2. BC First Nations History: Contact to the 20th Century

As an introduction to this unit, check out the Wab Kinew video below – a highly condensed, funny, and informative overview.

Unit 2 of BCFNS 12 examines the history of First Nations peoples in BC from initial contact with European explorers in the 1770s and into the 20th century. Contact with Europeans happened later for First Nations people in BC compared to other Indigenous groups in North America; however, they were aware of the Europeans well before contact. First contact took place at sea, and a maritime (sea-based) fur trade was quickly established. During the maritime fur trade period, First Nations people adapted new materials and customs into their traditional social patterns. The land-based fur trade, however, began to change the balance of power.

The fur trade era had a profound impact on First Nations peoples. The devastating effects of disease introduced during this period overwhelmed any positive effects, as close to 90 percent of  the First Nations population died from smallpox and other diseases.


ACTIVITY 1: We’re going to start by trying to understand what first contact in BC looked like: what the leader’s perceptions of each other? What were their hopes and fears? What were their first impressions of each other? Compare the accounts of Maquinna, chief of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, and British explorer Captain Cook.

After you’ve read these accounts, read pages 64-65 in the textbook and take a look at this poem entitled First Encounter.

In 2-3 paragraphs, consider the question: how would you describe the different perspectives of First Nations peoples and European explorers? In what ways were there interpretations different?  Try to identify 3 differences.


During the late 1700s and early 1800s, trade with Europeans was mostly limited to the maritime fur trade. Europeans loved them some sea otters, whose pelts were quite lucrative in Europe. Europeans loved those pelts so much that the sea otter was nearly extinct by 1900. That was the European way. At about the same time as the maritime fur trade was increasing on the west coast, explorers and traders who had been trading with First Nations people in Eastern Canada were starting to venture on foot west over the Rocky Mountains in search of new trading opportunities. As with the marine fur-bearing animals, the pelts of land-based animals such as beaver, mink and martin were very valuable. Beavers!


Let’s take a moment to consider how amazing beavers are. Did you know that they are the only animal – outside of humans – who actively and fundamentally alter the landscape?

ACTIVITY 2: Using pages 67-75 in the textbook, complete the following graph that compares the maritime and land-based fur trade. Also, complete the diagram concerning the role of women in the fur trade. You can access those hand-outs here.


British Columbia First Nations Population, 1835–1963
1835 1885 Low Year 1963
Haida 6,000 800 588 (1915) 1,224
Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Tsimshian 3,000 4,550 3,550 (1895) 6,475
Kwakwaka’wakw 10,700 3,000 1,854 (1929) 4,304
Nuu-chah-nulth 7,500 3,500 1,605 (1939) 2,899
Nuxalk 2,000 450 249 (1929) 536
Coast Salish 12,000 5,525 4,120 (1915) 8,495
Interior Salish 13,500 5,800 5,348 (1890) 9,512
Ktunaxa 1,000 625 381 (1939) 443
Athapaskan 8,800 3,750 3,716 (1895) 6,912
Total 70,000 28,000 22,605 (1929) 40,800

Source: Wilson Duff, The Indian History of British Columbia, Volume 1. The Impact of the White Man. British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria, 1965.

ACTIVITY 3: As you can see above, the arrival of Europeans had a devastating impact on First Nations people in BC. Using pages 77-78 of the textbook, use this visual organizer to record the different ways in which contact and the early fur trade impacted First Nations groups: Results of Contact


The discovery of gold in BC, along with a decreased demand for furs in Europe, created a shift in the economy in the mid 1800’s. While contact with Europeans and the fur trade had a devastating impact on First Nations people, it still allowed the basic family unit and traditional way of life to remain fairly intact (disease and colonial policies notwithstanding). However, the new wage economy (as opposed to a trade economy), based on gold, forestry, mining and fishing, created a very different type of labour demand, one based on the production of the individual. First Nations people were able to apply their traditional skills to these new types of jobs, but it changed both their relationship with the colonizers, from trading partner to worker, and the purpose of the work from the survival of the community to earning of wages to buy consumer goods.


Métis Flag

The infinity symbol represents the coming together of two distinct and vibrant cultures, those of European and indigenous North America, to produce a distinctly new culture, the Métis. The flag symbolizes the creation of a new society with roots in both Aboriginal and European cultures and traditions. The sky blue background of the flag emphasizes the infinity symbol and suggests that the Métis people will exist forever.”



ACTIVITY 4: The Indian Act

Darrell Dennis – On the Indian Act

The Colonial Era