“The White Problem”

First Nations Labour History and Traditional Economies in 19th Century British Columbia

By: Robert Flewelling

Robert Flewelling

Contributing Historian

Robert Flewelling is an MA candidate studying history under Dr. Brittany Luby at the University of Guelph, Ontario, located within the Between the Lakes Purchase (Treaty 3); the treaty lands and territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit and Dish With One Spoon lands. Robert, a settler of Scottish and Welsh descent, grew up on the Grand River and Haldimand Tract in Southern Ontario, and he currently resides in Guelph. His research focuses generally on the historical relationships between Indigenous nations and settler-colonial societies in what has historically been called ‘North America’ between the 18th and 20th centuries. Robert’s areas of research involve the impact of settler-colonial economic development and legislative policymaking on the food security and land sovereignty of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit nations. Robert is also currently engaged in research focused on the historical legacy and contemporary consequences of the “Grand River Navigation Company’s” activities on the Grand River in Southern Ontario between the 1820’s and 1860’s. This company, as generally most settler-colonial ambitions in the area, clashed with the sovereign interests of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations of the Grand River, the ripples of which are still being felt today.

A Note on Terminology

The terms “Indian” and “Aboriginal” appear in this article when quoting directly from historical sources that use those terms. Both of these terms have racist, colonial legacies, and are not appropriate for non-Indigenous people to use outside of quoting from and for historical context.

Instead, non-Indigenous peoples should accurately use the terms First Nations, Métis, or Inuit, as well as specific references to nations, lands, and/or treaties, when referencing Indigenous peoples and communities. The term “Indigenous Peoples” can be used when discussing experiences that all three larger communities share, or when discussing Indigenous Peoples from around the world beyond Turtle Island.

Suggested further readings: Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes  and Greg Youging’s Elements of Indigenous Style.

“You are going to a distant country, not I trust, to fight against men, but to conquer nature; not to besiege cities, but to create them… Ages hence, industry and commerce will crowd the roads that you will have made; travellers from all nations will halt on the bridges you have first flung over solitary rivers, and gaze on gardens and cornfields that you will have first carved from the wilderness…You go not as the enemies but as the benefactors of the land you visit, and children unborn will, I believe, bless the hour when Queen Victoria sent forth her Sappers and Miners to found a second England on the shores of the Pacific.”

Edward Bulwar Lytton, 1858 [1]

These are the words of Sir Edward Bulwar Lytton, the colonial secretary for the British Empire, spoken to a company of miners and sappers sent to help further entrench the fledgling “Colony of British Columbia.” Lytton’s speech is symbolic of the sentiment felt by many British-Canadians during the Victorian era. This period – roughly 1820 to 1914 – overlaps with the ‘Romantic Era’ and the rapid developments associated with the agricultural and industrial revolutions in Britain. These decades of socio-economic change also coincided with the rapid expansion of the British Empire around the globe. For our purposes, however, this era covers the intensification of colonialism in what would become the settler-state of Canada, and it is primary sources such as Lytton’s speech that have all too often informed Canada’s national mythos. 

Until far too recently, Canadian historical narratives have been dominated by stories of brave imperialists and hardy voyageurs who sacrificed everything to carve out a ‘second England’ from a ‘savage’ and empty wilderness. Additionally, these early Euro-Canadian capitalists, entrepreneurs, and industrialists were elevated as the driving forces behind the industrial and economic development of what was perceived by the colonists as a ‘new world,’ with the Indigenous Peoples somehow acting as both protagonists and victims, fully reliant on Euro-Canadian goods and services for their survival. 

However, as we continue to reflect on the Truth and Reconciliation’s 94 Calls to Action, we can see how lands of the West Coast, which the colonists eagerly settled, were far from ‘new.’ Instead, they were – and indeed, still are – home to dozens of distinct Indigenous nations, each with their own robust and dynamic network  of social, economic, and cultural values.

Thankfully, this perception has changed significantly, as a growing number of Indigenous and settler-colonial voices have revisited the oral and material histories left behind by both Indigenous and settler-colonial sources. One such example is John Lutz’s Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. He uses oral and material sources – Indigenous and settler – to paint a far fairer and more reflective picture of the development of what is currently called British Columbia. Queen Victoria’s sappers and miners were not the benefactors and conquerors that Lytton touted them to be, nor did First Nations Peoples depend or rely on Euro-Canadian industrial and capitalist enterprises to survive in a rapidly changing world. 

Instead, those sappers and miners arrived to the fledgling “Colony of Vancouver Island” where they found a rich, robust tapestry of sovereign Indigenous societies stretching from Alaska to Washington state. These engineers would have encountered dynamic trade networks, traditional food and agricultural systems, and established summer and winter communities. Further, as Lutz argues, First Nations groups such as the Tlingit of the Northwest, the Haida Gwaii, or the Central and Interior Salish of the Fraser River (or Sto:lo River, in the Halkomelem language) participated in capitalist economies mainly as a means of supplementing their own traditional economies. The key point is that the West Coast of North America was far from empty, and by no means undeveloped.

While British Columbia’s capital and its largest city – Victoria and Vancouver, respectively – may be sprawling metropolitan areas in our current time, they were once small Hudson Bay Company trading posts. As Lutz writes, “in 1855, of the 34,600 or so inhabitants of the Colony of Vancouver Island and the adjacent islands and shores, all but 774 were” First Nations peoples, and just under twenty years later, “when BC joined Canada in 1871, there were three times as many” First Nations Peoples than settlers. Indigenous peoples would form the majority of the population until at least 1900. (Lutz, p.163-165)

For instance, as Governor James Douglas reported in 1853, “a great part of the agricultural labour of the colony, is at present performed by means of the Natives,” with Indigenous farmers, hunters, and harvesters providing a wide range of goods such as “venison, partridges, salmon, potatoes, and berries.” In Nanaimo alone, he added, “the colonial surveyor reported that ‘the inhabitants are principally dependent on the Indians who sometimes bring as many as 63 deer in a day.” Ultimately, the survival of the colony during its formative years hinged on Indigenous food systems. However, this trend of settler-colonial reliance on Indigenous labour went far beyond food (Lutz, p.170-171).

In addition to feeding the colonies, First Nations individuals and communities made up the majority share of the labour which, as the English philosopher John Locke would have vehemently argued, provided the impetus for private property and land ownership. So while Euro-Canadian settlers served Britain’s imperial ambitions as merchants, politicians, entrepreneurs, and administrators, First Nations peoples were clearing land for farms and buildings, working in mines, cutting trees, and running the sawmills necessary for the production of the lumber that was essential to both construction and shipbuilding. As a Puget Sound newspaper reported during this early period, “many areas of work – lumber mills, logging camps, farming, and shipping – would have been unable to get along without Indian labour” (Lutz, p.170-171).

The network of universities, colleges, and libraries in American and European institutions that has historically informed what can be called ‘scholarly’ or ‘academic’.

In the past, the apparent lack of ‘physical’ primary source records – diaries, logbooks, censuses, etc. – would have made the impact of First Nations labourers in the actual harvesting, transportation, or economic impact of lumber difficult to articulate by Western academic standards. However, as many Indigenous and settler scholars alike continue to stress, we need to elevate the role of oral history testimonies in both our historical and contemporary understandings of the world.[2] Doing so for the topic at hand reveals that logging itself was – and continues to be – a staple in the traditional economies of First Nations in British Columbia. 

George Manuel, the internationally renowned Secwepemc activist and co-author of The Fourth World, a 1974 study of Indigenous political activism, worked as a boom operator when he wasn’t travelling across Canada advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples. George is the father of Arthur Manuel, another prominent scholar and activist, and his grandchildren continue to fight for recognition of Secwepemc sovereignty.

As Lutz argues, it can be “difficult to get an overall picture of the harvesting part of the forest industry”, as this work was well-embedded into the traditional economic practices of Indigenous communities, rather than under direct colonial control. Lutz continues, however, by saying that “we do know that all twelve of the Aboriginal men who left work histories, from all parts of the province, worked at one time or another as loggers, wood-cutters, boom men, sawmill labourers” or barge operators on the many rivers that connected both settler and First Nations communities (Lutz, p.214-215).

This indicates that logging was not necessary specific to any one area or nation, and it was ultimately colonial legislation that resulted in the exclusion of Indigenous labourers from the industry; “when legislative changes forced an end to hand-logging in 1910, in several cases, Aboriginal People formed their own logging companies; however, they soon found that the provincial forestry branch did not want to give licences” to Indigenous labourers and entrepreneurs. Chief Julian of Sechelt echoes this sentiment in his conversation with the McKenna-McBride Commission in 1913; “a few years ago we used to make our living by logging… but we had to buy a license to do so but now in these late years we cannot do that” (Lutz, p.215)

Despite these legislative changes, First Nations logging activities continued and, for some, hadn’t even peaked yet; according to a scholar named John Pritchard, the logging activities of the Haisla actually peaked in 1924, and continued until after World War Two. For the Sto:lo, as scholar Amy O’Neill recorded, “in the last half of the twentieth century, logging was a key source of livelihood… and a source of pride and identity for many Stó:lo men” (Lutz, p.215). One Sto:lo man, Leonard Point, “when interviewed in 1951, had been working in sawmills since 1929,” and logging in the bush long before then. He goes on to say that logging was more popular than millwork, as many found the mills took away too much time from traditional economic practices of hunting and fishing (Lutz, p.214).

The colonial records that have survived the passage of time speak volumes. Industrialism arrived to Vancouver Island in 1861 in the form of a $12,000 steam-powered mill, which was “eventually capable of cutting 100,000 feet of lumber a day.” The construction of this mill was quickly followed by two more mills of similar size and capabilities on Burrard Inlet. The traditional economies of First Nations simply adapted and expanded to include these new source of wealth. 

I have used the phrase ‘unskilled labour’ in reference to millworkers, but I want to emphasize that I have used it intentionally, mainly with the hope of starting a conversation around how highly contentious the term itself is in this context. The adjective ‘unskilled’ can actually be used as a way of diminishing the value of a worker’s labour, and thus serves to legitimize the issuance cheap wages, poor benefits, etc.

As Lutz notes, by 1881, the Burrard Inlet and Fraser River Indian agencies reported that there were nine mills in total, paying out over $125,000 to roughly 250 employees (Lutz, p.182). These numbers pale in comparison, however, to Indian Agent James Swan’s report that “sawmills in Puget Sound, just south of the Canadian border in Washington State, employed ‘hundreds and sometimes thousands of Northern Indians.’”  It is clear from the census data that First Nations labourers formed the backbone of ‘unskilled’ labour for mills in British Columbia, which Lutz identifies as one of the largest industries in both the province and Canada ( Lutz, p.182).

Image of 1880s map of City of Vancouver, Canadian Pacific Town Site.
The map shows the area currently occupied by Downtown Vancouver and parts of Kitsilano. It shows the location of C.P.R. Wharf, Royal City Saw Mills, Hastings Saw Mill and Wharf, Leamy and Kyle’s Saw Mill and other saw mills. “Streets graded and side-walked marked thus . . . . ..” An insert shows “Canadian Pacific Mail Steamship Lines” on a map of the world. The north shore of Burrard Inlet indicates the locations of “Indian Houses” and a mission church. Image courtesy of The City of Vancouver Archives.

Lumber was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. First Nations industrial ambitions provided an unprecedented and unexpected amount of coal and gold to the B.C. economy. For example, shortly after the establishment of the City of Vancouver, First Nations like the Snuyemuxw and Kwakawa’wakw noted Europe’s insatiable hunger for coal and gold and quickly sought to capitalize on this demand. In Gov. Douglas’ opinion, “the industry and perseverance they exhibited in that pursuit [was] truly wonderful and astonished every person who visited that spot,” and as Lutz notes, “in the summer of 1849 alone, an estimated eight hundred Kwakwaka’wakw surface-mined the coal” (Lutz, p. 171).[11] Although the Department of Indian Affairs stopped reporting on the break down of professions represented on reserves, the famous Mckenna-McBride Royal Commission of 1913-1915 showed the continuity of coal as the main source of revenue for the Snuyemuxw (Lutz, p.173).

The role of gold for the colony’s economic prosperity and continued viability was even more important than coal. Despite the massive influx of over 30,000 immigrant prospectors in 1858, prospecting and ‘panhandling’ continued to provide a major source of First Nations labour. In 1872, the British Colonist reported that “$15,000-$20,000 is annually contributed to the wealth of the province by mining on the Fraser and Thompson rivers, which is carried on almost exclusively by the Natives at low water.” Four years later, that number would jump to between $20,000 and $30,000, with the Nations in and around Lytton generating upwards of $10,000 alone.  And, perhaps most importantly, the Colonist added, “when the gold rushes had passed, and most of the immigrants had abandoned the diggings, Aboriginal People, their numbers reduced by disease, were still on their ancestral lands” (Lutz, p.177). More significant is that First Nations gold harvesters were often seen as independent prospectors engaging in entrepreneurial endeavours rather than wage-labourers for larger mining companies. 

This dominance of First Nations labourers in British Columbia’s capitalist industries, and the continued importance of their economies in supporting Euro-Canadian settlement, continued well into the late 19th century. During one of his many visits to the west coast in the late 19th century, noted anthropologist Franz Boas wrote that Indigenous labourers “have already become indispensable on the labor market and without them the province would suffer a great economic damage” (Lutz, quoting Franz Boas, p.192). In contrast, the appearance of British economic and industrial institutions were often only supplemental to the pre-existing traditional, seasonal, and migratory economic practices of First Nations Peoples, something that John Lutz defines much more succinctly as the diverse network of “moditional economic practices” that existed – and continue to exist – outside of the imperial, capitalist economies of settler-colonials, mainly revolving around ceremonial activities like the potlatch.

For nations like the Lekwungen, the potlatch is “the nexus of the prestige, subsistence, and new capitalist economies,” which serves to facilitate the (re)distribution of wealth and the establishment and maintenance of social, kinship networks. As Lutz writes, “it seems clear that, until at least the 1880’s, the main reason that so many Aboriginal Peoples participated in the capitalist economy was to enable them to participate more fully in their own.” “Wage work,” he continues, “though useful as an adjunct to the prestige economy, was precisely that: an adjunct” (Lutz, p.82-83).

With this in mind, I would argue that British Columbia was quite literally built on the blood, sweat, tears, laughter, and labour of First Nations Peoples, and it is by their works that the construction and operation of mines, railways, roads, and sawmills was even possible, let alone profitable. Indeed, many Euro-Canadian settlers grew to accept and admire their First Nations neighbours and coworkers. “[A]s Europeans settled among Aboriginal People and began working alongside them,” Lutz writes, “some [European labourers] were willing to admit that ‘Indians’ worked ‘better than many whitemen’, [and] that they were ‘equal, if not superior to a man of our own race” (Lutz, p.235).


In the words of the The U’mista Cultural Centre, “Since a time beyond memory, the Kwakwaka’wakw have been hosting potlatches and potlatching continues to play a central and unifying role in community life today… The word “potlatch” means “to give” and comes from a trade jargon, Chinook, formerly used along the Pacific coast of Canada. Guests witnessing the event are given gifts. The more gifts given, the higher the status achieved by the potlatch host. The potlatch ceremony marks important occasions in the lives of the Kwakwaka’wakw: the naming of children, marriage, transferring rights and privileges and mourning the dead. It is a time for pride – a time for showing the masks and dances owned by the Chief or host giving the potlatch. It is a time for joy.”

Yet, the continued existence of traditional First Nations economies – and especially the highly influential tradition of the potlatch – came to be seen by colonialists as a force that undermined the Euro-Canadian capitalist markets. The already tense relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples became further inflamed as the colonial powers decided that “British Columbia was to be a ‘White Man’s Province” — a colony in which – as one colonist by the name of James Bell wrote in 1859 – a place where “the indolent, contented savage must give way to the busteling [sic] sons of civilization and toil” (Lutz, p.238). The evidence presented above clearly shows how hollow, horrid, and ignorantly misinformed Bell’s statement was. 

How were the federal and provincial governments going to remove First Nations labourers in order induce the emigration of white settlers to the province? Somewhere down the line, the once highly prized labour of First Nations individuals and communities – initially seen as pillars of British Columbian society – came to be seen as instances of Canada’s “Indian Problem,” a characterization promoted by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott, the architect of the residential school system. They argued that Canadian nationalism was incompatible with a sovereign Indigenous presence within the same geographic place. 

“A group of Tsimshian people having a tea party in a tent, Lax Kw’alaams (formerly Port Simpson), B.C., c. 1890.” Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

The newspapers were early proponents of Bell’s sentiments, such that by 1866, “employers were publicly chastised for hiring ‘Indians,’” resulting in many employers and industries shunning and excluding First Nations labourers (Lutz, p.236). This practice came to a head in 1872 when the “Act to Amend the Qualification and Registration of Voters” removed the right of Aboriginal People to vote in provincial and federal elections. One result of the law was that Aboriginal and Chinese people, lacking the franchise, were legally prohibited from the professions of law and politics.” This restriction effectively set up a legislative system which is highly reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid regime. 

Much like in South Africa, British Columbia – and indeed, much of Canada – adopted a political system in which racialized peoples – who formed the majority of the population in B.C. were placed, as Lutz notes, at “the legislative mercy of the white minority, who used the state to further disadvantage Aboriginal People” (Lutz, p.236). The most infamous of these would be the 1876 Indian Act “further pathologized Indians as legal minors,” particularly with the later establishment of the pass-system, particularly an 1884 amendment which “made it illegal for First Nations peoples to practice religious ceremonies and various cultural gatherings”, resulting in the outlawing of the potlatch ceremony. 

Indigenous Resistance, Resilience, and Resurgence

Despite being outlawed, many communities continued to hold potlatch ceremonies, often with sentries and guards posted to warn of RCMP raids. Read here for more information:

“Potlatch, Alert Bay, B.C”, June, 1907. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

As Lutz notes, Joyce Albany, of the Lekwungen, accurately “recognized this form of state racism for what it is: ‘Believe me,’ she told the Colonist in 1973, ‘we very often sit down and talk about the White Problem”, which Lutz articulates as the expansion of federal and provincial policy implementation geared at limiting, forbidding, and policing of Canada’s natural resources, all of which are underpinned by “racist legislation and attitudes” (Lutz, p.255).

In conclusion, I have sought in this article to highlight the importance of re-defining Canada’s ‘defining moments’ as but one piece of an international accounting for the legacy of global ‘imperial-colonialism,’ which oversaw the aggressive extraction of natural resources and labour from places outside Europe. Ultimately, many people from many different cultural, religious, and ethic backgrounds worked tirelessly to make Canada the country it is today, so it should be only fair to give those who toiled their due. That is, given that institutions like the University of Glasgow in Scotland have made an effort to pay reparations for profits made from slavery and American scholars analyze slave-ship manifests in proposals for how “European slave-trade reparations could be used in Africa and the New World to indemnify the descendants of the formerly enslaved,” perhaps Canadians can also begin to think of creative solutions to address their own colonial legacies.[3]

[1] “Speech by Sir Edward Bulwar Lytton to a Company of Royal Engineers, Leaving London in 1858 for British Columbia”, from Kenichi Matsui “Native Water Rights”, p. 3

[2] Nepia Mahuika, Rethinking Oral History and Tradition: An Indigenous Perspective (New York, 2019; online edn, Oxford Academic, 18 Mar. 2021)

[3] Thomas Craemer, “International Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade.” Journal of Black Studies 49, no. 7 (10, 2018): 694-713. DOI:


Kenichi Matsui, Native Peoples and Water Rights: Irrigation, Dams, and the Law in Western Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.

John Sutton Lutz, Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. UBC Press, 2008.