B.C.’s 150th anniversary provides an opportunity to right a historic wrong

Dec 22, 2020 | Commentary, Government


As 2020 draws to a close, it’s become a cliche to say that it’s a year to forget. But we would be remiss if we did not recognize the progress we made this year as people took the time to reflect on the things that really matter. As COVID-19 shut down our world and the dramatic political divisions south of the border came to a head, we spent more time contemplating the changes needed to build a more compassionate, peaceful society.

In particular, one of the bright spots of 2020 was a much wider acknowledgement of the need to address systemic racism. We must now look for every opportunity to address our own history of racism and advance tangible reconciliation.

As the 150th anniversary of B.C. joining the Canadian confederation approaches in 2021, our federal government has an opportunity to advance reconciliation with First Nations on Southern Vancouver Island, while also protecting local drinking watersheds and endangered species, and fostering sustainable economic opportunities.

The negotiation of modern treaties in our part of the province is impeded by the lack of Crown Land due to the historic E&N Land Grant. The grant, which disregarded the rights and title of all First Nations in the area, is a legacy of B.C. joining the confederation. As part of the deal, the government awarded coal baron and government minister Robert Dunsmuir more than 20% of Vancouver Island, two million acres of land, along with $750,000. In exchange, Dunsmuir built the E&N railway, completing the rail link between Canada’s provincial capitals.

Today, the remaining undeveloped land is at risk due to logging and the potential sale of mineral rights. Local watersheds have come under threat from these activities, with communities being forced to invest millions on filtration and treatment plants to maintain their access to clean drinking water. Unsustainable development and resource extraction also threaten fish estuaries and animal habitats. Restoring the land to local First Nations could be done in a way that prioritizes vital conservation efforts, while also providing sustainable economic opportunities including selective forestry, recreation and tourism.

There are already programs in place to make this happen. The federal government has committed to protecting 30% of our natural areas by 2030 through Canada’s Nature Legacy program. A key part of this commitment is the creation of Indigenous Protected Conservation Areas (IPCAs), which fall under the jurisdiction and authority of the local First Nations.

Through a First Nations-led process the government could acquire a minimum of 30% of the existing forest lands that were privatized under the E&N land grant and place them under the jurisdiction and control of the affected First Nations. Land acquisition could focus on the critical habitat around rivers, watercourses and catchment areas for community drinking watersheds, with special consideration given to placing community drinking watersheds under co-management between First Nations and the cities and towns that rely on the water supply. Under the successful Land Guardian program, co-management could be coordinated between First Nations within the Hul’qumi’num, Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth territories of the land grant region.

The acquisition process could include the use of carbon offsets, land transfers, tax incentives and cash purchases to assemble the land. User fees generated by recreational use of the lands for activities such as camping, rafting and kayaking company tours, and parking fees for day use could also help fund ongoing land management through the Land Guardian program.

The acquisition of a portion of the E&N lands as IPCAs would be a significant step towards advancing reconciliation on Southern Vancouver Island. It can be done in a way that advances other goals that are important to Islanders, like protecting wild salmon, conserving the habitats of endangered species and preserving biodiversity, while also ensuring our communities have access to clean drinking water and outdoor recreation. This ‘rise together’ strategy has environmental, social and economic benefits.

If we take one lesson from 2020, let it be that honouring our history means looking at it with clear eyes. If we forget the full reality of our history, we are doomed to repeat it. So, what better way to celebrate the anniversary of our province joining the Canadian confederation than to address the historic wrong that was perpetrated as part of it? If we do, we can move forward together as a more just and sustainable province.

Paul Manly is the MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith. He wrote this version of his op-ed column for Decafnation.




A rail link between Nanaimo and Victoria had been planned as early as 1873, but no serious effort to start construction was made until December 1883 when the province transferred to the federal government sufficient crown lands for the project. To safeguard control of the island’s economic future, and prevent the possibility of the Northern Pacific Railroad gaining the contract, many businessmen and politicians urged Robert Dunsmuir to build the line.

Dunsmuir was reluctant to accept the task, thinking it of little benefit to his colliery operations. He submitted a proposal to the Canadian government, however, and despite the severity of his terms he emerged as the sole acceptable alternative to foreign builders. After much shrewd bargaining in Ottawa Dunsmuir agreed to construct the railway in return for a subsidy of $750,000 in cash and a parcel of land comprising some two million acres – fully one-fifth of Vancouver Island. Significantly, the land grant came with “all coal, coal oil, ores, stones, clay, marble, slates, mines, minerals, and substances whatsoever in, on or under the lands so to be granted.”

He received also all foreshore rights for the lands, all mining privileges (including the right to mine under adjacent seabeds), and the retention of all coal and other minerals taken from the land. Additionally, as contractor he was permitted to cut whatever timber and erect whatever structures he saw fit to build the line. To promote settlement, provision was made for the sale of farmlands to homesteaders at one dollar per acre. Squatters of at least one year’s residence were allowed to buy up to 160 acres, and those settlers with title were allowed to retain their holdings, but virtually all else would go to the contractor in right of performance.

It was, in short, a major give-away of British Columbia’s natural resources.

— From the website, Biographi


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