Unforeseen circumstances have landed me in Campbell River, British Columbia for a few days. I’m trying to make the most of this detour by taking in whatever Campbell River has to offer. One of my better-spent days included a visit to the Campbell River Museum which has substantial displays devoted to the First Nations of the region, their history, material culture, place names, stories, and the colonization attempts by the Spanish and British. I know in general terms how that turned out – the British were the successful colonizers. And I know all to well what that meant for First Nations people, but it is always useful to be reminded, and to see it in the context of other First Nations.
The museum demonstrates what colonization meant for the First Nations of (what is now called) Vancouver Island and the islands adjacent to it. The history and impacts of colonization are all too similar across the continent, but the Campbell River Museum does a better job of documenting it than many. First, it documents competition among European powers to see which would have the opportunity to exploit the new-to-them territory. Contact with First Nations people was almost incidental to this process. The British and Spanish sent ships to the area to map the territory and name the places they mapped, ignoring the fact that all the places already had names. They also ignored the fact that there were settlements in the territory, and simply produced maps showing the territory as vacant.
Next, the museum documents the decimation of First Nations populations by European diseases. The display indicates that only one in ten First Nations people survived exposure to the diseases brought to their territory by European traders and colonizers. I realized that Europeans first viewed the territory as vacant (despite contact with the First Nations); then the territory became nearly vacant because of the spread of their diseases. Although such population loss represented a huge threat to First Nations societies and cultures the museum demonstrates that the cultures did survive and that their languages, stories, and traditions continue, at least to some extent, today.
The museum is more explicit than most in documenting colonization along with exhibiting First Nations “cultural artifacts”, both ancient and contemporary. In addition to invasion and disease, the museum documents the intent to destroy “Indianness” by sending generations of First Nations children to residential school. It also demonstrates that, while settlers where given 160 acres per homesteader, whole First Nations communities were given only five times that. Visitors learn that by the early 1900s, First Nations (which, in the 1700s, had title and sovereignty over all of British Columbia) had reserves totaling only 1/3 of 1% of the territory of British Columbia. We also learn that some Europeans thought even that was too much, despite the fact that very little of British Columbia is covered by treaty, and there was no other compensation for loss of First Nations territories.
After this strong display of First Nations history and colonization I experienced a strong disconnect when I moved on to the displays on the settlers. One display documents the fact that a prominent settler who developed all sorts of businesses in the area donated the land for several local institutions, such as a school, church and the like. Here we lose track of the idea that this is First Nations’ land. Although Aboriginal title in the region is outstanding, when we start looking at the story of a European individual, we learn that he can donate land. No doubt he had legal title to the land he donated. And that is where the justice issues arise.
The Canadian legal system, like the museum display, doesn’t know how to cope with this disconnect. Although we can recognize that there was, and maybe still is, Aboriginal title, it is so much easier to understand the title of settlers whose names we know, and to recognize the ways they have dealt with “their” land. Although Canadian courts now acknowledge the existence of Aboriginal rights and title, it seems they turn themselves inside out to limit Aboriginal rights and title so they don’t interfere much, if at all, with the titles and rights of the settlers, or give First Nations any “advantage” over other Canadians. It’s clear by any indicator that all sorts of Canadian institutions, legal institutions among them, have succeeded in “not advantaging” First Nations. For example, according to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, First Nations in Canada currently have reserves totaling approximately 2.6 million hectares, or .2 percent of the total land area of Canada. Apparently there is still support for the sentiment that .3 percent really was too much land for First Nations.