BCHF News Explaining settlers to ourselves

Explaining settlers to ourselves

These watercolour sketch maps show some of the Indian Reserves Peter O’Reilly’s work touched. Source: Indian Reserve Commission. Federal Collection; Minutes of Decision. Correspondence and Sketches, Volume 9. Digitized by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs Research Department and Resource Centre

By Kelly Black

Since the 1960s, Point Ellice House in Victoria has engaged visitors with stories of tea, croquet, romance, and high society. [1] If you have ever visited this provincial heritage site, you probably came for afternoon tea, a fixture of the visitor experience for more than 30 years. Of course, there’s much more to the site than tea on the lawn, as the Vancouver Island Local History Society is demonstrating since we took over management of the site in 2019. We are working to understand Point Ellice House as a “historical hub,” a site connected to its neighbourhood, the wider city of Victoria, and to British Columbia’s and Canada’s legacies of colonization.

As the executive director of Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens, I like to point out to visitors an interpretive plaque at the site. It’s one of those provincial Stop of Interest signs from 1969 — you’ve likely seen them at highway rest stops throughout BC. The sign reads:

Point Ellice House
This historic residence, built in 1861, was the home of the Honourable Peter O’Reilly. As Gold Commissioner, County Court Judge, and member of the first Legislative Council of British Columbia, he was prominent during the formative years of our province. This graceful house was the O’Reilly home for more than a century, and remains an example of mid-Victorian charm.

I bring visitors to this sign because it’s significant — not for what it tells us about Peter O’Reilly or his home but for what it leaves out. Every job O’Reilly ever had with the colonial and provincial governments is listed on the plaque — except for his 18 years as Indian Reserve Commissioner. From 1880 to 1898, O’Reilly acted on behalf of the Federal and Provincial governments to set out, eliminate, reduce, or, in some cases, expand Indian Reserves across the province. Of the more than 600 reserves in BC, O’Reilly had a role in nearly all of them. [2]

The omission of O’Reilly’s time as Indian Reserve Commissioner at a provincial heritage site and on a Stop of Interest sign was not simply an oversight or mistake; it was by design. Interpretive and programming documents from the last few decades regularly omitted O’Reilly’s influence on the colonial geography of the province. Instead, past managers and curators focused on the domestic space, on privileging romantic narratives of Victorian-era courtship, afternoon tea, and roses. The idea that colonization was inevitable, is complete, and is disconnected from the everyday life of settlers remains a pervasive and troubling narrative in BC and Canada. [3]

Historian and geographer Kenneth Brealey argues that O’Reilly’s time as Indian Reserve Commissioner is “the framework upon which our own contemporary provincial geography remains suspended.” [4] In other words, the continued existence of Indian Reserves — on a map or in daily life — reveals that colonization is not simply a past event; it’s ongoing. [5]

Interpreting and narrating the past is a primary objective of public history. As archaeologist and anthropologist Joanne Hammond reminds us, “public histories that paint Canada’s story as inevitable, necessary, and beneficent are dangerous because they work — and not just in the past.” [6] Narratives that obfuscate or omit the work of colonization remain prominent because they have been built up over time and reinforced, and the Stop of Interest signs are one example of this. [7] (See Hammond, “Decolonizing BC’s Roadside History,” British Columbia History 53.4, Winter 2020.)

There can be no reconciliation without truth, something that white settler heritage sites such as Point Ellice House must work to address. Borrowing a term from academics Alissa Macoun and Elizabeth Strakosch, I think about making the past and present of colonization visible as “explaining settlers to ourselves.” [8]

When we started at Point Ellice House, our non-profit society began a reassessment and overhaul of the dated interpretation and training documents. We also continue to reimagine site programming; we’ve dropped 30 years of declining afternoon tea service in favour of storytelling and exhibits. Central to these changes is interpreting the house and its families within the context of the British Empire and settler colonialism. A new interpretive panel in O’Reilly’s study reads:

The Geography of Settler Colonialism
Peter O’Reilly was BC’s Indian Reserve Commissioner, responsible for assigning reserve lands without treaty. He travelled the province from 1880 to 1898, returning to this room to make decisions that would have devastating impacts on First Nations peoples. Many First Nations reported that he set out reserves hastily and without due consultation. In several cases, he assigned reserves while leaders were absent. O’Reilly had been instructed to consider any First Nations land that was not occupied by houses or cultivation as “waste.” The view that Indigenous people were not making “proper” use of the land was prominent in Canada; today, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls on us to reject such concepts, which were used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples.

The updated visitor experience at Point Ellice House makes connections between the everyday life of a privileged Victoria family and the everyday work of empire and colonization. At the direction of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, O’Reilly’s brother in-law Joseph Trutch, and others, Peter O’Reilly shaped the geographic violence of colonization in British Columbia. Everyday artifacts on display inside the house speak to these connections — a desk, an ink well, tea cups, riding boots, etc. The O’Reillys went about their lives gardening, painting, cooking, and entertaining as a colonial project unfolded around them and because of them. This remains true for most non-Indigenous people in British Columbia today.

Understanding Point Ellice House or other heritage sites in this way does not prohibit interpretation of personal and familial narratives of love, loss, and life experience, but it does reshape them. Peter O’Reilly’s work as Indian Reserve Commissioner was all but expunged from the visitor experience for 50 years; it may take us that much time to untangle and repair the generational influence of these obfuscations and omissions. [9]

Explaining settlers to ourselves is a call to action — for those involved with public histories — to make visible the disruptive processes of colonization that seek to replace Indigenous peoples with a settler society. At Point Ellice House, our response to this call begins with the understanding that the site is more than a family home; it’s an axis that connects tea parties to dispossession and roses with reserves.

1. “Stepping back into history.” The Daily Colonist, December 17, 1967.
2. Kenneth G. Brealey, “Travels from Point Ellice: Peter O’Reilly and the Indian Reserve System in British Columbia,” BC Studies, Autumn/Winter, No. 115/6, 1997/1998, pp. 181-236.
3. Liam Britten, “Homework assignment to list ‘positive’ stories about residential schools under investigation,” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/residential-school-homework-assignment-1.5816491
4. Brealey, p. 235
5. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 2006, pp. 387-409. doi: 10.1080/14623520601056240
6. Joanne Hammond, “Decolonizing BC’s Roadside History,” https://culturallymodified.org/decolonizing-bcs-roadside-history/
7. Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2015.
8. Alissa Macoun and Elizabeth Strakosch. “The ethical demands of settler colonial theory,” Settler Colonial Studies, 3: 3-04 (2013), pp. 426-443, doi: 10.1080/2201473X.2013.810695
9. Erin Thompson, “Why Just ‘Adding Context’ to Controversial Monuments May Not Change Minds,” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-just-adding-context-controversial-monument-may-not-change-minds-180976583

Kelly Black, PhD, is a researcher, writer, historian, and collector of books. He is executive director of Point Ellice Museum & Gardens/Vancouver Island Local History Society and adjunct professor in the Department of History at Vancouver Island University. He is a settler currently residing within the territory of the Malahat Nation and Cowichan Tribes.

Below: watch Kelly Black’s presentation, The Rooms Where it Happened: Practicing Public History at Victoria’s House Museum.