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City HallPossible City Name ChangeWho was Israel Powell?

Who was Israel Powell?

We recognize not everyone learned about the government’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples in school and we know it is important for you to make an informed decision about a possible name change. Here is some information about Israel Powell and the policies he developed and implemented on behalf of the government of British Columbia and Canada. (This information comes from the “Israel Wood Powell’s Legacy” report by Know History. You can find the full report in the resources section.)

  • Israel Powell was born in 1836 in Port Colborne, Ontario and moved to Montreal in 1856 to pursue medical studies at McGill University (graduated in 1862).

  • In 1872 he was asked to serve as Superintendent of the newly formed Department of Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia, a position he held until 1889.

  • Powell spent his tenure as Superintendent pursuing policies aimed at assimilating Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia into Euro-Canadian society.

  • One of Powell’s first actions in office in 1872 was to condemn the Indigenous cultural practice of the potlatch, which he viewed as a major obstacle to the assimilation of Indigenous groups into settler Canadian society. In 1883 he assisted with the development of legislation to ban that practice and in 1884 the Indian Act was amended to ban the potlatch. (The Potlatch is a complex function of traditional Coast Salish Governance rooted in protocol. The Potlatch is central to upholding the practices of oral histories and oral knowledge sharing. Some centrally important aspects and reasons for the potlatch include wealth distribution, ‘legal’ proceedings, marriages, memorials, naming ceremonies, and resource management.) The ban on the potlatch wasn’t lifted until 1951, directly impacting three generations of Indigenous peoples.

  • Early in his career Powell took up the cause of what he viewed as the imperative to educate and “civilize” Indigenous children. He supported residential schools to turn Indigenous children into “useful members of society”. In his annual report in 1882 he wrote to the provincial government encouraging them to establish residential schools in BC. (Quotes are Powell’s words.)

  • Two residential schools opened in British Columbia during Powell’s time as Superintendent and he encouraged the creation of a funding structure that incentivized high enrollment which had lasting effects beyond his retirement.

  • The devastating legacy of these schools and their detrimental impact on the well-being of Indigenous children in British Columbia are still being felt and dealt with today.

  • In 1873 Canada issued an Order in Council for the British Columbia government to set aside 80 acres for every First Nation family of five. BC thought this was excessive and countered with 20 acres. Powell disagreed with BC’s decision as it would limit prosperity for First Nations.

  • In 1886 Powell saw to it that applications for water rights for reservations were submitted for most of the groups in the Upper Fraser Canyon.

  • In 1874, land speculator and Victoria politician Robert Paterson Rithet purchased a timber lease for Lot 450, situated on the traditional Tla’amin, Klahoose, and Homalco territory. This property was highly sought after for its economic potential. This lot also encompassed several traditional villages and seasonal sites. Tla’amin disputed the purchase and then Indian Land Commissioner Gilbert Malcolm Sproat agreed that the government should cease the sale until official surveys could be made of the reserve lands. Powell was dismissive of Sproat’s complaints and dismayed the Commissioner from visiting the Tla’min to attempt to reach a compromise.

  • On official visits to acquaint himself with the people under his office’s charge, Powell used this time in communities to remove sacred and ceremonial objects from Indigenous People. Powell is known to have kept these objects as well as distributed them to other institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The loss of these artifacts created painful legacies for Indigenous communities, including the Tla’amin.

  • By promoting and implementing assimilationist policies designed to “civilize” the First Nations of British Columbia, Powell limited their personal and communal freedoms.