Part 1: Tsulquate, the Demographic Story

The present population of the Tsulquate Indian Band is composed primarily of the descendants of two bands of Kwa-kwa-la speaking people – the Quawshelah and the Nakwakto. These bands originally occupied land in and around Seymour Inlet, Belize Inlet and Smiths Inlet, Queen Charlotte Straits, on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, a region their ancestors have lived in for an estimated 9000 years. (Holm, 1983). (See Map, ‘Location of Tsulquate Band Reserves’)

Prior to the beginning of on-going contact with Europeans in the nineteenth century the Nakwakto and Quawshelah, like others on the coast, lived by harvesting sea and land resources and were socially, politically, economically and culturally involved with other bands in the region through trade in goods and labour, inter-marriage and involvement in potlatches. Again like other coastal and interior bands, the Nakwakto and Quawshelah participated as trappers in the European fur trade which began in ernest in this region during the mid-nineteenth century.

In Bella Bella to the north, the Hudsons Bay Company established Fort McLoughlin in 1843 and it was to this fort that the Nakwakto and Quawshelah first travelled to exchange furs for European goods. (Holm, 1983) Following the discovery of coal on Northern Vancouver Island, to the south of Nakwakto/Quawshelah territory, the Hudsons Bay Company established a second fort – Fort Rupert – near what is now the town of Port Hardy. Several Indian bands in the area moved to the new fort and the Nakwakto and Quawshelah also began to centre their trading activity there. However, due in part to their relatively isolated geographic location, the Nakwakto and Quawshelah involvement in the fur trade was peripheral compared to that of their neighbours to the north and to the south. Isolation, however, did not protect the Nakwakto and Quawshelah from the onslaught of a series of epidemics of contagious diseases brought by the Europeans and against which the aboriginal population had no immunity.

Beginning in 1862 with a smallpox epidemic which alone is estimated to have wiped out 1/3 of the native population of British Columbia, subsequent epidemics of measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis and influenza continued to take their toll through the 1920s. Poor health among the Indian population was further exacerbated by confinement to frequently overcrowded reserves, changes in diet, lack of medical care and attention, the introduction of liquor, and the crowding together of children from all over the coast in residential schools.

Research has shown that such massive declines in population immediately following the arrival of Europeans has been the experience of aboriginal peoples throughout North, Central and South America as well as Oceania and Africa.

The first published census taken of the Nakwakto and Quawshelah bands was that conducted by John Work in 1839 – 1841. (Curtis, 1915). At that time Work listed the Quawshelah at 117 people, occupying six big houses. The Nakwakto were listed at 1990 band members, 40 slaves, 500 canoes, 100 guns, 40 houses. (Curtis, 1915, p. 303). This produces an estimated combined population of 2117. (From this point on, figures will be presented for the combined Nakwakto and Quawshelah populations and referred to here as the Nakwakto/Quawshelah/Tsulquate group (N/Q/T).)

The next census was conducted by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1883 and showed the Quawshelah at 47 people and the Nakwakto at 167, with a combined N/Q/T population of 214. This represents an approximate loss of 90% of the population during the first 50 years of European contact. (See Table 1, Figure 1).

By the late nineteenth century the market for furs in Europe was declining and the fur trade era on the northwest coast was coming to a close while permanent European settlement was beginning in earnest. During the 1880-1900 period an Anglican missionary, Reverend A.J. Hall, established missions in both Fort Rupert and Alert Bay and opened a school for Indian Children in Alert Bay. Two entrepeneurs, Spencer and Huson, opened a fish saltery in Alert Bay and the Nimpkish Band was persuaded to move from their traditional home at the mouth of the Nimpkish River to Alert Bay in order to work in the saltery. Logging camps and fish canneries begain to spring up all over the coast and pressure from both missionaries and employers began to be applied to the provincial and federal governments to prohibit potlatching which was seen by both employers and missionaries as a detriment to the spiritual, moral and economic development of the Indian people of the region.

Demographic data for this period of time is sketchy at best and Appendix A-1 summarizes the records available for these years. The period 1900-1920 saw development proceeding along these same lines with Alert Bay quickly becoming the administrative, economic, religious and educational centre of the region. The first St. George’s Hospital was built at Alert Bay in 1909.

By 1906 more information begins to appear in the records. For the period 1900-1920 we found the ages of mothers occasionally listed and they ranged from 15-34 years, with the average of those listed being 24 years. Of the deaths recorded for this 20-year period, we found the average age for men to be 33 and for women 26. Three infant deaths were recorded and one 75-year old man was listed as having died of old age. These figures, rough estimates though they are, are consistent with estimates for other Native Indian groups during this time period. The very young average age at death for women is usually attributed to tuberculosis and maternal death, while for men tuberculosis and drowning were the main causes of death.

In 1920 the provincial government began to keep records of vital statistics and the Department of Indian Affairs conducted a census, the record of which is still available. While the data begins to be far more thorough after 1921, some weaknesses still remain. One sees evidence of guesswork on the part of census takers, for example, when the 1921 census lists an individual as being 21 and then eight years later, in 1929, lists the same person as 23! However, although precise numbers may be a bit inaccurate at times, we can get a general picture from the data.

In the 1921 census we find the beginning of the Department of Indian Affairs system of cataloguing Indian people by number and band and this allows us to look at family composition at the time. The Department of Indian Affairs’ numbering system  basically assigns a single number of a male household head, his wife and minor children. When the children reach the age of majority (now 19, previously 21), or a female has a child before reaching the age of majority, they are assigned their own numbers. Transfers between bands involve changes in band numbers and other special circumstances may complicate the system somewhat. However, as with other data for this era, it is the general picture we are seeking rather than numerical precision.

Thirty-six families were catalogued in 1921, as follows: 4 (11%) were single males; 2 (5.7%) were single females; 3 (8.5%) were single parent (or grandparent) and child(ren) families; 12 (34.2%) were two parent and child(ren) families of which the average number of children was three; 11 (31.4%) were couples with either no minor children or no surviving children; 4 (11.4%) were three-generation groupings (1 married couple and parent, 1 grandmother-son-grandson group, one grandfather-mother-4 children group). The average number of children born to women in this period was six, of which an average of 3 survived to adulthood.

While the Nakwakto and Quawshelah peoples continued to live in the more remote region of Seymour and Smiths Inlets and were less involved on a day-to-day basis with the new settlers and political and religious authorities than were the Kwawkewlth who lived in closer proximity to the centres of Alert Bay, Campbell River, and, now, Victoria, their isolation was by no means complete. St. Michael’s Residential School, a large institution to which most Indian children in the region were taken at around the age of six from the 1920s through to the 1970s, was built in Alert Bay in 1929. Nakwakto and Quawshelah children are noted as having been in attendance there on the 1929 and subsequent census. Adult members of the Nakwakto and Quawshelah bands worked in the new commercial fishing, logging and fish canning industries now beginning to locate in and around their home territory.

Their relative isolation was, however, significant in a number of ways. Bill Holm, in his book Smoky Top: The Art and Times of Willie Seaweed, notes that the Nakwakto and Quawshelah remained more "culturally conservative” – meaning that aboriginal religious beliefs, art, ritual and social organization persisted for a longer period of time – than their neighbours. Isolation also meant less access to what few educational and employment opportunities existed and to medical care and treatment.

As can be seen from Figure 1, the N/Q/T population continued to decline, although more gradually, until 1931, when it stood as a total of only 85 persons.


The 1930s were the years of the Great Depression throughout the western world and the fishing industry, like most others, slowed during these years, bringing hardship to the entire region. During the years 1932-1943 the N/Q/T population began to stabilize in size and 1944 marked the beginning of their recovery from the initial onslaught of European settlement.

Of the 60 births recorded during these years, 12 took place in hospitals (8 at St. George’s Hospital in Alert Bay, 2 at Rivers Inlet Hospital, 1 at Bella Bella and 1 at Nanaimo Indian Hospital). Seventeen had no place of birth recorded, and the remaining twenty-nine – almost half – were home births. The most common place of birth listed was Takish Indian Village. One gets the impression from this data that the N/Q/T population at this time was quite mobile within the Kwawkewlth District as a whole.

Again, assuming a certain amount of underrecording of still-births and infant deaths, it would appear from the records that infant mortality during the 1930s was very high. The average Infant Mortality Rate (the number of infant deaths in proportion to the number of births) 1931-1939 was 43 out of every one hundred births.

Of the sixty babies born during the years 1932-1943, eighteen died before reaching the age of one year. Four died at birth, no causes listed; two were premature and died within a few days of birth; one died at seven days due to his mother having died in childbirth; one died from T.B.; three from influenza; one from pneumonia; two from other respiratory ailments; one due to gastro-intestinal complications and the remaining three had no cause listed. High rates of stillbirth and prematurity are often associated with poor maternal health and complications during childbirth. Tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia and respiratory ailments, while all highly contagious, are also associated with poor living conditions, particularly over-crowding, lack of adequate nutrition and warm and dry shelter. Gastro-intestinal complications among infants are also often associated with poor diet. In other words, these causes of death alone cannot be attributed solely to standards of living but when seen in the context of past health problems and a general knowledge of the economic plight of the N/Q/T population during this period, material poverty looms high on the list of contributing factors. Understandably, the winter months were the most difficult with eleven of the eighteen infants dying between November and April. In one case, a notation appears on the death certificate stating that the village had been storm-bound and travel in or out had been impossible during the period of illness. Of the total mortality for this period, infant mortality represents 35%.

It can be seen from the data that TB was the main life-taker, particularly of children and young adults in this period. Accidental drownings claimed the lives of many young men and deaths in childbirth were not an uncommon fate for women during these years. "Childbed fever”, as it was called, was found to be caused primarily by unsanitary delivery conditions. Again, the winter months appear to have been the hardest with 20 of the 32 non-infant deaths occurring during the November to April period, 1932 – 1943.

1944 – 1952

In the post World War II era (after 1945), Canada entered a period of liberalism and social welfare programs and health care services began to expand and beome available to larger and larger portions of the Canadian population as a whole and to Indian people in particular, Following the defeat of Hitler and the revelations of Nazi atrocities, Canada’s image of itself both nationally and internationally as a free and democratic nation where all citizens are equal regardless of race became increasingly marred by the existence within Canada’s borders who were legally, politically, economically and socially differentiated by their "race”. The extreme poverty that often differentiated Indians from non-Indian Canadians became more glaringly obvious and more socially unacceptable. Programs designed to better the material conditions on reserves, to improve health standards and to assimilate the Indian population began to be implemented on a larger scale than previously.

The 1944 census showed the N/Q/T population to be 106, with the largest group being males aged 5-14 and secondly females under 4. This was the result of the slowly increasing birth rate and decreasing death rate, particularly among infants. The data, as it stands, does not show any correlation between the number of infant deaths and the percentage of home births.

Proportionately more women in the childbearing years (15-44) gave birth during these years than had previously and this, combined with declining death rates served to consolidate growth, despite the fact that the overall number of women in the 15-44 age group had declined due to diseases during the 1921-1944 period. One of the effects of this increase in what is known as "general fertility” was in increase in average family size.

We can see from both infant and non-infant deaths during this period that although the overall rates are declining, pneumonia, TB and drowning are still the primary causes of death, particularly among young people, other causes are beginning to show up on the records which indicate some of the other changes that were taking place in N/Q/T life during this decade. Of course, one must allow for the fact that previously many deaths were recorded without the cause being noted and that may explain in part why some causes did not appear previously. However, as we shall see, causes of death which begin to show here become more important as time goes on. These are: accidents (other than drowning while fishing or travelling), malnutrition and gastro-intestinal disorders. Without further study, of course, it is hard to determine what increasing accidental death rates represent but for young children the two factors of home care and accessibility to emergency medical assistance play a major role. Malnutrition and gastro-intestinal disorders are, sadly, less mysterious – a deficiency in quality and/or quantity of food are obviously indicated. Infant deaths continue to indicate poor maternal health as well as unsatisfactory living conditions.

1953 – 1963

During the 1950s and early 1960s the combined effects of a high birth rate and declining death rates caused the N/Q/T population to grow very quickly from just over 100 in 1950 to almost 200 in 1960. Change was also affecting the commercial fishing industry during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Many of the small canneries located up and down the coast closed and were replaced by larger plants in a few central locations. Gillnet boats were increasingly replaced by seine fleets which again were concentrated in a few strategic locales. Small, outlying villages such as those of the Nakwakto and Quawshelah became less and less involved in the mainstream economy and more and more dependant upon government relief to sustain themselves. It is interesting to note that it would appear from vital statistics records that the Nakwakto and Quawshelah were actively involved in industries when these same industries were located near their home reserves. One finds, for example, various canneries listed as places of birth frequently. More telling are the occupations people list in these same documents. One sees "fisherman”, "logger”, "carver” and "cannery worker” gradually being replaced by those most common to-day: "NIL”; "unemployed” and "home”. It is not surprising then that one finds reflected, particularly in causes of death, both the introduction of better medical care which brings contagious diseases under control, and increasing evidence of social stress.

Births and deaths within a small population fluctuate widely from year to year making it hard to show "average” or "typical” years for any given period. The following Calendar of Vital Events may help to illustrate a little more clearly what all these numbers and rates may have represented to the people who lived them. 1942 was a year of many deaths and relatively few births; 1952 on the other hand, was a year of several births and relatively few deaths. Hopefully, this balance will provide a somewhat representative picture of the timing of demographic events.

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