‘The Progress of the Country’: Peter O’Reilly in Wet’suwet’en Territories

Dr. Kelly Black, Executive Director

As Wet’suwet’en people and their supporters resist the incursion of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Coastal Gas Link into their territories, I am reminded that there is a direct link between these events and our historic house museum in Victoria, 1200 kilometers away.

Point Ellice House was home to Peter and Caroline O’Reilly, and their descendants, from 1867 to 1975. From 1880 to 1898, Peter served as Indian Reserve Commissioner (IRC) for the provincial and federal government. Writing on O’Reilly’s IRC work, historian Kenneth Brealey titled his article “Travels from Point Ellice: Peter O’Reilly and the Indian Reserve System in British Columbia.” Brealey notes that Point Ellice House, the historic site, is a “touchstone for another, more tangible, colonial space, but one that can only be exhibited when we bring Peter O’Reilly back, so to speak, onto the lawn at 2616 Pleasant Street.” (1997/1998, p. 182). That colonial space is the Indian Reserve.

In September of 1891, Peter O’Reilly allocated over 25 reserves in Wet’suwet’en territories. O’Reilly travelled the province extensively in his job as Indian Reserve Commissioner, but he always returned to Point Ellice House to complete the paperwork necessary to settle the ‘Indian land question.’ Working from his study overlooking the Selkirk Water/Gorge Waterway, O’Reilly copied out his minutes of decision and corresponded with premiers, prime ministers, Indian agents, surveyors, and chief commissioners of lands and works. When British Columbia joined confederation with Canada in 1871, O’Reilly’s brother in law, Joseph Trutch, gave Canadian officials the impression Indian reserves and treaties were established and generous in the province; the situation, however, was anything but.

And so, in 1891, O’Reilly carried on with the work of allocating reserves that began under his predecessors, the Joint Indian Reserve Commission, in 1876. As in many other places he visited, O’Reilly made quick work of assigning reserves in Wet’suwet’en territories. In most cases, this involved interviews with First Nations leaders, interviews with Settlers, and consideration for First Nations pursuit of agricultural projects or wage labour employment; easing pathways to assimilation and providing certainty for an emerging Settler state were O’Reilly’s key objectives.

O’Reilly’s minutes of decision for the “Ha-gwil-get Indians” (today, the Hagwilget First Nation, a member of the Wet’suwet’en) record the following:

The Indians on these reserves number 236, they possess a limited number of horses and cattle. There are no white settlements in the neighbourhood, nor are these allotments likely to interfere in any way with the progress of the country (O’Reilly, January 21st, 1892).

O’Reilly minutes of decision for the Ha-gwil-get Indians. Federal and Provincial Collections of Minutes of Decision, Correspondence, and Sketches. Provincial Collection, Binder 11.

This last sentence is key. Without a treaty, and despite the well documented resistance of First Nations in the region, O’Reilly was responsible for clearing the way for the “progress of the country.” If O’Reilly was following the ‘rule of law,’ it was one being more or less made up on the fly. Both Canada and British Columbia disagreed with how reserve creation should proceed and both governments frequently altered what O’Reilly could and could not do in the field. Decisions O’Reilly thought he had the authority to make were often overturned; a Settler complaint or a potentially rich resource site were often factors in alterations to the ‘rule of law’ and questions of land (see for example, Cole Harris, Making Native Space, pp. 193 to 200). Through O’Reilly, and with the tacit support of Canada, BC pursued dispossession in the name of “progress.”

O’Reilly minutes of decision for the Ha-gwil-get Indians. Federal and Provincial Collections of Minutes of Decision, Correspondence, and Sketches. Provincial Collection, Binder 11.

When O’Reilly returned to Point Ellice House, the physical space of a reserve was embodied in his notes and sketches. I have no doubt that the paperwork of Wet’suwet’en dispossession (and countless other First Nations) was compiled in, and passed through, Point Ellice House.

Today, efforts to build a pipeline in northern British Columbia may seem distant. Yet, as Wet’suwet’en supporters are demonstrating, solidarity blockades bring it much closer.

As I have written elsewhere, “The O’Reillys went about their lives gardening, painting, cooking, and entertaining, as a colonial project unfolded around them, and because of them.” Colonization is ongoing and it is a part of everyday life in Canada – a fact that I am reminded of each time I walk into Peter O’Reilly’s study.







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