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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reclaiming Indian waters : dams, irrigation, and Indian water rights in Western Canada, 1858-1930 Matsui, Kenichi


Indian water rights regarding irrigation agriculture and the construction o f storage and hydroelectric dams took shape from the 1870s to the 1930s and largely determined economic activities on and near reserves and reservations in Western Canada and the American West respectively. Although historians recently have provided extensive studies of American cases, Indian water rights issues in Western Canada have gained scant attention. The present study focuses on this neglected part of the history placing particular emphasis on the interactive roles Native peoples, government officials, agricultural businesses, hydroelectric developers and homesteaders played in "reclaiming" aboriginal landscapes for irrigation and water storage or hydroelectric dam projects. I explore the jurisdictional debates over water rights that these projects generated. Recognizing the importance of inter-provincial and international contexts, the thesis examines the extent to which American reclamation laws and practices influenced Canadian policymakers, bureaucrats, and technocrats. It also focuses particular attention on the development of water laws and policies in British Columbia and Alberta to identify similarities and differences that subsequently affected Native peoples. I accomplish this by providing four case studies. I note that the differences between these two provinces with respect to the development of Indian water rights were particularly significant before 1930. A key reason was that the federal government held title to Crown lands in Alberta until the latter date, whereas British Columbia entered confederation holding that title. My dissertation demonstrates that the idea of Indian water rights emerged in the late-nineteenth-century from political and legal philosophies and practices of colonialism that attempted to transform the "primitive" Native populations into the mold of yeoman farmers. It was also shaped by modifications of the common law that sought to address the needs of industrialists, miners, and settlers who developed the semi-arid and arid North American west. The water rights regime that emerged was based on a perception o f this resource that was very different from the holistic one held by indigenous populations. I note that as the Native peoples increasingly relied on the agricultural economy in the early twentieth century, and as the competition with neighboring settlers for water intensified, the question o f the extent to which the Native peoples were entitled to water became the subject of serious political and legal wrangling. Native peoples demonstrated that they had a strong desire to maintain control over water at a local level by actively carrying out irrigation projects, protecting their own reclamation works from the obstruction of settlers, fighting against the construction of storage dams by neighboring ranchers, and by successfully negotiating the terms of agreements for surrendering reserve lands to facilitate on-reserve hydro-electric projects. My thesis closes with a reflection about how these historical events help us understand contemporary Indian water claims.

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