From 1850-1854, Douglas negotiated a series of fourteen land purchases from the Aboriginal people at Fort Victoria, Fort Rupert, and Nanaimo. Like treaties in Central Canada from the same period, these treaties were simple land transactions.
In 1821, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) received an exclusive licence to trade with Aboriginal peoples living in all unsettled parts of British North America.
This licence was in addition to the ancient charter that granted the Company the exclusive trade monopoly throughout Rupert’s Land, the Hudson’s Bay watershed.
The license was renewed for another 21 years in 1838, at which time the British government chose to be more specific about the territory in which the HBC was allowed to trade: the renewed licence granted the HBC a monopoly on trade in all lands west of Rupert’s Land, including in the Columbia Department, which included much of present-day British Columbia, and the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
The specificity of the licence was intended to strengthen British claims to the disputed region vis-à-vis the United States. As a result of the 1846 Oregon Treaty, which granted all lands south of the 49th parallel to the United States, the HBC was issued a new licence.
The 1849 licence offered a description of HBC territory based on the new boundary arrangements between Britain and the United States. The licence required the Company to establish a Crown colony on Vancouver Island as a condition to maintaining its monopoly over the fur trade.
Fort Victoria, established in 1843, became the new capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island.
In 1851, Chief Factor of the HBC at Fort Victoria, James Douglas, was appointed second governor of the colony. During the time of his governorship no matter concerned Douglas more than Indian policy.
From 1850-1854, Douglas negotiated a series of fourteen land purchases from the Aboriginal people at Fort Victoria, Fort Rupert, and Nanaimo. The treaties included provisions for reserved village sites and protected Aboriginal peoples’ right to hunt and fish in the ceded territories. A peaceful relationship between settlers and Aboriginal communities resulted.
Douglas was the primary agent for treaty-making.
In negotiating the land purchases, the governor’s first priority was to secure lands vital to the future operations of the HBC, which included the development of agriculture and mining in the colony.
As Victoria was to be the base of settlement for the new colony, his initial interest was to secure the lands of the south-eastern part of the island between the Haro and Juan de Fuca Straits.
Nine agreements were concluded in 1850, one each between the Company and the Songhees, Klallam, and T’souke inhabiting the lands between Cadboro Bay and Sheringham Point.
The diversifying commercial interests of the HBC led to the signing of two more agreements in 1851.
Negotiated in two parts with the Kwakiutl around Fort Rupert on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, these agreements secured Company access to the coal deposits in the area and prevented further conflict between miners and Aboriginal peoples living on the land containing the deposits.
In 1852, interest in establishing a saw mill on the Saanich Peninsula prompted Douglas to conduct two more treaties to secure HBC control of lands north of Fort Victoria.
The South Saanich Treaty was negotiated with a small group of ten Aboriginal signatories living south of Cowichan Head. However, overlapping claims to the northern part of the peninsula made it difficult for Douglas to conclude separate agreements with the individual groups living there.
Instead, he concluded one single treaty: the North Saanich Treaty included 117 signatories. As with the 1851 purchases at Fort Rupert, demand for access to the coal beds around the Nanaimo River in 1854 was the impetus for the last land surrender treaty that Douglas negotiated.
For that surrender, Douglas met with the Sarlequun people, who had resettled around the HBC post at Nanaimo, to purchase an area twenty by ten miles in size around the river and the coal deposits.
The terms of the fourteen “deeds of conveyance” that Douglas negotiated were almost all identical in nature.
Aboriginal signatories relinquished any claim to the lands specified in the treaties in exchange for a payment in goods, continued occupation of reserved lands, and the right to hunt and fish “as formerly” on unoccupied ceded lands.
Based upon these agreements, the HBC was responsible for surveying and officially setting aside the villages and cultivated lands of each signatory group. These reserved lands would not be held in fee simple by the Aboriginal people but, similar to the reserved lands in Upper Canada, the title of the land would be vested with the Crown for the exclusive use of their Aboriginal occupants.
Compared to the treaties that followed in the Confederation era, the Douglas Treaties were small, covering only 358 square miles of land.
They covered only the lands that Douglas anticipated would be needed for settlement and trade. In the decade following the purchase at Nanaimo, treaty-making on Vancouver Island came to a halt. The increased costs of the growing colony made treaty-making an increasingly expensive project.