Splotched with reds and oranges on its cover, a weathered ledger is held in a vault in the B.C. Archives. The notebook is typical for 150 years ago, but this particular one set into motion the colonial settlement of Greater Victoria, and the sidelining of aboriginal people for generations.
Titled with flowing script “Register of Land Purchases from Indians,” the ledger contains 11 of the 14 Vancouver Island treaties, also called the Douglas treaties. In the eyes of the colonial government of the day, the documents recorded the purchase and transfer of the vast majority of Greater Victoria to the British Crown.
“This is basically an Hudson’s Bay Co. register to record trade and weather and labour,” said archivist Raymond Frogner, holding a full-size colour copy of the notebook, about the size of legal paper. “The documents embody a lot of the colonial process – good, bad and indifferent.”
The Douglas treaties remained the only written agreements with aboriginal people in B.C. for nearly 150 years, were held up by the Supreme Court of Canada as a basis to protect aboriginal rights, and continue to fuel First Nations lawsuits against the governments of B.C. and Canada.
For their enduring connections to the province’s past and present, the B.C. Archives and the Royal B.C. Museum are submitting the Douglas treaties to the UNESCO Memory of the World register, an international program to preserve and highlight the world’s foundational heritage documents.
“We are looking to get these documents UNESCO status,” said Jack Lohman, CEO of the RBCM. “That would put them up to being among the most important documents in the world.”
Frogner, an expert in coastal aboriginal history, is drawing up the 30 pages of documents justifying the inclusion of the treaties to the Memory of the World. The entry will be submitted to Canada’s UNESCO committee in Ottawa in September, and if it makes the cut, will be passed to the international body in Paris, France. Canada currently has four document collections on the register, including the entire Hudson’s Bay Co. archive in Winnipeg.
“It’s interesting that in B.C. there are only 14 land title documents written in the colonial era until the Nisga’a treaty (in 2000),” Frogner said. “Land title and rights were never settled and were pushed aside for quite a while as B.C. expanded.”
James Douglas, the chief factor for Hudson’s Bay Co., which represented the British Crown, was given the job of establishing the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849 as means to head off U.S. settlers and expansionism.
The colonial office ordered Douglas, who Frogner called “lost at sea” in terms of negotiating land deals, to legally secure land for Fort Victoria from local aboriginal people. In April 1850 he called a meeting with leaders of the Songhees and struck verbal agreements with nine sub-groups, recorded the names, and each leader marked the ledger with an X.
The written terms of the agreement remained a blank spot on the page. The colonial office in London gave Douglas the text of the land purchase after the fact, based on New Zealand’s 1840 Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori.
“For a set of blankets and coins, the (Songhees) groups returned verbal agreements and land and title rights were passed to Hudson’s Bay Co.,” Frogner said. “Douglas explained to the colonial office what he had done, and in August 1850, the colonial office said ‘great, here’s the body of the text.
“It seems to be an ad-hoc, improvised document. Legal parameters were lacking because Douglas was not a lawyer.”
Over the next few years, Douglas created agreements with 13 other aboriginal groups in Greater Victoria and Vancouver Island, with each treaty preserving vaguely worded “villages and enclosed fields” for First Nations, and hunting and fishing rights, using the same wording as the Maori treaty. Promises within the text of future surveys to properly carve out colonial and aboriginal boundaries never materialized.
Frogner noted the Douglas treaties did recognize that aboriginal people have rights and title to land and resources and “represent for the British an attempt to reconcile irreconcilable social differences and limit the damage of colonial advance.”
“It was also the first step toward the reserve system, residential schools and the Indian Act,” he said. “That wasn’t envisioned in the treaties, but that’s the outcome.”
The Douglas treaties were ignored as fast as they were written, but were used in a ground-breaking case in 1964 between the Crown and Nanaimo First Nation to reassert aboriginal hunting rights. In 1982, all preexisting treaties were adopted into the Canadian Constitution, giving them the weight of constitutional law.
The Douglas treaties were the basis for the provincial government giving the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations $31.5 million in return for the legislature property, which was initially set aside as First Nation reserve land in 1854. Last year, the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations filed separate lawsuits covering 376 acres in Saanich’s Cadboro Bay based on the “villages and enclosed fields” being preserved in perpetuity for aboriginal people. The next court hearing on that lawsuit is set for Aug. 8 in Victoria.
The treaties still fire passions of First Nations people, as shown in a packed ceremony in May that renamed Mount Douglas as Pkols, its pre-colonial name.
“The fact that it is called Mount Douglas is a slap in the face for our people,” Tsawout First Nation chief Eric Pelkey told the News earlier this year. “It’s where the Douglas treaties were signed in 1852 by James Douglas as a representative of the Queen. Since that day, successive colonial governments have not honoured those treaties.”
Frogner noted that B.C. Archives doesn’t know when the Douglas treaty ledger fell into its hands, and where it was held from the late 1800s. Two copies Douglas sent to London have never been found.
“There’s no record of when the treaty came into the archive. It was probably in large intakes of colonial records,” Frogner said. “You can see the value attached to Indian land records. At the time it was downplayed in a lot of ways.”