Confederation to Present

When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871 it was the only province where native people constituted the majority. This demographic was to change drastically in subsequent years so that by 1911 they represented one-eighteenth of the total population. In part this population shift was the result of dramatic immigration from all over the world, but during this period there was also a significant decline in First Nations population, particularly among the coastal groups.

As more and more land was used for settlement, farming, logging and mining, it became increasingly hard for First Nations to maintain their traditional life based upon subsistence use of the land. However, First Nations people were not completely pushed aside. They were important as workers and even owners in many of the new industries established in the province including fishing, fish canning, logging, lumber mills, freight packing, cattle ranching and other agricultural tasks.

Alert Bay Fishermen, 187-
As these new industries developed, many First Nations became employed in the work force, leaving behind traditional hunting and gathering activities.



A group of aboriginal packers,
in northern B.C. early in this century


Beginning with the fur trade, many native people worked as paid employees in new industries such as carrying freight, the fishing industry, logging and lumbering and agriculture.


Two First Nations cowboys in the 1920s
Jack Alex (later Penticton Band chief),
and Gabriel Paul of the Okanagan Nation



Cattle ranching in the B.C. Interior employed many aboriginal people.

Increasing contact between settlers and First Nations also resulted in many changes to aboriginal culture. One of the greatest changes was the involvement of various Christian missionaries who actively sought to convert First Nations people and to have them adopt a European way of life.

Congregation of the Church
at Metlakatla, 1881
Detail of B-03574
Initially many First Nations had no interest in becoming Christians, while others simply incorporated aspects within their existing belief system. Over time, yielding to the pressure of these missionaries more renounced their traditional beliefs entirely and adopted Christianity. Some First Nations however, actively chose Christianity for political advantage.

Residential Schools
D-08840, E-00187, B-01029, B-01046
By the early part of this century many Christian churches had established residential schools, which placed First Nations children in boarding schools away from their families and communities. These schools sought to raise the children in a Christian and European manner, forbidding them even to speak their native language.

Kamloops Reservation, 1898
Detail of A-03664
Another extremely important series of events during this time was the determination of which lands would be set aside for First Nations. These lands, known as Indian Reserves, were established by government officials to provide land for use by First Nations, while leaving the majority of the land for settlers to claim.

McKenna/McBride Commission meeting
Nanaimo Reserve, 1913
In 1876 a Joint Commission on Indian Land was established by the federal and Provincial governments to allocate land to each band. For the next fourteen years the Commission travelled throughout the province meeting with First Nations groups to establish reserve lands. In many cases the land allotted to the First Nations was simply the only remaining land in the area that had not been claimed by settlers.

The resulting Reserves were often very small and consisted of land with limited resource value. By 1913, after years of petitioning by various First Nations groups notably the Nisga'a and the Fraser River peoples, a Royal Commission, commonly known as the McKenna/McBride Commission, was formed to re-examine Reserves in British Columbia. However, the end result was to confirm the existing Reserves with some modifications, even reductions of allotted land in some instances.

From the perspective of both the federal and provincial governments the land issue was essentially settled. However, from the perspective of the First Nations the land question remained a major unresolved problem. Since treaties were not signed in most parts of British Columbia, many people believe that First Nations' right to the land has not been extinguished. The problem did not go away and by the 1960s the issue of B.C. treaties and native land claims resurfaced in the Canadian courts and has continued unabated to this day. Currently some land issues are under consideration in various courts while others are part of the newly established treaty negotiation process with the provincial and federal governments. A Supreme Court judgment in December 1997 called into question past decisions and negotiations, giving more legal weight to oral tradition and affirming aboriginal title to the land. This judgment is likely to have a profound effect on the land issue in British Columbia.

In addition to issues relating to land, First Nations have also faced challenges in becoming fully recognized citizens. Not until 1949 were First Nations permitted to vote in British Columbia's elections. Beginning in the 1960s the residential schools were closed down and aboriginal students were integrated into the regular school system alongside other Canadian children. In many places in British Columbia, First Nations groups are asserting control over their own people, establishing self-government, and undertaking responsibility for education and social services that had previously been provided by the federal government.