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The area now known as British Columbia (BC) has been inhabited for at least 10,000 to 12,000 years. The term “Aboriginal” refers to the ancestors of those inhabitants and includes the distinct subgroups of Inuit, Métis and First Nations peoples. Precontact Aboriginal communities were located throughout BC in three cultural regions identified as the northwest coast, southern Interior and northern Interior.
Prior to 1881, the pre-contact Aboriginal population numbered over 300,000. However with the establishment of the European settlement in 1881 the Aboriginal population numbers were reduced to an estimated 40,000. In fact, increasing European contact and settlement from the 19th century until present day has had a major impact on every aspect of Aboriginal life, which is articulated in the case study on the Indian residential school system.
In 1858 the Fraser River gold rush drastically increased European and American migration and settlement to BC, with 25,000 to 30,000 people entering the area. The increase of settlers in the area caused conflict over trespass and land use. Gold mining destroyed natural habitat, especially in freshwater marine environments, which in turn disturbed key food systems on a broader scale.
Unlike much of the rest of Canada, the majority of First Nations in BC have no negotiated treaties. The first treaties created in BC were established by Sir James Douglas (Vancouver Island governor) as the Hudson’s Bay Company moved its fur trading headquarters from Fort Vancouver (present-day Vancouver, Washington, at the mouth of the Columbia River) to Fort Victoria (present-day Victoria, BC). These treaties are called the Douglas Treaties and resulted in land purchases covering some 930 square kilometres on Vancouver Island.
Attempts to create further treaties and to address Aboriginal title and rights have until relatively recently been stymied by laws that made First Nations customs illegal (such as the potlatch) and limited political enfranchisement and legal representation. The Nisga’a agreement was hailed as BC’s first modern-day land treaty. It is a comprehensive agreement that includes surface and subsurface rights, removal of Indian Act application, cash compensation, agreements around wildlife and fisheries and self-government providisons. As of 2014, a few treaties have been completed, including the Maa-nulth First Nations Treaty and the Tsawwassen First Nation Treaty. Other treaties are pending final ratification by the Canadian government, such as the Tla’amin Nation Treaty and Yale First Nation Treaty.