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Lost in translation: The Douglas treaties

Historic documents changed the lives of First Nations forever on Vancouver Island

Canadians celebrate 150 years of the country’s history this year, yet many will be at a loss to reflect on the people who have been here for thousands of years.

A conference in Victoria this week aims to change at least some of that by examining the history of First Nations on Vancouver Island and the colonial treaties that affected their livelihoods and cultural rights forever.

“Most people in Victoria don’t realize we’re on treaty land,” said John Lutz, a University of Victoria historian and scholar on indigenous and colonial histories. Lutz is one of the organizers of First Nations, Land and James Douglas: Indigenous and Treaty Rights in the Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, 1849-1864.

The Douglas Treaties, also called the Fort Victoria or Vancouver Island treaties, were signed between the British colonists and 14 First Nations — mostly in the South Island area — from 1850 to 1854. The treaties gave settlers land in exchange for goods and continued access for the indigenous people. But there are conflicting views over whether the treaties were a permanent deal or an annual rental agreement.

Regardless, they are the only treaties signed in southern British Columbia, and despite being largely ignored by the colonial governments, they still provide the foundation for major land-claim and land-use negotiations.

“Next to nothing is taught in the schools about this local history. Ironically, students in high school learn about the prairie treaties,” Lutz said.

The UVic professor is one of several scholars who will speak at the event, along with First Nations elders and leaders.

A highlight will be the presentation of Douglas Treaties translated into some languages of the signatory First Nations by local elders. Topics will range from the treaty-making process and interpretations to fishing rights and legal impacts.

The conference is at the Songhees Wellness Centre on Songhees Nation. Registration is full, but the talks will be recorded and posted online afterward.

Lutz said the idea for the conference came out of history and law experts wanting to share research.

“At first, we thought it would be a small conference with mostly history nerds. But when we put it out there to Songhees and the invite went out across the Island, there was a huge response,” Lutz said. People want to know about the history and important legal background, he said.

At least half of those registered are from Island First Nations and many are youth.

“The Douglas Treaties are what our elders called unfinished business,” said Jackie Albany, a Songhees Nation councillor. She said it’s important for the treaty nations to not forget the history as governments have yet to live up to the promises.

“We can’t harvest shellfish because of the sewer or fish as formerly,” she said. The conference is one of the few formal opportunities for the nations to learn about and explore the treaties together.

Douglas Treaties 101

When James Douglas entered Victoria Harbour on March 15, 1843, local First Nations had interacted with Europeans for nearly 50 years, but had likely never seen such an entrance, which Lutz details in his 2008 book Makúk: A new history of aboriginal-white relations.

Douglas came aboard the Beaver — the first steamship to enter the Pacific Northwest. On that day, an unusual comet appeared across the sky and stayed for weeks. The Beaver billowed steam and fired cannons off what is now Laurel Point, at first frightening the Lekwungen-speaking Coast Salish peoples — whom we know today as the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations.

Douglas described the area as a paradise fit for the Pacific headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company. First Nations had village and harvesting sites all around the Victoria area, from Sooke to the Saanich Peninsula, and stretching to the San Juan Islands.

Outside the fort, the land would have appeared to the new arrivals as pristine and wholly unoccupied — but the people already here saw it differently.

“I was born a member of the Songhees tribe, who then lived in small bands along the waterfront from Beacon Hill to Cadboro Bay and Cordova Bay. The tribe also had a central campsite on Mud Bay in Victoria Harbour, where now stands the Empress Hotel and the Union Club,” Chief David Latass told the Victoria Daily Times through an interpreter in 1934. He was 105 years old at the time.

Latass spoke out for Saanich tribal groups who claimed the Hudson’s Bay Company and governments owed the tribes rent for 80 years of occupation on Saanich lands.

Latass said he was there the day Douglas assembled local chiefs for the first nine of what were to become the Douglas Treaties.

“I was 21 when Governor Douglas gave a big party to the Indians of southern Vancouver Island … For weeks in advance the party was the talk of all encampments within 80 miles of Victoria,” Latass said, adding Songhees, Saanich, Cowichan and other tribes had chiefs, braves, men, women and children attend.

“He stressed the desire of white men to be friends with the tribes. He assured the chiefs that trade in furs with peaceful use of enough land to grow food were the only reasons for establishment of the settlement,” Latass said, noting the peace-loving sentiment was welcomed by tribesmen who saw no harm in letting settlers use some of the land year to year with compensation.

“It is in this matter that the Indians claim they have been unjustly treated … The Indians were to have reserved to their use some choice camping sites, were to have hunting rights everywhere and fishing privileges in all waters, with certain water areas exclusively reserved to the use of the tribes,” he said.

While some of these negotiations might have been lost in translation, Latass said claims that tribal chiefs could sign away land were not possible because of indigenous ways of living. These included being accountable for community gifts and payments, as well as a system of property rights that saw families acting as stewards for certain areas as opposed to owning individual plots of land.

“At that time, I thought as did the other Indians that the proceedings were just a pow-wow for the purpose of trade gifts,” said Latass, adding he did not believe there were any official payments for the land or any documents signed.

In English, he said: “Indians here hundreds of years. First peoples here … But it hurts, hurts for people to forget we aboriginals have rights. Our generation goes back to the big flood, when only Mount Newton’s top was above the waters. In those days our people saved themselves by tying themselves to the mountaintop trees with ropes of cedar fibres.”

Then in Chinook, he concluded: “Today, why should the white people treat us so? We never fought them, yet they took away our property. This land is ours … Never, never did the Indians sign away title to their land for just a few blankets.”

The oral history

In 1990, Latass’s nephew-in-law Dave Elliott Sr. recounted the story passed down to him in a oral history book, Saltwater People.

The Tsartlip elder said there had been tension because white settlers were falling old-growth fir trees in Cordova Bay for ship masts, and because a young native boy was shot because he walked through Douglas’s property near what became known as Mount Douglas, known in Lekwungen as PKOLS.

Elliott said his ancestors likely saw the invitation from Douglas to meet at Beacon Hill as a peace offering.

“When they got there, all these piles of blankets plus other goods were on the ground. They told them these bundles of blankets were for them plus about $200, but it was in pounds and shillings,” he said. The clan heads were asked to put an X on a piece of paper before receiving the goods. Elliott said they did not know the letter X, so they saw the sign as a cross.

“One man said: ‘I think these are peace offerings. I think Douglas means to keep the peace. I think these are signs of the cross,’ ” Elliott said, adding the chiefs must have known missionaries and saw the sign as a spiritual gesture. “It was the highest order of their honesty.”

Starting that day and over a four-year period, Douglas would sign treaties with 14 First Nations, which the Crown viewed as land purchases. These included land around Victoria, Saanich, Sooke, Nanaimo and Port Hardy. These are the only historical treaties in southern B.C.

The text in each is similar, defining the treaty area and stating that “[First Nations] village sites and enclosed fields are to be kept for our own use, for the use of our children, and for those who may follow after us, and the land shall be properly surveyed hereafter. It is understood, however, that the land itself, with these small exceptions, becomes the entire property of the white people for ever; it is also understood that we are at liberty to hunt over the unoccupied lands, and to carry on our fisheries as formerly.”

Elliott said the Douglas Treaty was not an honest agreement, and the colonists did not live up to their own document.

“One after the other — land, fishing rights, hunting rights were legislated away,” he said.

More than land lost

“The name given to me was STOLCEL. It’s a place name, from what’s now Friday Harbour. It means out at sea loaded with your possessions,” John Elliott said over tea at Sassy’s family restaurant in Brentwood Bay.

He is Dave Elliott Sr.’s son and a widely respected teacher of the SENCOTEN language of the WSANEC peoples (Tsartlip, Pauquachin, Tseycum and Tsawout). He will be one of the keynote speakers at the Douglas Treaties conference, sharing about pre-colonial ways of life, along with Nick Claxton, a Tsawout member and UVic professor who will speak about the resurgence of reef-net fishing.

“My father wanted me to look after that name so we don’t lose connection to that place. Names carry responsibilities,” Elliott said. “When I named my older son, that announced his connection to reef-net fishing locations. He carries the right to responsibility for that location.”

Elliott said stewardship has always been part of his peoples’ culture, and that the way of life included travelling with the seasons to use the land and sea in many ways.

“When our people went to these places, they were gathering plants and medicines on the land and along the shoreline. They had to teach their children what to get and what time of year, and how to act in a sacred way,” Elliott said.

Village sites dotted the shores of the Saanich Peninsula, around the Gulf Islands and to the San Juan Islands. In the summers, communities would leave villages to camp and gather camas, berries and seaweed. They’d know by the tides when the herring would arrive and would catch migratory ducks by net.

By spring, the clam-digging would start, and the men would take short trips to hunt deer and elk. There is still evidence of this time in the small burned shells and rocks, remnants of cook pits, found at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, once the site of a bustling native village.

“When Douglas said we should fish and hunt as formerly, that’s what it means. You have a sacred responsibility to do this, to look after our land. We even refer to the islands as our relatives,” Elliott said. “But that’s not what happened.”

Elliott said First Nations lost more than land to colonization. They lost a way of life in which culture, spirituality and land were interconnected. This is why teaching the language became his life passion and why he thinks every beach should be a classroom for kids to learn about their territory and what it holds.

“I know the world has changed, but I want my people to have the dignity to live their lives,” he said.

Songhees elder Joan Morris looked across the water at Willows Beach to Chatham Island, one of the Tl’chés or Songhees Islands, where she spent the first 10 years of her life before “the well dried up” in 1957. Her great-grandfather, a shaman, moved to the island in the early 1920s when aboriginal cultural and spiritual activities were outlawed.

Morris and mariner Mark Salter, also the marketing and tourism manager for Songhees Nation, teamed up in 2015 to provide cultural tours of the traditional Songhees territory and a glimpse into indigenous ways of life along the shores of Victoria and Oak Bay — now lined with million-dollar homes and boats.

Salter said the majority of the people who took the tour, through Eagle Wing Tours and the Songhees First Nations, were from Victoria and said: “We’ll never look at the landscape the same again,” he said. The pair will offer a tour for conference attendees.

Morris was raised by her grandparents, who might have been one of the last generations to follow a robust traditional lifestyle of harvesting and fishing in the area. They kept gardens, harvested clams and used reef-nets to fish by canoe.

Her grandfather would gather camas from where the Uplands Golf Club now sits and catch coho at the mouth of Bowker Creek near where Oak Bay High School now stands. They would trade locally harvested items for supplies and goods in Chinatown.

“They were the most patient and kind people. It was a beautiful time,” said Morris, who is also known by the traditional name Sellemah. The place and time were a refuge for Morris, who later survived residential school and the Nanaimo Indian Hospital — a segregated institution where aboriginal children and adults were experimented on and many died.

Morris became a nurse’s aid and spokesperson for victims of the segregated hospital system. She is a subject of the recent book, Medicine Unbundled: Dispatches from the Indigenous Frontlines, by Island author Gary Geddes.