Governor James Douglas and Native title to land

In September 1860, Governor James Douglas addressed a large crowd of Stl’atl’imx at Lillooet. They were to “be treated in all respects as Her Majesty’s other subjects” he said, which meant that they could become registered free miners, search and dig for gold, and hold mining claims like any other miners.

Douglas also stated that “the law will protect the Indian equally with the white man, and regard him in all respects as a fellow subject”.

Governor James Douglas

Governor James Douglas

What influences shaped Douglas’ views towards Natives? As the chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company on Vancouver Island and senior member of the board of management of the Columbia Department, Douglas reported to the Colonial Office.

The Colonial Office in London, England was responsible for all the colonies of the British Empire.  A short walk from the Prime Minister’s office on Downing Street, a small work force copied correspondence by hand, kept maps and books for every colony except India. From this office, policies were formed which would leave a lasting effect.

Earl Grey was secretary of state for the colonies in 1849 when the Crown granted control of Vancouver Island to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Grey had been a leading advocate of free trade and the abolishment of tariffs on colonial goods. During Grey’s tenure as head of the Colonial Office, the widely held belief was that while the Crown would provide military defence if necessary, the colonies themselves should become self-sufficient as soon as possible. There was little political will to subsidize colonies.

Working under Grey was Herman Merivale, a former Oxford professor. In a series of lectures, Merivale expounded on the need for colonial administrators to protect of Natives from settlers. He suggested that government officials be appointed to act on behalf of Native people and keep authority over Natives with the Colonial Office and the Governor, but not at the legislative level which was controlled by settlers and where conflict would arise. Merivale held that reserves of land should be made at the beginning of colonization.

The Colonial Office had several economic theories regarding land, labour and capital in the colonies. Many were convinced by the theories of economist Edward Gibbon Wakefield who thought that by controlling land prices and the rate of immigration, the colonial capitalist would have access to relatively cheap labour and the labourer (over time) could become a property owner. Land would be neither so cheap that anyone could have it but at the same time not so expensive that the poor could never acquire it.

In 1851, James Douglas was named Governor of Vancouver Island. It was said he was a master of the colonial dispatch and he had the confidence of the senior management of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Colonial Office, both in London. Senior HBC officials, like their counterparts in the Colonial Office had differing opinions about Native rights and title when it came to acquiring land from the Natives but in the end, left it up to Douglas.

Beginning that year, Douglas set about purchasing parcels of land on Vancouver Island. Between 1851 and 1854, Douglas made a total of 14 purchases from Native tribes involving less than 3 percent of the land area of Vancouver Island. These included areas that the HBC later used for coal mining and agriculture as well as areas for colonial settlement. Tersely worded statements were drawn up and payments were made to chiefs in the form of blankets and other items. He allocated the first Indian reserve at the site of the present legislative buildings in Victoria harbour. In the spring of 1852, Douglas reported that Natives near Fort Victoria were starving, barely two years after they had signed the agreement.

When the gold rush came in 1858, Native title to land was no longer an issue for the Colonial Office. They did not pressure Douglas to make any more purchases. The new secretary of state E.B. Lytton forwarded a letter to Douglas from the Aborigines Protection Society about Native title with the remark that the society’s views on the matter were not necessarily his.

When the Royal Engineers arrived, Douglas told Colonel Moody to allocate reserve land “to the extent of several hundred acres round each village” before settlement. Some of that land he assumed, could be sold or leased by the government and the proceeds put in trust for the Natives. On the other hand, in the Fraser Canyon, Sapper Turnbull was instructed to mark out land for Indian reserves based on the decision of the gold commissioners. As a result, Turnbull’s reserves in the Fraser Canyon were tiny and out of all proportion to Douglas’ general instructions. This contrasted with the decision of William G. Cox, gold commissioner for Rock Creek, who marked out large reserves in the Okanagan, letting the Natives themselves select the location “and also pointing out to me where they Desired the boundary stakes to be placed.”

Just before his retirement in 1864, Governor Douglas was criticized for his Native policies which were considered by many settlers to be too generous.

Douglas told the legislative assembly that he based Indian reserve allocations on ten acres per family; a significant increase compared to the early days in Victoria harbour where the entire reserve was only ten acres. Douglas was criticized for this as well as his policy to allow Natives to pre-empt land like anyone else. As a result, Douglas introduced special legislation that made it so difficult for Natives to acquire land it was almost impossible.