First Nations In British Columbia Essay Research

First Nations In British Columbia Essay, Research Paper By the end of the Victorian period hardly a people remained on the face of the earth whose social structure, culture, and basic way of

First Nations In British Columbia Essay, Research Paper

By the end of the Victorian period hardly a people remained on the

face of the earth whose social structure, culture, and basic way of

life had not been more or less violently disrupted.

-Cell, Imperial Conscience 1

When the first explorers reported that they had reached the Pacific

coast, they mentioned that there were inhabitants already occupying the

territory. Although sometimes reluctant to even bother reporting on the

Native peoples, the explorers stated that it wasn t worth looking into the

cultures of these people2. This attitude of ignorant explorers laid the

groundwork for prejudicial preconception of the future settlers that ultimately

resulted in assimilation.

One conclusion that white men made was that the Natives would

eventually annihilate themselves because they were not a self-sufficient

nation. This assumption has proved to be faulty, in that through all the

turmoil that the Aboriginals of British Columbia have suffered through

racism, reserve systems, residential schools, and prohibition of practicing

their cultural traditions, they have survived and in fact, have prospered and

continue to prosper in the present day.


During the colonization period of the 1800 s, settlers started to fill up

Britain s western colony. The gold rush enhanced the popularity of the colony

and the settlers became preoccupied with its wealth to deal with themselves

adapting to the rights of the Natives and instead were pushed aside and

European assimilation began3. The settlers were told of the extreme racial

differences and beliefs and decided that the only theirs were valid. They

saw the Native culture and spiritual beliefs as heathenistic and barbaric;

nonetheless, there was the odd settler that saw the cultures of the Northwest

Coast to be astounding. Overall, the settlers knew that if they were going to

dominate the colony, they would have to constrain the Natives and rid them

of their culture.


Before British Columbia reached provincial status in 1871, the colony

started to enforce assimilation. The first act of assimilation were the 14

Douglas treaties which took place from 1850 to 1854, when the settlers

wanted to free the land from Native occupation on Vancouver Island. The

fourteen treaties involved moving the Natives onto small reserves and camps;

as well as granting them small allowances such as cash, clothing for the chief,

and livestock. In the 1860 s it was viewed that the Natives didn t have a

sophisticated society, and were not competent to settle the land. This opinion

lead to the creation of reserves for the rest of British Columbia when the

Indian Act was constituted4.

The next step in assimilation was the British North America Act. The

BNA Act was created in 1876, and it legislated that Natives became a federal

responsibility(section 91)5. This meant that all native relations were to be

dealt with by federal government and the Douglas treaties came to a halt. The

reasons why there was no more treaties was because the land became the

responsibility of the province and the provincial government didn t agree with

Native land title; funds were cut by the colonial office in Britain; and because

the majority of the settlers disagreed to give public funds, Douglas also no

longer believed that Natives retained land title6.

The Indian Act

The end of the Douglas treaties didn t stop assimilation. The Indian

act was created in 1876. This act demoralized the Natives by more or less

treating them like wild animals. Reserves for the rest of the province were

formed and laws became enforced to keep order among the savages .

The laws of the Indian Act were inhumane, for example, there was a passlaw

in which any one Native person could not leave the reserve without

permission by their Indian Agent. With regard to Indian agents, only they

could determine who was status and who was not. The Indian agent could

also strip a Native of their status. Such was done when a Native woman

married a white man or, if a Native got a University degree, his status would

be taken away.

Church Influences

The churches also had a big part in assimilating Natives. William

Duncan was among the missionaries who believed that Christianity was best

for the Natives7 The churches wanted to convert all Natives and abolish

Native culture, this was when the potlatches were prohibited8. The potlatch

prohibition is easily one of the most monstrous acts of cruelty that the

Europeans imposed on Natives. The potlatch was the way Natives governed

themselves. Every important event that occurred in Native society resulted in

a potlatch. Birth, Death, marriage, shame, settlement, and victory feasts were

all common practice. The purpose of having a feast was to resolve a

problem, tragedy, or celebrate a joyous event. In the feast hall, the

participants were seated according to clan, house, and finally rank. This is

where social structure is most important because it was the way that Natives

honored and respected the living and the dead, paid out debts, and thanked

clans and people for their kindness and assistance.

The churches also suggested residential schools. The children that

were sent away from their families were forced to learn how to be European

and they were not allowed to speak their language, let alone see or speak to

their siblings, which was punishable if they were caught doing so. Many

tragedies occurred in residential schools including sexual, physical, and

mental abuse which has caused psychological harm to many of the children

who attended residential schools9.

The potlatch wasn t the only tradition that the church eradicated.

Wearing traditional regalia and dancing were also outlawed. This was a

grave adversity. For the Natives, oral history was how they educated their

future chiefs and matriarchs. The history was often told by a story from an

elder, a ceremonial dance, or by art. Before the settlers came, lineage were

passed down from generation to generation in either of these forms. There are

a variety of dances along the northwest coast. Each nation has there own

dances; in which each clan, house, and chief own. Regalia would often be

worn for dances or potlatches with various art work which was exclusive to

that of the owner. The art work alone was an aspect of history and was

always created for a purpose, every object that had art work on it symbolized

a story or ownership. The natives continued to have potlatches, they would

have them in secret, out of sight from the Indian agent. When Alert Bay

Natives were caught having an illegal potlatch, their Indian agent offered their

freedom in exchange for their regalia10.

Attitudes toward Natives

By the late 19th century the majority of settlers saw the Native people

as a nuisance. These people were extreme capitalists and were only

concerned about their personal gain and not the respect of a different culture.

Barman suggests that there were four major misconceptions surrounding the

view of Natives11. During this period, nationalism became very prominent

across the world. It was no different in North America, now that the

Europeans were the dominant race in British Columbia, they were not afraid

to treat the Natives like inferiors. The Europeans also assumed that the land

the Natives traditionally lived – off of was just being wasted if it was not

cultivated. Barman also stated that the Native culture and spiritual beliefs

were irrelevant to the Europeans, and they didn t care too much to actually

realize that there was structure and governance which was not unlike that of

European hierarchy. The final and most dreadful misconception was that the

Europeans figured that the Natives would eventually disappear. The

Europeans believed in these misconceptions to their full extent. It was from

the thoughts and idealism of the ignorant settlers that the Indian policy

became a reality.


To truly understand the effects that assimilation had on the Northwest

coast Natives, one must live the life of a Native. It is difficult for non-natives

to interpret the hardships that occurred in the lives of the Natives by only

reading from a book. The unjust realities that took place could never be

obliterated, but over the years Natives have become more than just an alien

in a European society, but a part of Canadian society. The European

idealism that was determined to make Canada has long since passed and the

Canada that has been made is proud to be multicultural.

Assimilation didn t work in British Columbia and today Natives are on

their way to regaining their lost culture. There are numerous Native

organizations that strive ensure that their culture will never die again. These

organizations also encourage non-natives of all ethnic groups to share in the

prosperity of their culture. Today Native edification is thriving, there is still

a presence of prejudice, but the majority of British Columbians have become

less ignorant and more understanding; which truly lives up to the name of

today s Canadian .

Work Cited:

vBarman, Jean The West Beyond The West (1996) University of

Toronto Press.

vFisher, Robin. Contact And Conflict Second Edition(1994)

UBC Press.

vFrideres, James. S Aboriginal Peoples In Canada Fifth

Edition(1998) Prentice Hall.

vJohnston, Hugh J.M. The Pacific Province(1996) Douglas &


vMcMillan, Alan D. Native Peoples And Cultures of Canada

Second Edition (1995) Douglas & McIntyre.