Indian Reserve Commission on Burrard Inlet

Walter Birnie Anderson's painting

This painting was done by Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s son, Walter Birnie Anderson, who was a member of the B.C. Police in the Comox area. All of his many small paintings included a First Nations figure in the foreground. 

In 1876, the newly appointed Indian Reserve Commissioners moved on from the Musqueam villages, at the mouth of the Fraser, to Burrard Inlet, north of modern day Vancouver. Alexander Caulfield Anderson was one of these Commissioners, and what I am recording here is his Indian Reserve Journal. He and Archibald McKinlay had already decided, between them, that Anderson’s journal would be the official record of the Commission. In the end it would not prove to be that.

So we begin on Sunday 12th November, 1876. It is madness that the Commission began their work at the beginning of a west coast winter, but they did.

Sunday 12th — Sharp frost during past night. Barometer High (30.30) in the morning, but falling rapidly afterwards. A number of Indians in canoes, with flags flying &c &c came to our camp. These Indians were all well clad in European costume, and in person neat and clean. They were of course kindly received; but, after a short conversation, were informed that, being the Sabbath, no business would be attended to today. The Revd Mr. Derrick of the Wesleyan Church held service at the library near the mill about 1/2 miles away from our camp, affording our party the opportunity of availing ourselves of his ministrations. the weather fine during the day, but overcast towards evening.

Mr Sproat joined us today about 11 o’clock. He had been detained in Victoria during the interval from Tuesday forward, on business connected with the Commission. 

Mr Sproat was Gilbert Malcom Sproat, who acted as the joint representative to both the Provincial government (which had employed Archibald McKinlay as their representative), and the Federal government, which employed Alexander Caulfield Anderson. In the early 1860s Sproat had lived in the Alberni Canal, where he had removed some First Nations people from their land, having “purchased it” for the company he worked for. Academics admire this man, partly for his writings about the First Nations. I came to loath him. But that is not yet.

Monday 13th — Raining all day. Forenoon Mr. [George] Blenkinsop was occupied in collecting the Chiefs of the several villages, using the little steam-launch (the “Leonora”) for the purpose. Met the in the afternoon. Five of them spoke, after a few words had been addressed to them by the Commissioners — viz: Joseph, of the R.C. Mission village. La-lah (son of the late Kapilano, Kapilano Creek. Big George, Seymour Creek. Supple-Jack, Government Reserve. Slae-Kwul-tuch, Upper Reserve.

After a few re-assuring words, the Indians were informed that tomorrow the Commissioners would visit the several villages in succession, and endeavour to satisfy all reasonable demands. Joseph made allusion to some remarks made by His Excellency the Governor General, when addressing the Indians in September last, with regard to the Indian rights.

According to Cole Harris’s Making Native Space, Lord Dufferin, who was the Governor General of Canada at the time, criticized British Columbia’s land policies and thought that Native title existed, and that the acreage of Indian reserves should be calculated on the basis of eighty acres per family. However, in the 1860’s many of the Reserves in B.C. had been cut back in size: the Governor of British Columbia was Frederick Seymour, who had no sympathy for First Nations rights, and is described as being “somewhat prejudiced.” [“Joseph Trutch and the Indian Land Policy,” by Robin Fisher, B.C. Studies No. 12, Winter 1971]. Joseph Trutch was the man who had cut many of the existing reserves at that time: now he was the Lieutenant Governor of the Province. According to his biography on Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Trutch’s friend Crease said that “Trutch still runs the’s a one man government still (in disguise).” For more, see:

In the rest of Canada the First Nations were allowed large pieces of land, but from the early stages of negotiations between the Federal and Provincial governments, the B.C. government under Trutch’s control retarded the work of the Commission. They refused to pay expenses, refused to allow some reserves to be enlarged, and limited the size of new reserves to twenty acres of land per family — instead of the eighty acres recommended by Lord Dufferin. [Robin Fisher, “An Exercise in Futility: the Joint Commission on Indian Land in British Columbia, 1875-1880,” Historical Papers, volume 10, number 1, 1975] As the B.C. government had the power to limit the size of Reserves, the Dominion was forced to give way. 

And to clarify this point even further, a paragraph out of Archibald McKinlay’s instructions, in  GR494, BCA, Box 1, File 1, “Memorandum of Instructions to Archibald McKinlay,” says this:

In dealing with the Indian Reserves there are two points which would appear to demand your special attention — 1. The size of the Reserves. 2. Their locality. With regard to the former point this Government does not desire to see apportioned any unnecessarily large Reserves such as would interfere with the progress of White settlement. You are aware from a perusal of the paper on Indian matters that has been placed in your hands that the dispute about Indian Reserves which in your capacity as a Commissioner for the province you are now engaged in settling, took its rise in the different views entertained by the Governments of the Dominion [of Canada] and of this province, respectively, as to the amount of Land that should be allotted to each Indian family. The Dominion Government by Order in Council of March 1873 contending for 80 acres, the Government of British Columbia demurring to this as an excessive grant, and suggesting 20 acres (being 10 acres over that which had been usual before Confederation) as a proper grant.

And so it was that twenty acres of land per family became the standard size for Indian Reserves throughout British Columbia. The First Nations people knew of Lord Dufferin’s opinion, and so they asked the Inland Reserve Commissioners the uncomfortable question. They also knew Joseph Trutch and his policies, and so they probably already knew the answer they would get.     

 These allusions, which it would have been dangerous to entertain too closely, we met by a general remark by me that Her Majesty’s care extended equally to all her children, both white and Indian, and that her instructions to us were that, while doing all in our power to promote the interests of the Indians, the rights of the white settlers should be protected, and the general interests of the Province, in which all must equally participate, be duly regarded. 

Tuesday 14th — Rain ceased towards morning — comparatively fine today — some sunshine, with a little fog towards evening. Left camp for False Creek, outside the narrows, at 8.30; landing Mr. Blenkinsop at the Narrows to take the Census at the larger villages during our absence.

False Creek — the Chief (…) is absent at Howe Sound, where we shall probably see him. Sketch of the original Reserve produced by his substitute — comprising [blank] acres, and signed J. W. Trutch, [Chief Commissioner for] British Columbia Lands & Works, 1869. This Reserve is heavily wooded, as a whole, but with partially cleared patches. Adjoining the house of the Chief is a well-fenced garden, of about one acre or more; in which were growing thirty apple trees, Raspberries, Strawberries, and other fruit, with cabbages and other vegetables, the whole in very good order. One Indian (Louie) complained that a White Man, known as “John,” who has married (or cohabits with) the Chief’s daughter, has disturbed him in the cultivation of his garden. This white man, whom we could not find, lives, it appears, on the Reserve — and we shall notify to Mr. Superintendent [James] Lenihan this fact with a view to his taking the necessary steps to remove him. The Indians did not care for any extension of their Reserve backward, where the woods are very dense, but wished to have a little more frontage on the water. We accordingly extended the western boundary till it strikes the water; an insignificant extension as regards acreage, but valuable for the purposes of the Indians, and comprised indeed all the land so available in the vicinity. 

Embark, and repass the Narrows to Kapilano Creek. This Reserve, containing about 500 acres (though scheduled as containing 165 only) is situated at the mouth of a considerable stream on both sides of which it extends. Little has been done here; but there is a line of fencing constructed which indicates the intention to work. The reserve appears to be sufficiently extensive for the occupants; but in any case it could not be extended, being bounded by other claims, save at the back, where the ground is worthless.

The Capilano River flows from the mountains to the north into Burrard Inlet immediately opposite modern-day Stanley Park. Gilbert Malcolm Sproat said in a letter that:

The real home of the Skwawmish Indians is upon the Skwawmish river in Howe Sound. They work in Burrard’s Inlet, and go to the Skwawmish river when they wish for a change of life and scene. The whole Skwawmish people at Burrard’s Inlet and Howe Sound number about 639 persons. Of these at the time of our visit, about 317 were resident at Burrard’s Inlet; the remainder being at the Skwawmish River, Howe Sound. [GR494, Box 1, File 5, Sproat to Elliott, 27 Nov. 1876].

So, the First Nations people who lived here had come from Squamish to work in the sawmills on Burrard Inlet, or to supply logs to those same sawmills. There was little room for expansion at these reserves, but the Indian Reserve Commissioners appear to have granted land on the back of the current reserve, “worthless” as it might seem to be.

Those First Nations people who lived in Burrard Inlet did not expect large expansions of their reserves there. There were no established reserves on the Squamish River: all of the reserves the Indian Commissioners created on this visit would be new. The young First Nations men who worked in the sawmills on Burrard Inlet expected to return home to generous grants of land, and they made that expectation clear to the Commissioners.

Anderson’s journal does not indicate how long the Commissioners were on Burrard Inlet, but they were at Capilano River on the 14th, and they reached Squamish on the 21st: they must have spent some time there. They did enlarge the other reserves in Burrard Inlet, although Anderson does not record this in his journal. The Commissioners made their way up Howe Sound to the Squamish River, presumably travelling in the Leonora. They must have camped at the mouth of the Squamish River, where they met with the chiefs. They began their work on the 21st of November:

Tuesday 21st — Fine day. After making divers preparations we start at 9.40 am, in 3 canoes to ascend the Squawmish (Squamish) River. 1. A.C. Anderson and A. McKinlay. 2. G.M. Sproat. 3. Mr. Mohun and the Chief Joseph. 

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Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved. 

One thought on “Indian Reserve Commission on Burrard Inlet

  1. Dave Simpson

    When I read your book I greatly admired the work of Anderson as a Reserve Commissioner. It was apparent that the old fur trader was accepted and trusted by the various tribes wherever he went. Perhaps, he was the the last white man to try and deal with them fairly. It is disheartening to read about the reserve sizes being cut back and it reveals the monumental change in the relationship between the white man and the First Nations. In the age of the fur trade the whites were conscious of living in the natives land and understood their culture. It was a trading relationship. As soon as all the white immigrants arrived and non-fur traders took over the natives were interlopers in a white world. I have wondered whether the reserve sizes were based solely on the numbers living on the land at the time of the settlement or was any consideration given to the numbers that were there prior to the ravages of disease that decimated the native populations. I can guess the answer. We have so much to be ashamed of but at least one man tried as best he could to be fair.