UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Disposal of crown lands in British Columbia, 1871-1913 Cail, Robert Edgar


The history of the disposal of Crown lands in British Columbia is in reality the history of the economic development of the province. It covers the progress of British Columbia from its days as a hunting and trading preserve of the Hudson's Bay Company through its brief colonial period and formative years as a province down to its years of rapid settlement and development in the decade before 1913. Once the colonial period had passed, the attack upon the natural resources began in earnest. So rich and abundant did those resources of land, mine, forest, and water prove that British Columbia found itself launched into an industrial era almost before adequate legislation had been framed to deal with its land and resources. Legislation was necessary to guide the economic progress of the province and to establish regulations governing the disposal of Crown land and its appurtenant resources of mineral, timber, and water. The laws were framed always with a view to accomplishing three things - encouraging settlement, forestalling speculation, and securing revenue. Since in every case the basis of provincial legislation was to be found in the proclamations and ordinances framed from 1858 to 1864 by Governor Douglas, a survey of colonial regulations is needed to clarify subsequent policy. To assist him in framing proclamations for guiding the progress of the two colonies, Douglas looked to the Colonial Office, the terms under which the Hudson’s Bay Company had held Vancouver Island, and his own judgment. The first regulations adhered closely to principles laid down by the Colonial Office. Douglas was carefully instructed to ward off speculation in public lands by making beneficial use of the criterion of alienation. No agricultural land was to be pre-empted other than by bona fide settlers. Land was not to be sold without some guarantee that it would be improved. Timber leases were to be granted only to the operators of saw Mills. Miners could not divert water from streams unless it was needed at once. By 1871 the principle of beneficial use had been so thoroughly established in law that it was never thereafter abandoned. Practice, however, was at variance with principle and until the McBride ministry had devised adequate administrative machinery after 1909 little could be done to enforce regulations. Secondly, Douglas was instructed to reserve certain rights to the Crown. Gold, wherever found, was so reserved; by 1913, silver, coal, natural gas, and oil had been added. Land for government purposes was similarly reserved to the Crown. As for other principles, Douglas found he could not enforce them in the face of existing conditions. Sale of land by auction did not work, nor did insistence upon immediate payment. Neither principle could prevail for long. To secure money, Douglas soon discovered he must dispose of lands on easy terms. Had the Colonial Office seen fit to heed Douglas's plea to lend credit to the new Pacific colonies to relieve them of the pressing need for money, the subsequent wholesale alienation of large tracts of the best land at very low prices would have been unnecessary. Beneficial use, sale only by auction, cash sales, and survey prior to alienation could all have been firmly established and carefully supervised. As it was, British Columbia did none of these things and indeed, became the only province in Canada where land could be alienated prior to survey. Prom 1871 to 1913 British Columbia followed the pattern set in colonial days. The only reason the province retained ninety per cent of the timber stands was that, before legal safeguards were enacted, timber was regarded more as a nuisance than as an asset. But the necessity for securing revenue by selling or otherwise disposing of Crown lands on as easy terms as possible established a pattern of thinking that was to see the reckless alienation of millions of acres of land to railway promoters between 1883 and 1900. Much of the land was later repurchased. And because of the difficulties which arose between the Dominion and the province over jurisdictional conflicts stemming from the presence of a forty-mile strip of land through the heart of the province granted in exchange for rail connections with eastern Canada, enough ill-feeling was engendered to make the allotting of Indian reserve lands one of the most vexed problems In provincial history. Crown lands in unlimited quantity were disposed of to land and timber speculators and railway promoters from 1871 to 1900. Not until 1900 did provincial governments begin to question the wisdom of such wholesale alienation. Land was so eagerly sought from 1905 to 1913 that effective machinery was finally devised to regulate its disposal on terms most favourable to the province. Pre-emptions were inspected, water rights were clarified, timber lands were placed under reserve for sale of the timber by auction only, extensive surveys of agricultural lands were made, and settlement was at last directed to areas served by communication facilities. By 1913 Crown lands and their natural resources were recognized for what they were - priceless expendable assets and the people’s heritage - no longer to be disposed of heedlessly but rather to be conserved for posterity.

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