Dr. Israel Powell (1836-1915)
As the story goes, the name ‘Powell River’ was bestowed on the river known for thousands of years by the local peoples as tiskʷat by Lieutenant Commander Vere Bernard Orlebar of the HMS gun vessel Rocket. Named by Orlebar as they were sailing north along the coast in 1880/1881 for his passenger Dr. Israel Wood Powell.
While Dr. Powell likely never set foot in the region, he is one of many historical figures who greatly affected the development of British Columbia, and the treatment of indigenous peoples in the province.
Dr. Powell was born on April 27, 1836 in Port Colbourne, Upper Canada. He was accepted at McGill University to study medicine and graduated in 1860 with his doctorate. Two years later, Dr. Powell decided to sail to New Zealand to practice medicine, but upon arrival in Victoria, decided to stay and establish his practice in the growing city.
In 1863, Powell was elected to the House of Assembly of Vancouver Island on a platform that included responsible government and free public schools. When the General Board of Education was established in 1865, Powell was appointed to it and he served as Chairman from 22 June 1867 to April 1869. During his time in public office, Powell was also a great supporter of confederation. In 1867, he became vice-president of the Confederation League, in which capacity he remained until 1871 when B.C. officially became Canada's sixth province. His long-standing support of confederation landed him the position of Superintendent of Indian Affairs in British Columbia on 17 Oct. 1872, a position he would hold for 17 years until he retired due to ‘ill health’ in 1889.
Historical narratives have often painted Powell as more sympathetic to indigenous people than most of his contemporaries (e.g. Sir Joseph William Trutch); however, Powell’s support of land claims and justice for the First Nations communities only lasted so long as they were consistent with his goals of assimilation. While he was a critic of the provincial government’s resistance to providing indigenous people with land and water rights, he also fought for the establishment of reserves arguing that ‘Indians’ would have a more sound economic base on reserves. He also worked to subvert communal ownership and the potlatch, a ceremony at the core of west-coast indigenous culture. In 1884, he succeeded in having the Indian Act amended to outlaw potlatching. Powell’s legacy is one of many in the history of British Columbia and Canada that led to the assimilation of indigenous peoples and the systematic destruction of their cultural practices.
While many will recognize Dr. Powell for what are considered his many accomplishments in medicine, public service, education, his role in confederation and in the history of freemasonry in the province, he is also a complex figure in the province’s history and relationship with the indigenous peoples of British Columbia.