Peter O'Reilly Mapping Project

Unit Overview

This unit combines a visit to the Point Ellice House Museum with the Peter O'Reilly Mapping Project website to explore Peter O'Reilly's first year of work as Indian Reserve Commissioner in 1881. This first year set a precedent to how O’Reilly would continue his work as Indian Reserve Commissioner through the years. The two essential questions of the unit are:

The creation of reserves was complicated, involving oppression, the destruction of ways of life, as well as Indigenous resistance. However, different people participated and benefited in different ways and for different reasons. Peter O'Reilly is a great case study of this complexity. He did not perceive himself as a colonizer, and to a large extent he was simply doing his job. His journals often show that he was concerned about the welfare of the groups he established reserves for. Further, they reveal that he sometimes sided with Indigenous people against other settlers, though not often. He worked hard to be fair and act in the interest of the government and of Indigenous peoples in BC, and felt that he did a good job. Some Indigenous peoples thought so too, yet many complained about mistreatment at his hands, stating that he was often rushed and did not engage in proper consultation. In comparing the wealth of Point Ellice House with the socio-economic difficulties of the reserves he established, we see that he clearly benefited at the expense of Indigenous peoples.

This unit enables students to explore these complexities, and to develop core competencies of the BC Curriculum.

Learning Outcomes

Integration into BC Curriculum

This unit engages and develops students' skill in two particular core thinking competencies (significance and perspective) and one particular core content competency (effects of colonialism on Indigenous peoples):

Unit Synopsis

Lesson Title Time Needed Lesson Section Section Overview
Lesson 1: Exploring Point Ellice House 3 parts, suggested time: 90 minutes Part A: Constructing an individual: What do ‘things’ tell us about a man (20 min) In the opening part of the class time, students will be given the first Point Ellice worksheet and will walk around the grounds and the house itself in order to try and construct an idea of who Peter O’Reilly was based on the primary artifacts on the grounds and in the house. They will have no other background information at this time other than Peter O’Reilly’s name, the worksheet questions, and the fact that this was his home.
Part B: Filling in the gaps: background information on Peter O’Reilly, his life, and work (40 min) This part of the class will take place at the Point Ellice House welcome center. This section of class will begin with a brief discussion around who the students think Peter O’Reilly was based on their wander around the house and grounds. Then, the teacher (informed by the “Teacher Briefing” below) will go through a short lesson on his life, family, and occupation as Indian Reserve Commissioner, helping the students fill in the gaps of who he was that they could not glean from the house. This will start to get the students to think about different perspectives, as well as reserve creation.
Part C: Something is missing here: narrative and counter narrative construction (20 min) Armed with this knowledge of Peter O’Reilly, his life, and occupation, students and the teacher will head back to the grounds and house to look for both intentional gaps and the presence of signs of his time as Indian Reserve Commissioner, as well as any Indigenous artifacts around the house. In addition, the students will be encouraged to think about who else may have lived in the house, and begin to understand the dynamic between civil servant and socialite. Students will learn about narrative construction and its purpose.
Lesson 2: Classroom activity 3 parts, flexible time frame Part A: Exploring the counter narrative: map activity In this class, students will debrief from the Point Ellice visit and discuss the ways in which their first impression/construction of Peter O’Reilly differed from what they learned about him in the lesson. In addition, they will discuss what they think is missing from Point Ellice House in terms of reference to his Indian Reserve Commissioner past. This will lead to the introduction of the website. Once explaining the basics of the website, the teacher will allow the students to explore it. The students will have some freedom to play around with the website, but will have an accompanying worksheet that will keep them focused while also facilitating further thought on perspectives and narratives, how and why they can differ, and how that plays into the history of reserve creation in BC.
Part B: Lets fix it!: textbook editing activity Students will be introduced to the main assignment for the unit. They will be put into groups of three and presented the textbook assignment worksheet. This assignment will get them to think about how different perspectives should be weighed, and how those perspectives, as well as reserve creation, should be taught in the future. They will use the website and their worksheet from Point Ellice House to sketch out a rough draft of the textbook pages they are creating. They will begin their final copies, but the expectation is this will take two classes.
Part C: Get ready for print!: textbook editing activity, continued Students will continue to create their final version of the textbook pages. They will be encouraged to use colour, sketches, and creative design, which will be engaging and just fun! Along with their final textbook spread, they will turn in a brief write up about what they put on their pages and why they put it. They will hopefully touch on the complex history of reserve creation and understand that multiple versions and understandings of historical narratives exist.

Instructional Strategies

Need for Visit to Point Ellice House

The visit to Point Ellice House is crucial to this lesson for two reasons.

Need for Computer Access

This unit is designed to be implemented with student access to the website. This can be achieved either through students using their own devices, or working in a computer lab. Classes that have limited access to the website can find printable PDFs of all the maps on the For Teachers page.

Assessment and Evaluation

The following aspects of student participation should be assessed in the evaluation of this unit:

Possible Lesson Plan Amendments

Teacher Briefing

Background on Reserve Policy in BC

Colonial Perspectives on Indigenous Title

By precedent and by law, the British government acknowledged Indigenous title to territories inhabited by Indigenous people, and so in most parts of their colonial empire they created agreements called “Treaties”. These Treaty agreements meant that Indigenous peoples would get something for their land and would give their approval before settlers could own the land. Treaties were sometimes conducted under coercion, and it seems likely that the First Nations had quite a different understanding of what was being agreed to. Even so, the British and Canadian governments believed that Treaties gave the government the legal right to own the land and to give or sell it to settlers. These Treaties were made in much of Canada and on Vancouver Island, but not on mainland British Columbia. Instead of negotiating an agreement and purchasing their land, the governments of BC and Canada just took it and created small “Reserves” for Indigenous People, land that was saved or “reserved” for them.

Reserve Creation in BC

The creation of Indian reserves was a complex process. Indian Reserves confined Indigenous peoples separately from the rest of BC to clear the territory for settlers. On the one hand, while the province said that it wished to deal justly and generously with Indigenous peoples, for them it was more important to make land accessible to new settlers. Ottawa, on the other hand, held fiduciary responsibility for Indigenous peoples and were willing to grant larger land reserves. The ultimate goal of Indian policy was the same: assimilation and colonial expansion. The two sides could not agree on how large reserves should be, so they created the Joint Indian Reserve Commission in 1875 to resolve the controversy between the two. First, three commissioners travelled to parts of the province to define reserves for each band of First Nations, but that was reduced to one person, Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, in 1876. Sproat was replaced by Peter O’Reilly in 1880.

The Role of the Indian Reserve Commissioner

When O’Reilly became commissioner in 1880, he followed in the footsteps of Sproat before him. He was informed by Sproat’s recommendations about existing reserves, but exercised discretion towards reserves he deemed too large for Indigenous needs or that were already claimed. He meticulously described and categorized reserves by colour and symbol. His work essentially reduced the traditional territory of the Indigenous communities to a geographically colonized space.

Indigenous Perspectives

Various opinions were put forth by Indigenous peoples, and these voices can be found in the government records of formal complaints sent in to the government, their concerns recorded in the letters and journals of the Reserve Commissioners, and in some instances, in court documents when the concerns were taken to the judicial level. Some wanted reserves laid out as quickly as possible to stop rapid encroachment. Others objected to the very concept. There were cultural and language barriers which ensured confusion among the Indigenous representatives as to the reserve commissioners intent. In later court defenses, groups argued that there was no word for reserve in their language and that this was their land. Most complaints filed noted that O’Reilly seemed rushed in his allotments, charging into an area with no warning or consultation, and many times not speaking to the chiefs. O’Reilly’s journals tell but one side of the story, claiming friendly conversations and satisfaction among the communities.

Legacies of Reserve Policy in BC

An Ongoing Process

To discuss Indian Reserve policy as if it was solidified and sorted out in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries would be misleading. These policies and treaties should be thought of as very much fluid, and a part of an ongoing discussion between various bands and the British Columbia and/or Federal Governments. When we look at a small sample of reserves created by O’Reilly in 1881, the state of flux that these treaties remains in becomes very clear.

The BC Treaty Negotiation Process

The government of British Columbia implemented the British Columbia Treaty Commission in 1992 to acknowledge the fact that treaties should have been made with First Nations before settlement happened and to try to create treaties now that would make non Native settlement legal. The Treaty negotiation process has six stages and is done between three parties: Canada, BC, and First Nations, all working towards the common goal of reconciliation. The six-stages of the treaty negotiations process are:

  1. Statement of intent to negotiate
  2. Readiness to negotiate
  3. Negotiation of framework agreement
  4. Negotiation of an agreement in principle
  5. Negotiation to finalize a treaty
  6. Implementation of the treaty

Ongoing Treaty Disputes from Reserves Alloted by Peter O’Reilly in 1881

The main takeaway from this somewhat convoluted set of processes is that the treaty negotiation process is far from over in British Columbia. While Peter O’Reilly may have been responsible for the demarcating of the original reserves, their borders remain a point of heated discussion, and by all accounts will continue to as long as Indigenous peoples’ traditional lands continue to be withheld from them.

Background on Peter O'Reilly

Who was Peter O'Reilly?

O’Reilly arrived in Victoria as an immigrant from Ireland during the height of the BC gold rush in April 1859. Upon his arrival, he became an important civil servant of the region, and held many titles during his life there. He was seen as having a determined and authoritative demeanor which impressed the higher ups of the colony. He was a lover of adventure, and travelled throughout British Columbia by canoe and horseback for his work. He was a family man with a deep love for his wife Caroline and his four children. When at home, he lived an elegant life at the Point Ellice House which he purchased in 1868. He retired in 1898 at the age of 71 and spent his days there till his death on September 3, 1905.

Peter O’Reilly’s Many Roles

Shortly after arriving in Victoria, O’Reilly was made high sheriff of Vancouver Island till 1866 - the sheriff was the chief court official and he arranged the hanging of criminals. He was also made the assistant gold commissioner of the Similkameen region in 1860, and became the chief gold commissioner for the entire Vancouver Island colony in March 1862. He was then made a member of the legislative council until 1871 when it was dissolved with British Columbia joining confederation.

Peter O’Reilly as Reserve Commissioner

In 1880, O’Reilly travelled to Ottawa to meet with officials to fill the position of Indian Reserve Commissioner of British Columbia. O’Reilly’s brother in law, Joseph William Trutch, secured O’Reilly the position, as he was an important bureaucrat in British Columbia, and had influence with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. He served in this position for 18 years.

Peter O’Reilly’s Legacy

Aside from the well-preserved home he left behind and the many important titles he held, O’Reilly most notably changed the geography of British Columbia as we know it in his role as Indian Reserve Commissioner. He maintained a diary from 1858 to 1905 which shows that he was not altogether ignorant of the needs of the Indigenous representatives he encountered, but many of his decisions regarding reserve creation have since been criticized. However, in looking back, we also must remember that O’Reilly was doing his job as a civil servant and was a product of his time.