Beyond the City Limits: Rural History in British Columbia

By R. W. Sandwell | Go to book overview

5 Negotiating Rural: Policy and Practice in the Settlement of Saltspring Island, 1859-91

R. W. Sandwell1

As Dan Marshall, Ken Favrholdt, and John Belshaw emphasize in essays appearing in this volume, in spite of the importance of large-scale resource extraction and a shortage of arable lands, the promise of rural land ownership played a potent role in the resettlement of what is now British Columbia. 2 Land settlement policy was deeply rooted in a set of beliefs that identified agricultural settlement with a particular colonialist vision of economic development and the progress of civilization. As John Lutz and Bruce Stadfeld also argue here, land and prescriptive beliefs about its legitimate uses provided both the physical and discursive sites within which power relations between Aboriginal peoples and immigrants in the nineteenth century were negotiated. 3 The relationship between settlers and the land, therefore, was a central component in the growth of the society and the economy of what is now British Columbia.

In spite of the importance of the land to nineteenth-and twentieth-century British Columbians, few studies have examined the practice of land acquisition and land use by non-Natives. 4 Even fewer have questioned the hegemony of the 'official,' bourgeois, and urban-based nineteenth-century discourse of rural that located the meaning of non-Native rural lands in commercial agricultural production on the family farm. This is not surprising: land records are difficult to access in British Columbia, and the meaning of rural is seldom conveyed to us except through the lenses of urban-centred government officials, newspaper journalists, and the well- educated British immigrants who wrote of rural life in colony and province. 5

This essay has a twofold purpose: first, to provide an overview of the practice of pre-emption that dominated land acquisition on one small island in the Gulf of Georgia--Saltspring Island--in the first thirty years of 'resettlement,' from 1859 to 1891; second, this paper uses these detailed records of land-related behaviours to reach beyond the official discourse that spawned them, beyond the silences of a functionally illiterate rural population, and out to the social and cultural context in which land policy

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