Peter O'Reilly: The Rise of a Reluctant Immigrant  by Lynne Stonier-Newman

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Just a stone's throw from the AbeBooks office in Victoria, British Columbia, stands Point Ellice House. As one of Canada's most famous Victorian buildings, Point Ellice House is a National Heritage site but this beautiful building was put on the map by one man – Peter O'Reilly.

O'Reilly bought Point Ellice House in 1867 and it became a gathering place for Victoria's social elite as the city grew and grew. He only arrived in British Columbia in 1859 during the early days of the colony. He worked as a gold commissioner (eg overseeing the yearly gold rushes and ensuring miners were taxed), an assistant land commissioner (eg overseeing how land was allocated), a county court judge and Indian Reserve Commissioner.

He travelled extensively around British Columbia over many years and saw prosperous and failed gold rushes, and attempted to resolve many conflicts and disputes, particularly between settlers and the First Nations.

Although O'Reilly is not as well known as the likes of James Douglas, Vancouver Island's first governor, or coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, his work as Indian Reserve Commissioner was important as the boundaries he defined are still being challenged today.

Lynne Stonier-Newman published Peter O'Reilly: The Rise of a Reluctant Immigrant in 2010.  Stonier-Newman, who lives just North of Kamloops, is a freelance writer and British Columbia historian. She was kind enough to answer our questions about her book, which gives a remarkable insight into life in British Columbia during the Victorian era.

AbeBooks: When did you first hear of Peter O’Reilly?

Lynne Stonier-NewmanLynne Stonier-Newman:  "I first encountered Peter O’Reilly around 1983 when I began researching for my book, Policing A Pioneer Province: BC Provincial Police 1858-1950. When I read The Man for a New Country: Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie (he was the first chief justice of BC) by David R. Williams, I became curious that O’Reilly, this man that I’d never encountered, was his executor.  I began watching for mentions of O’Reilly and for his brother-in-law, Joe Trutch (BC’s first Lieutenant Governor).

"Then, in the late-1990s, I wrote a radio play around the Gustasfen Lake conflict, a confrontation on crown land between local natives and the rancher who had only range rights to that property, Since it ended up becoming a unique and questionable police action by the Canadian military and civil force, I delved into BC’s land settlement history with the native Indian bands to try and understand why. 

"I frequently encountered O’Reilly’s name and began to realize how deeply his years as a colonial, provincial and federal administrator had affected how British Columbia was shaped. When writing The Lawman in 2004, I was frequently at the BC Archives and the Legislative Library of BC and I started investigating the Trutch and O’Reilly holdings. I learned how extensive and available they were, a core criteria for a subject. 

"I also began spending time at Point Ellice House, the O’Reilly home preserved by the BC Heritage Trust and learned of the O'Reilly's complex personal story." 

AbeBooks: Why did you decide to write about him when there were higher profile immigrants who shaped British Columbia in its early days?

Lynne Stonier-Newman: "How British Columbia as a whole developed historically is what interests me. Why I chose to write about O’Reilly was that his story allowed me to relate what happened in BC between 1859 and 1898. As he went from being a gold commissioner to county court judge to BC Indian Reserve Lands Commissioner, O’Reilly’s work in various geographies demonstrated how the colonies, then province, evolved. 

"From my perspective, the large majority of higher profile immigrants like (Robert) Dunsmuir and (John) Muir are typical power barons who had quite a narrow geographic knowledge of British Columbia and its peoples, despite their gaining extensive wealth.

"O’Reilly had none of the ivory tower syndrome that financial or political goals and/or successes often create.  He became adept at following his orders to establish what he perceived as the necessary governance to allow for non-native settlement. O’Reilly assigned the majority of BC Indian reserve lands and water rights as the federal government's bureaucrat, apparently dispassionately. His years of diligent day-to-day work throughout BC’s vastness enacted many long-term policies - and difficulties.

Secondly, as a husband, father and Begbie’s friend, O’Reilly was a caring man who easily went from the upper echelon of Victoria's society to isolation and wilderness. His story captures the multiple strands of how an immigrant survives and creates a new life for himself and family." 

AbeBooks: Did anyone else come close to seeing and travelling through so many parts of BC, like O'Reilly, during those early years?

Lynne Stonier-Newman: "Many individuals travelled extensively but I suspect that O'Reilly was probably the administrator who travelled for the longest number of years over his career. He may also have been the most knowledgable one about the province’s geography.

AbeBooks: Did you come close to grasping the hardships experienced by the gold miners that O'Reilly met during his gold commissioner work?

Lynne Stonier-Newman: "Yes, I think I did, particularly in the chapter about those hungry, cold miners surviving the winter in what became the Barkerville area. Similarly, O’Reilly’s distress that winter reveals how tough mental and physical survival was for a man, be he miner or gold commissioner.

AbeBooks: How many of O’Reilly’s decisions regarding the boundaries of First Nation tribal reserves are still being debated today?

Lynne Stonier-Newman: "Between 1881 and 1898, O’Reilly’s survey team set the pins and he reported the reserve property's legal description of approximately 80+% of British Columbia Indian Reserve lands. 

"Many of those reserve lands have been, or continue to be, disputed within the courts by the band assigned those acres, water and timber rights by O’Reilly. As well, a large number of bands in various tribes have not yet been brought their official dispute before the courts as they continue to analyze timing and strategies."

AbeBooks: If you could be transported back in time to British Columbia in 1865, what would you be and where would you be?

Lynne Stonier-Newman: "As much as I am hesitant to make myself male, being female then would have been a challenge for me.  And I probably would not have made an administrator who was able to follow orders as O’Reilly did. I would have become concerned about consequences of my decisions and, as well, probably would have found much of his work tedious.

Thus, in 1865, to enjoy travelling extensively throughout the colonies, particularly British Columbia, while still enjoying a considerable degree of personal comfort and ongoing entry and respect in society, I would be Matthew Baillie Begbie. By becoming Begbie, I would not be tied to inheriting his judgements, I would gain the right to weigh and to make my own supreme court decisions."

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