We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Native Peoples and Water Rights: Irrigation, Dams, and the Law in Western Canada

By Kenichi Matsui

Review By Jenny Clayton

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 167 Autumn 2010  | p. 138-9

Making the jump from studies of static property such as land to the fluid resource of water, Kenichi Matsui’s Native Peoples and Water Rights explores new territory by examining the intersection of Aboriginal rights and control over water in western Canada. Situating his study within North American histories of land, water, and Aboriginal rights, Matsui demonstrates how water rights evolved in different ways in British Columbia and Alberta; how American precedents influenced Canadian legislation, such as the North-West Irrigation Act, 1894; and how shifting weather patterns affected the success, failure, and relevance of irrigation projects on reserves. Matsui argues that Aboriginal peoples, settlers, irrigation and hydroelectric companies, and different levels of government formed unexpected alliances to achieve their competing goals. In this way, he connects his work to the philosophies of colonial theorists, such as Edward Said and Nicholas Thomas, by showing how “intertwined relationships” affected water conflicts at the local level (7-8). These configurations were shaped by a provincial desire for control over resources and the federal goal of creating successful yeoman farmers on and off reserves. Although these arrangements could result in the marginalization of Aboriginal voices and interests, their persistent claims are central to this study. 

The first three chapters deal with the evolution of water rights in North America and the jurisdictional conflict between federal and provincial governments over control of water in British Columbia. Chapters 4 and 5 explore specific case studies in British Columbia and Alberta, beginning in the 1880s: agriculture and irrigation projects by the Kamloops and Neskonlith bands in British Columbia, and by the Tsuu T’ina and Siksika peoples in Alberta. The rise of hydropower and its role in western urbanization is central to Chapter 6, which examines negotiations among the Stoney Nakoda, the federal government, and hydroelectric developers in Calgary over dams within a reserve on the Bow River (1903-38). 

Extensive research into court cases and statutes passed by various levels of colonial, Canadian, and American governments allows Matsui to provide a clear and detailed explanation of the legal complexities of water rights history. He also makes excellent use of files created by the Department of Indian Affairs (RG 10). For a more thorough explanation of local events and decisions in British Columbia, Matsui could have complemented his skilful use of national records with a deeper investigation into provincial records available at the British Columbia Archives. For example, GR 1991, British Columbia – Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division, “Neskonlith Lake Recreation Area, Sept 1953 – Dec. 1974” may have explained how an estate that the Department of Indian Affairs planned to purchase became instead a provincial campground (85). 

This study of water – and who had the right to use it for agriculture and electricity – suggests ways in which water law history may be fruitfully connected with a broader environmental history literature. For instance, Matsui states that “farming was not part of the precontact economies of the Secwepemc people” of Kamloops and Chase (67). Yet he notes that the Secwepemc harvested native potatoes and grew and sold introduced potatoes to the Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the early 1840s (67, 175n6). Future work may explore the continuities and adaptations of Aboriginal cultivation in the Interior Plateau with reference to studies of traditional ecological knowledge such as Sandra Peacock and Nancy Turner’s “Just Like a Garden” (in Biodiversity and Native America [2000]). Furthermore, scholars may link the chapter on hydroelectric dams in the Stoney Nakoda Reserve on the Bow River with Canada’s early twentieth-century conservation movement. Information on the Alpine Club of Canada’s opposition to the Calgary Power Company’s proposals to dam Minnewanka and the Spray Lakes is presented in Pearlann Reichwein’s article in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association (1995). 

This book will be valuable for scholars of Aboriginal rights and resource history in British Columbia because it contextualizes the struggle to control water within the larger framework of North American water law and shows how resource conflicts in this province had different outcomes from those in Alberta, which did not control its land or resources until 1930. Throughout, Matsui does an admirable job of disentangling provincial, federal, settler, industry, and Aboriginal interests. Overall, he succeeds in creating an impressive “account of the intertwined stories that both Natives and newcomers created,” thus taking the study of Aboriginal water rights history in new directions.