Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, British Columbia Indian reserve commissioner (1876-1880), and the "humanitarian civilizing" of indigenous peoples


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




Gilbert Malcolm Sproat (1834-1913) was one of British Columbia’s first post-confederation Indian reserve commissioners. He served two years as the joint commissioner to the Joint Indian Reserve Commission (1876-1878) and then two more years as the sole commissioner of a reconstituted commission (1878-1880). In these capacities, Sproat left thousands of handwritten pages analyzing his decisions allotting Indian reserves and providing his thoughts more generally about Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the new settler society. His legacy remains today most obviously in surveyed Indian reserve boundaries that represent more than just lines on maps: they also represent the ideas, beliefs, and reasoning that generated them. Through a comprehensive review of Sproat’s writing and an attention to his “intellectual history,” I analyze Sproat’s own explanations to elucidate what he believed about Indigenous peoples and why, and how those beliefs affected his reserve-allotment decisions. I conclude that two fields of 19th-century thought influenced Sproat most strongly: the push for Indigenous “civilization” and humanitarianism. Further, the idea at the core of Sproat’s beliefs is that the only way Canada’s Indigenous “civilization” program would succeed is if Indigenous people were the primary actors in their own “civilization.” By reviewing Sproat’s adult life prior to becoming reserve commissioner and his four-year tenure as reserve commissioner with these new insights, one can see his drive for the “humanitarian civilizing” of Indigenous peoples running throughout his decisions. This broader knowledge about Sproat’s influences, in turn, provide additional perspectives on the Indian reserve-creation process in British Columbia. Whereas previous scholars have addressed Sproat as an adjunct to other primary investigations, I begin with Sproat. I approach him from the perspective of a legal historian interested in the intersection of land; Indigenous occupation, rights, and ownership of land; and settler law about land and Indigenous people. I conclude that he was very much a man of his time, not of ours, and he can be best understood in light of his intellectual, legal, social, and cultural context, including as part of the liberal order framework, an emerging paradigm through which to analyze and understand Canadian history.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International




Law, Peter A. Allard School of