First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia

Coast Salish

An ancient Coast Salish village and cemetery site being illegally destroyed in 2003 on South Pender Island by the developer of Poets Cove Resort and Spa. In 2005 the developer was charged with violating the 1996 Heritage Conservation Act, the first time that the government has attempted to enforce the Act. This landmark First Nations case is ongoing.
Photo: Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group


Coast Salish


Kuper Island


Coast Salish peoples inhabit the Northwest Coast of North America, from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, north to Bute Inlet in British Columbia. Coast Salish territories includes much of the ecologically diverse Georgia Basin and Puget Sound known as the Salish Sea (right). This huge drainage basin comprises the coastal mainland and Vancouver Island from Campbell River and Georgia Strait south through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Lower Fraser Valley and the lowlands of Puget Sound. Archaeological evidence of human occupation in this coastal marine area is extensive and ancient, dating back some 8000 years.

First Nations map by Franz Boas.
Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 1887


Salish Sea, Coast Salish Territory.
Georgia Basin Action Plan

Coast Salish territories are demarked in pink in one of the first tribal maps of BC, published in 1887 by the ethnologist Franz Boas (left). Among all First Nations, Coast Salish peoples have been the most displaced by the forces of colonization.

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Coast Salish territories were divided in 1848 by an artificial boundary between Canada and the USA and large populations of settlers formed at Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle and elsewhere (right). These areas are predicted to grow by about 40 percent over the next 20 years, so the problem of urban sprawl "development" and its destruction of First Nations heritage will become increasingly contentious.

An indigenous mission to "restore, preserve and protect our shared environment and natural resources in our ancestorial homelands - the Salish Sea" has resulted in a number of annual gatherings. "Our ancestors have passed down the traditional teachings of songs, dances, and spiritual ceremonies that depict our identity and strengths of our peoples. Our sacred trust has been given to us from our ancestors and defines our role as protectors of our Mother Earth. We are entrusted with the protection and sustainability of environment and natural resources of our ancestral lands and waters of the Salish Sea. Over the decades our lands and waters have been severely impact by pollution that affects our culture, food, health, and economy. Most importantly hurting our elders who have relied on these since the beginning of time and threatening the lifeways of our children's future" Coast Salish Gathering.


Tribal Canoe Journey.
Skokomish Tribal Nation


"Natural Gallery," Descano Bay, Gabriola Island.
Engraving by J. Cardero, 1792

The artist also portrayed the Snunéymuxw chief from Descano Bay, a stately man clothed in a cloak of woven cedar bark with fur trim and an elaborate headdress(right). The precontact (1775) population of Snunéymuxw people is believed to have been about 5,000. In 1838 a census figure was 1,000. Following the 1849 discovery of coal in the heart of Snunéymuxw Territory, a fortified post was built and in 1854 the Snunéymuxw became the last to sign a Douglas Treaty, for a payment of 538 blankets. In 1876 the Indian Reserve Commission cited a Snunéymuxw population of 223. "One cause of this depopulation was the introduction of infectious diseases for which the Snunéymuxw had no immunity" Snuneymuxw First Nation.

The inhabitants of the Northwest Coast were first represented by European artists in the late 18th century. Artist Jose Cardero accompanied a Spanish expedition by Alessandro Malaspina in 1792. His engraving (left) of a unique geological formation at Descano Bay includes three natives who are taking part in an examination of the ancient petroglyphs found in the "Natural Gallery."

Snunéymuxw Chief, Descano Bay.
Drawing by J. Cardero, 1792

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"Malaspina Gallery," Descano Bay, Gabriola Island.
Old postcard, c. 1930


Coast Salish languages and dialects include: Northern Salish (Comox, Pentlatch, Sechelt); Central Salish (Squamish, Halkomelem, Nooksack) Northern Straits (SENCOTEN, Sooke, Lekwungen, Lummi); Clallam; and Southern Salish (Lushootseed, Twana). "All Salishan languages are endangered - some extremely so with only three or four speakers left" Salishan Languages.

The fantastic wave washed sandstone formations discovered by Spanish explorers in 1792, "Malaspina Gallery" (left), was rediscovered in 1903 and ever since has been a popular tourist attraction. Many such Coast Salish landmarks have been appropriated and /or vandalized and destroyed by colonists and settlers.


"Return of a War Party," 1847. Songhees village (left) and Fort Victoria (right).
Painting by Paul Kane (Royal Ontario Museum)

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"Che-a-Clack, Chief of the Sangeys," 1847.
Painting: Paul Kane

When the location for Fort Victoria was selected in 1842, the Coast Salish peoples used the area for hunting, fishing and harvesting plants. Described as "a perfect Eden" by the British colonists, the ancestors of Songhees First Nation had tended and nurtured the land here for centuries before white contact. In 1845 the Lekwungen family groups comprised of about 700 people who lived in villages on bays around what is now Greater Victoria.

Paul Kane painted several interior scenes of the houses in Coast Salish villages. His domestic scene of a Clallam woman weaving a blanket on a loom includes a small white dog in the corner (right). The dog was a special breed, now extinct, used for its wool like fur which was combed and spinned for weaving blandets and material for clothing.


Colonial control over the Northwest Coast and the occupation of what is now British Columbia began in 1843 when the Hudson's Bay Company built Fort Victoria at a place used to harvest willows for fishing nets, called Ku-sing-ay-las. One of the first representations of Fort Victoria was by Paul Kane. His composite painting (above) shows that the Songhees village is equally large and imposing to the fort. Two canoes with Haida warriors are seen paddling into the Songhees harbour from the Juan de Fuca Strait. The fort was an important trading centre for many coastal First Nations who travelled long distances by canoe to visit it.

Paul Kane painted the distinquished Chief Che - a - Clack, also called Cheethlum (left). As Songhees hereditary chief from the 1840s until 1864, he signed the Douglas Treaty of 1850 for the Checkonein Family. They shared the area around the fort with six other families, all of whom signed treaties: Kakyaakan, Teechamitsa, Whyomilth, Kosampson, Swengwhung and Chelcowitch. All spoke a North Straits Salish dialect called Lekwungen. Today they are represented by the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations.

Clallam woman weaving, 1848.
Painting by Paul Kane (Royal Ontario Museum)

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Aboriginal village & defensive site, Finlayson Point.
Illustration: Gordon Friesen

Not far from the ancient cliffside site (above) is Clover Point, the landing spot of the first colonizers of Vancouver Island. The abundant native red clover they discovered here was highly valued by the Lekwungen who harvested its rhizomes as food source. Today this species has disappeared from all of the coastline: Where Has All the Clover Gone? Standing at Finlayson Point today, one can imagine how the native landscape might have looked before it was converted for agriculture and stripped of its rich biodiversity (right).


Lekwungen people lived in a village and defensive site on Finlayson Point (left) beginning about 800 or 900 years before Fort Victoria was built. Burial cairns of huge boulders marked the hillside above this site, likely created during the 18th century to bury victims of smallpox epidemics. Over the years, settlers desecrated the graves and moved the cairns. Today this sacred Songhees area is part of Beacon Hill Park and little evidence remains of the thousand years of native occupation. See how the pre-contact Lekwungen landscape may have looked: Beacon Hill Park Illustrations.

Virtual view of Finlayson Point, 2005.
Photo: Don Bain (Click for QuickTime)

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"Indian Graves, Victoria," 1854.
Drawing: W. McMurtie (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

A Songhees grave site, likely Deadman's Point, was sketched in 1859 by Montague Tyrwhitt Drake (right), an early colonist. He became a judge in Victoria, infamous for sentencing the legendary Indian Slumach to death by hanging on 16 January 1891 in New Westminster. Slumach was from the Coquitlam tribe and had become famous for his hidden gold stash. Unable to speak English and illiterate, he had no defence to the fabricated charges against him. His story is told in the 2005 German film "Auf Slumachs Spuren."


For the Europeans, the Lekwungen burial houses and grave figures were objects of curiosity. A sketch of the Indian graves at Laurel Point (left), not far from the present BC Parliament Building, shows wooden figures in protective shelters surrounded by arbutus trees. Like all First Nations gravesites in Victoria, it was vandalized and looted by settlers and quickly disappeared.

Songhees grave site, Victoria, 1859.
Sketch: M. Tyrwhitt Drake (British Museum)


"View of Victoria, Vancouver Island," 1860.
Day & Son, Lithographers to the Queen (Click to enlarge)

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"View of Victoria," 1860. (detail)
Lithograph: Day & Son, London

First Nations peoples vastly outnumbered settlers in 1860, yet almost no sign of their presence can be seen in the panorama of Victoria. Located across the harbour from the bastion of Fort Victoria was the Songhees village (above). Barely visible are five canoes (right) each with a dozen paddlers who must have had a remarkable knowledge and endurance to travel such long distances. The Songhees had originally lived adjacent to the stockaded fort, but they were forced to move their village across the harbour so that it would be within firing range of the bastion's canons.


The European takeover of the Colony of Vancouver Island began in 1851 with the appointment of the Colonial Surveyor. Without extinguishing Aboriginal Title, the Lekwungen land around Fort Victoria was surveyed and mapped. A panorama view of Victoria (above) produced in 1860 asserted British title over the Queen's new colony. It was followed by similar engravings published in the popular illustrated press to promote settlement in BC.

"View of Victoria," 1860. (detail)
Lithograph by Day & Son

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Fort Victoria was attacked by First Nations warriors in 1844. The assault was led by the legendary Tzouhalum, one of the most fierce chiefs of the Cowichan First Nation. He was angry that the colonial authorities had tried to collect damages from him for some cows that had been killed by his people. Such conflicts became more frequent as settlers began fencing in and ruining traditional hunting and gathering grounds for their domesticated animals and crops. The Cowichan warrior is remembered by Mount Tzouhalum, where he was said to have sought refuge in a cave.

James Squameyugs was born c. 1797 (right). He was Songhees chief from 1864 until his death in 1892. Chief Squameyugs (his name means Grand Fir Tree), was a survivor of the Victoria smallpox crisis of 1862, one of the greatest tragedies in Northwest Coast history that caused the annihilation of up to two thirds of the indigenous population. The government forced infected Indians who were visiting Victoria to return to their villages, ensuring the epidemic's spread. Many believe it was a deliberate act to weaken First Nations resistance to the conquest of their land. The Douglas Treaty signed by Chief Squameyugs did not protect his people from colonial efforts to remove them from their village at Songhees Point in 1858 and 1874. Chief Squameyugs vowed never to be carried alive from his home and it was not until a decade after his death that the relocation was carried out, under the guise of a celebration.


Songhees Chief Squameyuqs, c. 1866.
Photo: BC Archives


Coal Tyee (centre) and his family, c. 1860.
Photo: BC Archives


Chief Squameyugs and the Songhees people never benefited from the massive profits made from the subdivision and selling of their land. Nor did the Snuneymuxw people at Nanaimo receive any benefits from their coal rich land despite being promised by the colonists: "The good Queen, our great white chief, far over the water, will look after your people for all time, and they will be given much money so that they will never be poor" Douglas Treaty (Snuneymuxw First Nation).

A photo taken c. 1860 of Coal Tyee (left), the Snuneymuxw discoverer of coal at Nanaimo, shows that he did not even have shoes. Chief Dick Whoakum, who signed the 1854 Douglas Treaty, testified in 1913 that none of the Snuneymuxw had ever been compensated for the highly valued coal that was taken from them or for the loss of their land: McKenna McBride Report.

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"Nature's Monument." Engraving, 1888.
Source:Canadian Pictures

Colonial conquest was symbolized by illustrations of landmarks such the one sketched by the Governor General of Canada during his visit to the Northwest Coast in 1888, which he named as "Nature's Monument" (above). Note the diminutive Coast Salish canoes. Renamed "Siwash Rock" after the Chinook Jargon word for Indian, today it is a popular viewpoint on the seawall in Stanley Park (right). In the distance, the sprawl of North Vancouver can be seen.


S'i'lix (Siwash Rock), 2006.
Photo: Nealy J.


Mary Agnes Capilano (c. 1836 - 1940).
Painting: Darlena Warhurst-Metz

The Musqueam warrior Capilano (giyeplénexw) was famous for having fought the ferocious invading Lekwiltok warriors from Kwakwaka'wakw Territory. A carving representing Capilano (right) was photographed in 1898 at the Musqueam village located on present day Point Grey. The huge cedar house post was said to have been carved at the Capilano River in North Vancouver and towed across the Burrard Inlet to support a beam in a house built by Capilano II, the nephew of Capilano. Standing beside the house post is Charlie, Capilano III, nephew of Capilano II.

"As an urban first nation, Musqueam lands and resources have always been coveted by others. We look around today, and see that over the last 130 years they have largely been taken by government, without proper compensation, and given to others ... the intensity of the dispossession effort directed at Musqueam lands and resources perhaps explains why Musqueam was one of the first to challenge the government in court" Musqueam Nation Legal Cases.


One of the chapters in Legends of Vancouver (1911) by the Mohawk writer Pauline E. Johnson was called The Siwash Rock. The Squamish legend of the origins of the rock had been told to Pauline by Joe Capilano (c. 1840 - 1910) and his wife Mary Agnes Capilano (left). In 1906 Chief Capilano led a delegation to England with Cowichan Chief Charley Isipaymilt and Secwepemc Chief Basil David to meet King Edward VI and speak of the urgent need to settle the land question in BC.

In 1936 the government transfered the Capilano Indian Reserve in North Vancouver to British Pacific Properties Ltd. which constructed the Lions Gate Bridge and other projects. The first English monarchs to come to Canada attended a ceremony for the new bridge in 1939 but they ignored Mary Capilano, the First Nations matriarch.

Musqueam house post of Capilano, 1898.
Photo: American Museum of Natural History

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North Vancouver surveyors, 1893.
Photo: BC Archives

  Within a short period after colonization, the traditional hunting and fishing grounds in what is now Greater Vancouver were destroyed by the combined forces of logging, mining, saw mills, fish canneries, urban sprawl and hydro dams. The Capilano Logging Company cleared most of the ancient forests of North Vancouver, leaving a vast wasteland of stumps that was slash burned in preparation for surveyors to subdivide (left).

Colonial land speculators who made a fortune from their illicit activities included the first attorney general and supreme court justice of the colony of BC, the first mayor of New Westminster; the first secretary of the treasury, the first Indian Superintendent, and so on. All got Indian land for cheap and sold it at great profit, setting up a model of exploitation that continues today.


"Deadman's Island, Vancouver," 1899.
Painting: T. M. Martin

  Deadman's Island off Stanley Park in Vancouver was an ancient Coast Salish burial site where the corpses were placed in cedar boxes hoisted high up in the branches of trees (left). In the 1860s whalers began using the island to process their slain whales and settlers began coal mining nearby. They used the island as their cemetary until 1888 when it became a quarantine site for small pox victims. In 1899 the island was stolen by a settler who set up a sawmill and clearcut its ancient trees. In 1930 Deadman's Island reverted to federal title and became a naval station. In 2005 it was claimed by Musequem First Nation.

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"Eburne Indian Midden," 1908.
Photo: Vancouver City Archives

As waves of settlers flooded the Fraser River delta, the ancient forests were logged, the land was burned and cleared, surveyed and bisected by railroads and roads and real estate development. Hundreds of sawmills, canneries and other factories were set up, many still operating today. By 1929, a huge industrial centre known as Marpole had subsumed the Eburne Midden. Urban and industrial sprawl on the Fraser River delta has also destroyed the abundant Musequeum salmon stocks. See: Musqueum Fisheries.


Much of Vancouver is built on vast shell middens and other ancient archaeological sites. Urban sprawl has obliterated most of this powerful evidence of Aboriginal Title. Located at the mouth of the Fraser River was a 3,500 year old site discovered in 1889, called the "Eburne Midden," the largest in North America. Hundreds of human remains were excavated as well as ceremonial artifacts - sculptured stone bowls, bone and antler carvings, copper ornaments - indicating a rich and sophisticated cultural life (left).

Sawmill at Eburne, 1912.
Photo: Vancouver City Archives

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  The desecration of ancient middens and burial sites continues at an alarming rate in BC due to increasing urban sprawl: roads, subdivisions, golf courses, resorts, etc. Sustained environmentally destructive development often takes place on contested land that is either Crown land owned by the public, private land pre empted by settlers, or Indian Reserve land alienated by the government. The deeply entrenched colonial process is epitomized by the scandalous deal in 1885 whereby almost one quarter of the most fertile part of Vancouver Island was signed over to a Scottish coal baron. See: E&N Railway Grant (Nanoose First Nation); and Great Land Grab (Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group).

Now that the natural resources of BC have been depleted, the government is increasingly transfering Crown land to real estate developers. Waterfront resorts especially encroach on First Nations heritage sites. A shocking instance occurred at Craig Bay in Nanoose Territory (right) where in 1995 burial remains were secretly dumped by Intrawest Development Corporation. In protest the Nanoose people organized the "Qil xe ma:t Blockade" and initiated a court case against the developer. In 2003, a similar scandal occured on South Pender Island by the developers of Poets Cove Resort. The legal case against Poets Cove Resort is ongoing. See: Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group.

Craig Bay, 6 September 2006.
Photo: P. Kipper

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Totem pole at Songhees Point - detail.
Photo: anon

Chief Cheethlum, who was painted by Paul Kane in 1847, is the great great great grandfather of Cheryl Bryce (right). His longhouse stood at Songhees Point until 1911 when the Songhees were forcibly removed. At the time, Cheryl's great grandfather, Chief Tommy George, tried to secure the return of his people to their ancestral home, now known as the subdivision of Oak Bay, but was unsuccessful. Today Songhees Point is occupied by condos (Songhees Point Strata) and a luxury hotel (Delta Ocean Pointe Resort).

Cheryl Bryce, Songhees lands manager, has witnessed the continued destruction of aboriginal heritage sites in Victoria due to deliberate ignorance and financial greed. To stop the desecration of the sacred SPAET cave, she organized a blockade on 16 November 2006. See subchapter: SPAET.


First Nations burial grounds around the harbour of BC's capital city of Victoria were among the first to be desecrated. Traditionally Songhees chiefs were buried at Deadman's Point, now developed as the Laurel Point Resort. Another urban burial site, Deadman's Island (Hackett Island), was removed from the Songhees Indian Reserve in 1924 but in 1993 the Songhees successfully reclaimed it.

All that remains to mark the Songhees village that stood on the Victoria harbour until 1911 is a totem pole (left), carved from an ancient cedar tree to celebrate the 1995 Commonwealth Games. The lower figures evoke the spirit of Pallatsis, a Lekwungen name for Songhees Point meaning "place of the cradle," where parents left the cradles of young children when they were able to walk on their own, to ensure them a long life.

Cheryl Bryce, 5 December 2006.
Photo: G. T. Wm Edwards

  Kuper Island  
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