The Terms of Union

Patrick A. Dunae, Volunteer Researcher and former director of the Vancouver Island Local History Society


British Columbia joined Confederation and became the sixth province of Canada on July 20th 1871. The confederation agreement was based on Terms of Union negotiated in Ottawa between the Colony of BC and the Dominion of Canada. Joseph Trutch, Peter O’Reilly’s brother-in-law, was a leading member of the delegation from BC.

The Terms of Union consisted of 14 articles. Financial concerns were at the top of the list. In 1870, British Columbia was virtually bankrupt, with a crushing debt from the aftermath of the Cariboo goldrush. Canada assumed BC’s debts and liabilities, provided BC with a generous subsidy and an annual per capita grant, based on an inflated population figure.

The federal government agreed to pay salaries of supreme court and county court judges, and pensions of colonial civil servants whose positions might be affected by the union with Canada. These terms were advantageous to Peter O’Reilly, who had many years of service as a colonial official and was a county court judge.

Other articles dealt with parliamentary representation, postal services, customs tariffs, interprovincial trade, lighthouses and facilities such as a quarantine station and penitentiary. The terms promised a transcontinental railway (completed in 1885) and a first-class graving dock for ship repair at Esquimalt. Kathleen O’Reilly formally opened the dock in 1887.

Provisions were made for the Militia and Canada promised to use its influence in maintaining the Royal Navy station in Esquimalt. The naval base was vital to Victoria’s economy and Royal Navy officers were significant in the social life of upper echelon families, including the residents of Point Ellice House.

One of the Terms (Article 13) dealt with “Indian” (First Nation) lands and the welfare of Indigenous people. It stated that the management of lands already reserved for the “use and benefit” of the Indians in BC would be assumed by the federal government; and that “a policy as liberal as that hitherto pursued by the British Columbia Government shall be continued by the Dominion Government after the Union.”

As the Dominion government discovered, colonial policies were not at all liberal in allocating lands and resources to the First Nations of BC. Article 13 proved to be contentious and in 1876 the federal and provincial governments established a commission to determine the location and boundaries of Indian reserves in BC. It was fortuitous for Peter O’Reilly, who was appointed Indian Reserve Commissioner in 1880. He held this important position for nearly twenty years, until his retirement in 1898. During his years as Indian Reserve Commissioner, he continued to receive his pension for service as a colonial County Court judge, as he was entitled under the Terms of Union.

The confederation agreement also stipulated that BC would implement a form of governance known as responsible government, whereby cabinet ministers were selected from elected members of the legislature and not appointed by the Crown or its representative. Joseph Trutch, who preferred less democratic models, grumbled about this clause. He was mollified when he was offered the (non-elected!) office of lieutenant-governor.

Peter O’Reilly had been ambivalent about the prospect of Confederation. Like many prominent settlers, he was concerned about maintaining ties with Britain and his privileged position in British Columbia. In the event, Confederation with Canada bestowed many benefits to Peter O’Reilly and his family and friends. No wonder that in later years they would celebrate Dominion Day on July 1st with gusto.

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