves.

1924--Recommendations of the McKenna-McBride Commission adopted.

1927--A joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons is appointed to deal with the land claims issue. Representatives of the Allied Tribes are heckled by members of the committee while making their presentations, and crucial evidence is withheld from them by Indian Affairs.  The committee finds that the First Nations claims have no merit. An additional $100,000 a year is allocated to B.C. in lieu of treaty settlements.  Canada then passes an amendment to the Indian Act. It is thereafter illegal for anyone to accept money to pursue Indian claims. The Allied Tribes of B.C. disintegrates shortly afterward.

1931–Native Brotherhood of B.C. is founded. Although on the surface a fisher’s union, it continues to uphold ideals of the Allied Tribes.

1938–The province adopts Order-in-Council 1036, conveying title to Indian reserve lands in the province to Canada. The province retains the rights to precious metals on these lands, and the right to take back up to 5% of them for public works.

1951–Pursuit of Claims clause and prohibition of the Potlatch dropped from the Indian Act.

1955–Nisga’a Tribal Council is formed with the settlement of the land question their main objective.

1958–Nuu-chah-nulth form tribal council.

1960–First Nations are permitted to vote in federal elections.

1965–In the Queen v. White & Bob case, the Supreme Court of Canada upholds Douglas treaties as legal treaties under Canadian Law.

1969–The Nisga’a take their land claim to court. B.C. courts rule that Indian title never existed in the province.

1969--Federal government issues their White Paper on Indian policy which proposes to abolish Indian status and Indian reserves. All Indians are to be assimilated into the Canadian population.

1973–The Supreme Court of Canada rules that the Nisga’a did hold title to their lands prior to the creation of the colony of British Columbia. They split evenly over whether this title still exists. The federal government moves to start negotiating land claims.

1974–Quebec signs the James Bay agreement with First Nations of Northern Quebec, the first modern treaty recognizing aboriginal rights.

1976–Canada begins land claim negotiations with the Nisga’a. B.C. will not participate.

1981–B.C. and Canada begin negotiating with First Nations over compensation for the McKenna-McBride cut off lands.

1982—Existing Aboriginal rights are affirmed and protected in Canada’s newly patriated constitution.

1984–The Supreme Court of Canada in the Guerin case states that aboriginal rights in B.C. pre-existed British, Canadian and British Columbia law.

1985–The B.C. Court of Appeal grants an injunction to the Nuu-chah-nulth to halt logging on Meares Island. The reason they give is that logging might destroy the value of Nuu-chah-nulth aboriginal claims to the island.

  Attorney General of B.C. Brian Smith, 1985.

“You start negotiating land claims and you’re down the Neville Chamberlain route.”

1988–First Nations Congress formed.

1989–The Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en bring their land claim to court.

1990–The Supreme Court of Canada in the Sparrow case affirms the aboriginal right to fish for food and ceremonial purposes in B.C., subject only to the need for conservation.

B.C. Land Claims Task Force is established with input from the federal and provincial governments and the First Nations Summit.

1991–Chief Justice Allen McEachern rules against the Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en, saying that aboriginal title had been extinguished in B.C. before 1871.

1992–B.C. government acknowledges the existence of aboriginal title. B.C., Canada and the First Nations Summit sign an agreement to establish the B.C. Treaty Commission.

1993–B.C. Treaty Commission begins operating.

B.C. Court of Appeal partially reverses McEachern’s decision in the Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en case, recognizing a limited form of aboriginal title, not including self-government.

1994–The government of Jean Chretien accepts that there exists a constitutional right for aboriginal self-government.

1996–An agreement-in-principle is reached between the Nisga’a and the governments of B.C. and Canada in the Nisga’a treaty negotiations.

1997—Supreme Court of Canada rules in Delgamuukw case in favour of the Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en, affirming continuing Aboriginal title in B.C.

1999—The Nisga’a final agreement is signed by B.C., Canada and the Nisga’a, and is finally ratified by Parliament in 2000.

2008—The first agreement is reached under the BC Treaty Process with the Tsawwassen First Nation. (The Nisga’a agreement was not negotiated under this process.)