The man who stole a valley

How Joseph Trutch stole land from Fraser Valley First Nations and stymied their efforts to get it back.

How Joseph Trutch stole land from First Nations in Abbotsford and Chilliwack and stymied their efforts to get it back. 📸 Seelkee/Wikimedia Commons

For a man who did not particularly like the colonies, Joseph Trutch has spent a long time memorialized by them. Roads are named after the infamous colonial politician in Vancouver, Victoria, Richmond—and in Chilliwack. The recent discovery of 215 dead children at Kamloops Indian Residential School has prompted cities to revisit the legacy of the Trutch name—a name that has long been associated with racism towards Indigenous people.

Trutch had a specific interest in the Fraser Valley and a lasting impact on First Nations across the region. He spent much of his early years in British Columbia surveying the lower Fraser River, building roads on the Harrison Lillooet trail, and engineering the Alexandra suspension bridge in the Fraser Canyon. Later, he deprived local First Nations of thousands of acres of land they had used for millennia.

Trutch arrived in BC during the gold rush with entrenched ideas of British superiority over Indigenous people and without respect for Indigenous culture. He acted on those notions in a variety of jobs on his way to the position of lieutenant governor—and those actions impacted First Nation communities across the province. For a long time his contributions were seen as a force for progress—he received a knighthood for his colonial service when he returned to England. Recently, they have been recognized for the harm they caused.

While Trutch was busy with government contracts in the valley during the early 1860s, and before he started impacting reserve lands, the colony’s then-governor James Douglas was developing his reserve system for Indigenous communities.

Stó:lō oral history is clear on Douglas’ intentions: he recognized Indigenous land ownership, and wanted them to decide how much land they needed. Sgt. William McColl was sent out by Douglas in 1864 to stake out reserves in the Fraser Valley that were meant to act as temporary protections until the colonial government could secure funds to negotiate treaties. Shortly before Douglas retired in 1864, there were 14 reserves, covering nearly 40,000 acres of land. McColl wrote that the reserves would need to include at least 10 acres for each Indigneous family (each settler family was allocated 160 acres).

But Trutch, who was named the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works by Douglas in April 1864, felt that amount of land was excessive. Trutch showed little understanding of Indigenous land use, and wrote that the land was of “no real value” to Indigenous people and unprofitable to the “public”—a group that, for him, did not include Indigenous people. He suggested the land would be better used for immediate settlement.

Trutch had staked out new, much smaller reserves in Kamloops and Shuswap under this belief, and in 1867 had plans to do the same in the Fraser Valley. He was successful. The Matsqui reserve, the largest in the Fraser Valley in 1864 at 9,600 acres, was reduced to only 148 acres in Trutch’s recommendations. (In 1996, it was 1,210 acres.) The Kwawkwawapilt reserve, located to the south of Chilliwack’s Wastewater Treatment Plant and Townsend Park, was 400 acres in 1864. In 1868, Trutch recommended it be reduced to 175 acres. Saamoqua, located across the river from Whonnock in Glen Valley, had 400 acres in 1864. In 1868, the reserve was gone. (The land in Glen Valley is now largely multi-acre agricultural properties. The total assessed value of all land seized from local First Nations runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.)

When their reserves were reduced, the Stó:lō people petitioned the colonial government for a return of their land. The petitions continue in various forms today. But Trutch’s actions, and his legacy, prevented the return of that land. Today, a marker of his legacy lives on through a Chilliwack street directly across from a reserve he reduced by more than half: Trutch Avenue, a residential street with 17 homes, is located directly across Ashwell Road from the Kwawkwawapilt reserve.

Chilliwack council will consider today whether to rename Trutch Avenue. Chilliwack is the most recent, but certainly not the only, community to do so. Vancouver, Victoria, and Richmond are all considering renaming their roads; Trutch’s name was removed from a residence at the University of Victoria in 2017. Squiala Chief David Jimmie brought forward the issue to council and made the city aware of the harm associated with the name, a city staff report said. Staff have recommended that council work with him to start consultation work that will lead to a new name for the street, which has 17 residential properties on it.

The street renaming, the staff report said, would go with the city’s commitment to truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people. A new name won’t right historic wrongs, and it won’t return land to the Stó:lō people. But it could move the city one more step in the right direction.