Archivist Raymond Frogner shows a replica of the original ledger that recorded the transfer of land between James Douglas

Archivist Raymond Frogner shows a replica of the original ledger that recorded the transfer of land between James Douglas

B.C. Archives seeks world heritage status for Douglas treaties

B.C. Archives and the Royal B.C. Museum are submitting the Douglas treaties to the UNESCO Memory of the World register

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.”



Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Andrew Swanson was arrested Wednesday after he was wanted for an alleged choking assault and for obstructing police. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Victoria police arrest Andrew Swanson on warrants for alleged choking assault, obstruction

A member of the public spotted Swanson and called 911 before police came and made the arrest

(Black Press Media file photo)
Youth sustains minor injuries in stabbing at Saanich Plaza

Suspect under age of 16 taken into custody, no risk to the public, police say

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
West Shore proud owners of B.C.’s first electric school bus

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

Sue Hodgson returns as publisher of the Peninsula News Review starting June 1. (Courtesy Sue Hodgson)
Peninsula News Review welcomes back Sue Hodgson as publisher

Dale Naftel takes helm of Oak Bay News as publisher

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of May 4

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you plan to travel on the Victoria Day long weekend?

It’s the unofficial start to the summer season. A time of barbecues,… Continue reading

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

People line up for COVID-19 vaccination at a drop-in clinic at Cloverdale Recreation Centre on Wednesday, April 27, 2021. Public health officials have focused efforts on the Fraser Health region. (Aaron Hinks/Peace Arch News)
B.C. reports 1st vaccine-induced blood clot; 684 new COVID cases Thursday

Two million vaccine doses reached, hospital cases down

More than 6,000 camping reservations in British Columbia were cancelled as a result of a provincial order limiting travel between health regions. (Unsplash)
1 in 4 camping reservations cancelled in B.C. amid COVID-19 travel restrictions

More than 6,500 BC Parks campsite reservations for between April 19 and May 25 have been revoked

Most Read