This most important document in Kamloops’ history

The history behind The 1910 Memorial of the Interior Chiefs to Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the fight for justice.

This story is one of five in our email series, History at the Confluence: A glimpse into Tk’emlúps’ past.

L to R Chief “Louis” Clexlixqen of Tk’emlúps (Kamloops), Chief Basil “Dick” David of Stuxtéws (Bonaparte) and Chief “John” Chelahitsa of sp’áxmen (Douglas Lake) posing for a photo in Ottawa in 1908. Courtesy of Kamloops Museum and Archives (KMA photo number 6337)

“We never accepted these reservations as settlement for anything nor did we sign any papers or make any treaties about the same. They thought we would be satisfied with this, but we never have been satisfied and never will be until we get our rights.”

This was the message delivered by a united delegation of Secwépemc, Nlaka’pamux, and Syilx Chiefs to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in Kamloops in 1910. 

It was Aug. 25, and Laurier was on a tour of Canada’s western provinces. After his meeting with Kamloops’ Liberal party members, he proceeded to his next appointment at the Odd Fellows’ Hall on Victoria Street. There, a delegation of chiefs from three Interior nations, alongside friends and allies, met with the prime minister to lay out their grievances. 

It was not the first nor last meeting between the Interior chiefs and colonial leadership. Among those in attendance were Chief “Louis” Clexlixqen of Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) and Chief “John” Chelahitsa of sp’áxmen (Douglas Lake) who had travelled to Europe to meet with the Pope as well as Chief Basil “Dick” David of Stuxtéws (Bonaparte) who met the King in London. 

It was also not the first time they had an audience with Laurier, having met with him at least twice in Ottawa. This was, however, the first time a Canadian prime minister met with them in their own territories, and so this is remembered as a significant meeting. 

A month earlier, these chiefs, their advisors and allies gathered at Spences Bridge to compose a document laying out their position on title and rights. Care was taken to explain their perspective, using language that would be understandable by the colonial government and the settler population at large. 

The resulting document is known as “The 1910 Memorial of the Interior Chiefs to Sir Wilfrid Laurier.” 

Ron Ignace, Canada’s Commissioner of Indigenous Languages and retired chief of Skeetchestn Band, described the memorial as “our Magna Carta” in his book Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws.

What happened in the conversations between these chiefs and colonial powers that shaped the region’s Indigenous-colonial relations as we know them today? 

Spences Bridge spanning the Thompson River in Nlaka’pamux territory circa 1914. Courtesy of Vancouver Archives

An illegal occupation and the case for Indigenous title

By 1858 news of gold in the Fraser River had spread and a new gold rush was in full swing. Practically overnight, the settler population on the mainland went from perhaps 150 Hudson’s Bay Company traders and their families to over 10,000 mostly-American newcomers, with more arriving daily. 

Fearing annexation of the territory by the Americans, the British Empire declared the establishment of the Colony of British ColumbiaAug. 2, 1858. With a few strokes of a pen, the Empire began their invasion, ignoring the sovereignty of the ancient nations that had occupied and stewarded these lands for millennia. 

In declaring the Colony of British Columbia, the British Empire ignored its own laws, specifically the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which barred seizures of Indigenous lands without treaties between the Crown and the affected parties. 

As the Colony of British Columbia merged with other west coast colonies and eventually negotiated entry into the newly confederated Dominion of Canada in 1871, it swept under the rug the issue of legal title to most of the new province’s land base.

By the early 1900s, First Nation leaders across B.C. were fed up. They knew, however, war was not a viable option. They needed allies fluent in English, especially English law. In time, these allies would be found.

The Chiefs of the Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) allied with clergyman and former lawyer Arthur O’Meara, together composing a document in 1909 known as the Cowichan Declaration. In this document, the wording of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was used to argue that the Quw’utsun’ people hold enduring title to their homelands. O’Meara made a point to hand deliver the declaration to the secretary of state for the Colonies in London.

The contents of the document struck a chord with the bureaucrats of the colonial office. The declaration was forwarded to Ottawa, along with a demand from the Crown that Canada investigate the matter.

A declaration of their own

While we cannot say for certain which chiefs were present at the 1910 meeting, all six of the chiefs pictured here were signatories to the 1911 Memorial to Frank Oliver, which followed less than a year later. Top L to R: Chief “Louis” Clexlixqen of Tk’emlúps (Kamloops), Chief “John” Chelahitsa of sp’áxmen (Douglas Lake), Chief “John” Tetlenitsa of Pekaist (near Spences Bridge). Bottom L to R: Chief Basil “Dick” David of Stuxtéws (Bonaparte),“Alexander” Chilahitsa Hereditary Head Chief of the Syilx, Chief “Benedict” Sipelest Keefers Band (North Bend). Photos by James Teit, courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History

During the same period, the Interior chiefs were not idle, having founded the Interior Tribes of British Columbia (ITBC) to campaign for their rights. They already sent a number of delegations east to Ottawa and London.

When the Cowichan Declaration succeeded in drawing attention from the Crown and the Dominion of Canada, the ITBC planned a meeting to compose their own document laying out a case for title to their lands.

The Interior chiefs led by building consensus, so on July 15 and 16, 1910 a meeting was held at Spences Bridge in Nlaka’pamux territory. Chiefs from the Nlaka’pamux, Secwépemc and Syilx nations gathered with friends and allies to discuss the theft of their homelands, the plight of their peoples and the actions they needed to take.

James Alexander Teit, ethnographer and secretary to the Interior Chiefs circa 1914. Courtesy of Vancouver Archives.

The resulting document was written in English by James Teit, compiled and translated from the mother tongues of the gathered delegates, Nlaka’pamuctsin, Secwépemctsin and nsyilxcən.

Teit, an ethnographer born in the Shetland Islands, had lived among the Nlaka’pamux for most of his adult life. Unlike most ethnographers of his day he did not consider himself to be documenting “primitive” or “dying” cultures. He took great care to be respectful to his hosts while conducting his research, and in turn earned the respect of the people.

When the newly formed ITBC elected him as the organization’s secretary, he embraced his role with vigour, drafting documents and translating English into the interior languages. Teit was also a noted socialist, a fact that drew the ire of members of the B.C. and Canadian governments, which considered him among the “white agitators” who were “stirring up the Indians.”

Father Jean-Marie-Raphaël Le Jeune, Oblate Missionary circa 1910s. Courtesy of Kamloops Museum and Archives (KMA photo number 1336)

As the two-day meeting was wrapping up, news of Laurier’s upcoming western tour reached the delegation. Plans to meet the prime minister during his stop in Kamloops were quickly set in motion.

Teit was already contracted for ethnographic work with the Tahltan Nation and would be unavailable to serve as translator at the meeting in Kamloops. In his stead, he requested Father Jean-Marie-Raphel La Jeune.

Le Jeune was an obvious choice, as an ally of the chiefs and a gifted polyglot fluent in the Interior languages.

In his letter to La Jeune regarding the memorial Teit lamented: “It is longer than I intended to make it, but it was impossible to give anything like a good statement of the Indian case (as they view it themselves) without dealing at some length.”

The message of the memorial

The memorial narrates the ongoing dispossession of land, resources and rights from their perspective, making efforts to contextualize the First Nations’ position using examples accessible to the settler worldview through the use of terms like “farm” and “ranch.”

Their people obtained “all the necessaries of life” in their homelands and “had equal rights of access to everything they required.” 

With the arrival of a new wave of settlers, mostly anglophones, some of the old chiefs describe a relationship with the first wave of fur traders rooted in reciprocity. 

“These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must, therefore, be the same as brothers to them and live as one family. We will share equally in everything-half and half-in land, water and timber, and so on. What is ours will be theirs and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.” 

But over the years, the oppressive nature of the Government of British Columbia became obvious.

“They say they have authority over us. They have broken down our old laws and customs (no matter how good) by which we regulated ourselves. They laugh at our chiefs and brush them aside. They say the Indians know nothing and own nothing, yet their power and wealth has come from our belongings. The queen’s law which we believe guaranteed us our rights, the British Columbia government has trampled underfoot. This is how our guests have treated us-the brothers we received hospitably in our house.”

“We have no grudge against the white race as a whole nor against the settlers,” they stress, their people simply want an equal chance of making a living. They do not blame the settlers, but their government. However, “it is also their duty to see their government does right by us and gives us a square deal.”

A positive reception and a federal election

On Aug. 26, 1910, the meeting between the delegates of the ITBC and the prime minister was held at the Odd Fellows Hall. 

Laurier was impressed by the meeting and the memorial, promising to address their grievances. He also advised that if no progress could be made within Canada, the chiefs should pursue their case with the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council, which at the time was Canada’s highest court of appeal.

However, Laurier would not have the opportunity to fulfill his promises. The following year, he was defeated in the 1911 federal election by Conservative Robert Borden, a British Loyalist and supporter of the campaign for a “White Canada.” Borden was not sympathetic to the Indigenous cause.

The fight continues

A delegation of Interior chiefs pose for a group photo before boarding the train to Ottawa in July of 1926. William Pierrish (Neskonlith), Basil Dick (Bonaparte) and John Chillihitza (Douglas Lake), also Julienne Williams, niece of Chillihitza, who acted as interpreter for this trip. Courtesy of Kamloops Museum and Archives (KMA photo number 1173)

The battle of letters and lobbying dragged on for years. With each new meeting or petition, the size of the First Nations alliance grew.

Now awakened to the very real legal threat to their power, colonial authorities within B.C. and Canadian governments conspired to keep the issue out of the courts. Meanwhile racist laws continued to put pressure on the Indigenous nations — most egregiously in 1920 by making attendance at the so-called residential “schools” mandatory.

Ottawa in July of 1926. William Pierrish (Neskonlith), Basil Dick (Bonaparte) and John Chillihitza (Douglas Lake), also Julienne Williams, niece of Chillihitza, who acted as interpreter for this trip. Courtesy of Kamloops Museum and Archives (KMA photo number 1173)

In 1927, a crippling blow was dealt to the movement with an amendment to the Indian Act. The introduction of Section 141 barred Indigenous people from pursuing land issues in court, hiring lawyers or fundraising for such activities without explicit permission from the Department of Indian Affairs. Lawyers could be disbarred for working on these cases.  

The Interior chiefs persisted, and Ronald Ignace would later describe the document as the Secwépemc Nation’s Magna Carta because of its relevance today. 

The document would be referred to again and again by leaders like Arthur Manuel to articulate a vision for nation-to-nation relationships with the Crown — relationships that continue to be challenged by Canadian governments to this day.

Former-Kukpi7 Wayne Christian of Splats’in First Nation called on the people of Canada to “conclude this long struggle in our history by taking action that will bring the words in the Memorial to life.” 

In the coming weeks, as we explore the settler side of Kamloops history, remember the foundation on which the colony was built.

Further Reading

The 1910 Memorial of the Interior Chiefs to Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Yerí7 re Stsq’ey’s-kucw – Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws by Marianne and Ronald Ignace

Shuswap History: A Century of Change by Annabel Cropped Ear Wolf

Shuswap History: The First 100 years of Contact by John Coffey, Ed Goldstrom, Garry Gottfriedson, Robert Matthew and Patrick Walton

At the Bridge, James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging By Wendy Wickwire

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