“Incited to Potlatch”

By Sevda Sparks

A potlatch is a ceremonial gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the United States. The Canadian government’s potlach ban began in 1885, and underwent many amendments to strengthen it until its removal in 1951. Library and Archives Canada’s holdings include a wealth of material on the potlatch, including many letters and petitions on the suppression of the custom as well as efforts to continue it. Of special interest is the correspondence of Kwakwakawakw Chief Billy Assu, Indian Agent William Halliday, and British Columbia Chief Justice Matthew Begbie.

A black-and-white photograph of a streetscape with potlatch participants and items to be given away.

Potlatch, Alert Bay, British Columbia, June 1907 (MIKAN 3368269)

In the midst of the potlatch ban, Chief Billy Assu wrote to the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs, J. D. MacLean, in 1919, explaining the potlach or “our old custom of giving away.” In describing the roots of the celebration, and the desire to retain it, Assu stated:

“We all know that things are changing. In the old days, the only things that counted were such things as food, dried fish, roots, berries, and things of that nature. A chief in those days would get possession of all these things and would pass them on to those who had not got any… ”

The potlach was a way to hold onto important cultural customs despite the changing times. Assu also commented more broadly on the potlatch in indigenous society:

“…some were trained to make canoes, some to hunt, some to catch fish, some to dry fish, some to get material to make our clothes, then we divided this up amongst the others. This was the beginning of our feast of giving away.”

Section 149 of the Indian Act, which banned the potlach, was a challenge to enforce, both practically and legally. It was difficult to determine exactly what the potlatch was, under the law, and to prove when it was happening. In 1889, Chief Justice Begbie found the legislation on the potlatch to be lacking when it came to sentencing, stating:

 “…if the legislature had intended to prohibit any meeting announced by the name of “potlatch” they should have said so. But if it be desired to create a new offence previously unknown to the law there ought to be some definition of it in the statute.”

The law was amended in 1895, and agents were particularly determined to prosecute those who were “incited to potlatch”, despite the lack of legal evidence in some cases, as demonstrated by William Halliday, agent to assistant deputy and secretary J. D. McLean in Ottawa. The methods of curtailing the potlach extended to holding meetings between agents and First Nations leaders, so that the agents could “read to them the specific article…and give reasons why the potlach should be condemned and done away with.” Agents deemed the tradition wasteful, leaving nations “near penury.”

After such a meeting, agent Halliday states:

“Yesterday and today they have been to a certain extent violating that section as they have been holding mourning ceremonies, part of which consists in singing mourning songs and part in receiving gifts from the surviving relatives, but I have not interfered with them in any way.”

Such accounts from agents and other departmental officials illustrate an attempt to monitor, control and suppress basic aspects of First Nations culture, even beyond the potlatch itself. This continued despite efforts by indigenous leaders to explain indigenous lifestyle and customs to government officials.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of potlatch participants with items to be given away.

Potlatch, 1907 (MIKAN 3572940)

The great contrast among Chief Assu’s letter, Justice Begbie’s remarks and Agent Halliday’s account allows for a more complete understanding of the potlatch ban issue. Assu’s letter is straightforward in describing the potlatch and its importance. Begbie’s comments speak to the challenges in attempting to use legislation to control cultural practices. Halliday’s account provides insight into the mindset and practices of the Canadian government at the time. Having access to these multiple perspectives highlights the importance of archival records in researching complex historical issues.

Additional resources

Sveda Sparks worked at Library and Archives Canada’s Vancouver public service point in the summer of 2017 as part of the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP).


Images for British Columbia now on Flickr

British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province—a mountainous area bordering the Pacific Ocean whose population is mainly centred in its southwestern corner. The province’s name was chosen in 1858 and New Westminster, a settlement on the mainland, became the capital. When the mainland and island colonies joined in 1866, the island city of Victoria was designated the capital instead. British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871, making it the 6th province.

Did you know?

  • British Columbia’s majestic landscapes and interesting geological features are the result of a thick sheet of ice that covered the province during the ice age.
  • Paleoamericans arrived in the Pacific Northwest 12,000–20,000 years ago and the region has since seen the development of Aboriginal communities on the provincial coast, and in the richly diverse interior.
  • The introduction of the fur trade in the early 19th century and the discovery of gold along the Lower Fraser River in 1858 saw an increase in settlers and the establishment of permanent towns. The 20th century brought industrialization and the intense exploitation of natural resources. Consequently, environmental and natural resource preservation would become a priority for the province in the post-war period.
  • British Columbia is one of the most ethnically diverse provinces in the country, with the highest percentage of visible minorities, most notably from Asian and South-Asian descent.

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British Columbia Penitentiary’s Goose Island: help is 20 km away, or 9 to 17 hours as the pigeon flies

By Caitlin Webster

Two brief notes in Library and Archives Canada’s holdings of the British Columbia Penitentiary illustrate the dangers of running prison work gangs in remote locations. At various points throughout its 102 years at the New Westminster site, the penitentiary operated a prison farm as well as carpentry, metal work and masonry shops. But in the early 20th century it attempted to establish an off-site logging and quarrying operation approximately 20 km from headquarters.

In 1903, the penitentiary acquired the deed to Goose Island through an Order in Council. Also known as Wright Island, Pen Island, and even Convict Island, this 140 acre property sits in the centre of Pitt Lake towards the eastern edge of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

A handwritten page that reads, “On a Memorandum, dated 21st January, 1903, from the Minister of the Interior, stating that application has been made by the Minister of Justice for the transfer to his Department, for the purposes of the British Columbia Penitentiary of Goose Island, situated about the center of Pitt Lake, in Section 25, Township 5, Range 5, west of the Seventh Meridian, in the Railway Belt in British Columbia, the said island being required for the quarrying of stone thereon for use in connection with the penitentiary. The Minister recommends, as the land is vacant in the records of the Department of the Interior, that, under Clause 31 of the Dominion Lands Act, it be transferred to the Department of Justice for the purposes of the British Columbia Penitentiary as above mentioned. The Committee submit the same for approval.” [Signed by] Wilfrid Laurier.

The Order in Council granting Goose Island to the British Columbia Penitentiary, approved February 4, 1903. It was printed in the Canada Gazette (volume 36, number 34, February 21, 1903, page 4)

The penitentiary’s plan was to set up a work camp on the island to extract its lumber and mineral resources, and in June 1906 two guards and seven convicts travelled to the island from the New Westminster site. The group, which was later joined by seven additional convicts, cleared roads, built log houses and a wharf, cut 200 cords of wood, and quarried 96.5 yards of granite. Additional crews were sent in the spring and summer of 1907 and 1908.

As Goose Island was such a remote location at the time, prison guards were supplied with twelve carrier pigeons each week for communication purposes. One pigeon was sent from the island to the New Westminster site each day to provide a routine status report. For urgent matters, guards were to send two pigeons in quick succession, and for emergencies such as escapes, three or four pigeons were to be sent at short intervals.

A typed, mimeographed page describing how regular and emergency communication will take place by carrier pigeon between Goose Island and the New Westminster Penitentiary.

Page 2 of the British Columbia Penitentiary draft instructions for officers in charge of the Goose Island gang (MIKAN 4936751)

On May 27, 1908 such an emergency was encountered at the camp. At 3:55 pm, guards sent the first of at least two carrier pigeons, which arrived at the penitentiary at 9:00 am the following morning to report a “murderous assault” by two inmates. A follow-up message indicating that the prisoners had been handcuffed and that no injuries were incurred was sent at 8:10 am on May 28th and arrived at 4:30 that afternoon.

A handwritten note glued onto a typed page with a description of the note’s content and titled, “Message from Wright Island to the Penitentiary via Pigeon – May 28th, 1908.”

Message sent by carrier pigeon from Goose Island at 8:10 am May 28, 1908, arriving at the British Columbia Penitentiary at 4:30 pm the same day (MIKAN 4936749)

In addition to this attack, escapes and attempted escapes were also reported to have occurred from this camp. Predictably, the challenges of controlling a convict work gang in such a remote location led to the disuse of the island site. By 1919, the log cabins were in disrepair, and penitentiary staff erected “no trespassing” signs on the property to prevent vandalism. Despite some sporadic interest in the island’s stone, lumber, and recreational potential in the intervening years, little activity took place on the site before it was sold in 1953.

A newspaper feature titled, “Pitt Lake’s ‘Pen’ Island Re-discovered” accompanied by four black-and-white photographs of the work camp in disrepair.

Photographs by Charles Jennings accompanying a June 14, 1955 article by Jimmie McPhee in the newspaper, The British Columbian. (MIKAN 4936750)

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