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  • “White Man Has No Right to Take Any of It”:Secwepemc Water-Rights Struggles in British Columbia
  • Kenichi Matsui (bio)

In 1914, William Pierrish of the Neskonlith Band, Chief Louis1 of the Kamloops Band, and other prominent leaders in the Kamloops-Chase region of British Columbia met the federal and provincial representatives of the McKenna-McBride Commission.2 These Native leaders were invited to testify before the commissioners as to their concerns with their land and livelihood. Along with the issues related to inadequate reserve sizes,3 their most pressing matters were the water shortages on their semi-arid reserves and the intensifying water conflicts with neighboring settlers, whose numbers were increasing. "The white man," Chief Louis declared, "has no right to take any of it [water]." Pierrish also said, "we have water, but it is not enough for two farmers to use the water for irrigation purposes."4

Later that year, the commission's assistant secretary, H. Gibbons, made a province-wide survey of the records of water-rights claims, or water records, that Indian reserve commissioners or provincial authorities had filed to secure Native water use for storage and irrigation purposes. Much worse than federal officials realized, the survey revealed that provincial authorities had either improperly protected or utterly forgotten more than three hundred Native water records.5

The commission's hearings and Gibbons's report clearly warned federal officials of the urgent need to deal with water problems, but the officials were more concerned with resolving jurisdictional questions than with actually mediating local water conflicts. The Dominion [End Page 75] government had been troubled by the passage of the provincial Water Acts in 1909 and 1914 because those acts created a new water-rights tribunal called the Board of Investigation and delegated to it administrative power over all water rights in British Columbia.6 In addition, the province had adjudicated water rights on such Dominion enclaves as the Railway Belt7 and Native reserves without much knowledge of Native water rights. To counteract this provincial threat to the federal jurisdiction, federal officials hired an attorney and commenced legal and political actions against the province.8 This intergovernmental fight reached a high point in the spring of 1920, when the Board of Investigation ruled that all Native water records entered by Indian commissioners were legal "nullities."9

This ruling worried some federal authorities, who wanted to use irrigation agriculture as a means to "civilize" the Native peoples. A. S. Williams, the Department of Indian Affairs' legal expert and future deputy superintendent, contended that the "avowed purpose of the Crown" in carrying out Native policies "was and is to encourage Indians in habits of industry and to induce them to engage in pastural [sic] pursuits and in the cultivation of the soil in order that they may not only become self-supporting but that they may eventually take up the habits and busy themselves with the enterprise of civilized people."10 In a letter to Thomas Dufferin Pattullo, provincial Minister of Lands and future premier, William E. Ditchburn, federal inspector of Indian Affairs stationed in Victoria, British Columbia, asserted that "if the Indians were to be expected to make full use of the lands allotted to them in the Dry Belt it was absolutely essential that sufficient water should also be allotted to them for this purpose, and I am of the opinion that the [Indian] Commissioner were [sic] perfectly justified in considering that water went with the land."11 These federal efforts led to provincial recognition of Native water rights in the provincial Indian Water Claims Act of 1921, but the act still upheld the provincial position of its exclusive jurisdiction over water.12

The above-mentioned federal-provincial jurisdictional strife in the early twentieth century was not a chronologically or geographically isolated incident. The jurisdiction question regarding Native water rights for irrigation had been one of the most pressing and frustrating matters for both federal officials and Native leaders/farmers since the 1870s. Native water rights had been an essential part of assimilation packages that federal officials such as A. S. Williams and William Ditchburn tried to deliver not only to the dry belt of British...


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