Not many Indigenous leaders can say they have met with the King of England, but the man they called Joe Capilano can claim that and he did it for his people.
Joe Capilano was born around 1854 near Squamish, British Columbia. At birth, his name was Sa-a-pu-luk and he would spend his youth fishing and hunting. Most of his life, he would be called Sa-a-pu-luk, but through this episode I will be referring to him as Capilano.
Little is known of his childhood along the Upper Squamish River. It is known that he was baptized in 1872 and married his wife Mary soon after in a Catholic wedding. Together, the couple would have a long marriage together, which produced 10 children. Sadly, many of the children would die before adulthood.
According to 1876 census records, the family was living in the Squamish area where Capilano supported his family through fishing and hunting. Before long though, they needed to find money to live and that would take them Burrard Inlet.
They would move to Moodyville, near what is now the Lower Lonsdale area of the City of North Vancouver, and Capilano would start work as a labourer at a sawmill.
Capilano and his family would live on a Catholic Mission reserve in the area as Capilano provided for his family.
In the 1890s, Capilano would take his family to what is now called the Capilano Reserve but was called Xwemelch’estn after Chief Kiapalanexw. In April 1895, Chief Kiapalanexw had died and had no clear successor.
There may have been some influence from missionary Paul Durieu, who believed Capilano could convert people to Christianity with his leadership and speaking abilities.
At the time, some of the Indigenous at the Mission Reserve were leaving to live at the other reserve. Capilano was chosen as then chosen as the chief and he moved to the reserve. As chief, Capilano did not enforce Christianity and converts lived alongside those who held traditional beliefs, so the missionary’s plan did not work.
As chief, he would work to ensure his people had what they needed to survive. In 1897, he would organize a work party to build a Catholic Church on the reserve, with labour provided by local residents. The Department of Indian Affairs also provided sugar and flour to the volunteers.
Chief Capilano began to gain more renown throughout Vancouver Island among the Indigenous for his leadership and speaking abilities. He would often appear in the newspapers due to his objections to the fact that the Indigenous were losing their land and were being constrained by new hunting and fishing regulations.
In 1901, he would be part of a petition that was sent to his local Member of Parliament claiming their right to make a living by fishing as they were being crowded out at the time by Canadians on the water.
By the mid-1900s, Capilano made the decision to travel with other chiefs to air grievances in person and this would lead him to eventually meeting King Edward II. In preparation for his journey, he was given a name that was used by generations of leaders who had been respected by the local Squamish. The anglicized version of that name was Capilano.
In 1906, he decided he would travel with Chief Charley Isipaymilt and Chief Basil David to Ottawa and met with Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Raising money from their communities for travel, they also decided they would take their complaints straight to King Edward VII in England.
Prior to his departure to speak with the King, Capilano would give a parting address in Vancouver. He would say quote:
Upon his visit with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, it was said by the Montreal Star quote:
“Sir Wilfrid received them courteously and expressed the hope that they would have a pleasant journey.”
Initially, the British did not grant an interview for Chief Capilano and his party.
Capilano and his group went to Ottawa and stated they wished to pay their respects to the King and asked for a letter of recommendation.
Frank Oliver, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs then wrote the High Commissioner for Canada stating the purpose of the journey of the chiefs was to quote:
“Express personally their allegiance to His Most Gracious Majesty and their affection for the late lamented Queen whom they loved as a mother and for whom they continue to mourn.”
The group reached London in August of 1906. Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada then received a telegram from Lord Elgin, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, asking Grey to speak with Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and quote:
“Consult the prime minister and inform him if he considered it desirable for his Majesty to meet them.”
Grey would approve the meeting but added that the King had no control over British Columbia lands.
The petition to be presented to the King would say quote:
“We have our families to keep the same as the white man and we know how to work as well as the white man. Then why should we not have the same privileges as the white man?”
On Aug. 14, 1906, Chief Capilano and the other chiefs were granted a 15-minute audience with King Edward VII. Accounts differ over whether or not Chief Capilano directly gave a petition to the King or gave an oral presentation of the petition. Their request was to resolve matters related to land claims and to remove the ban on potlatches.
Queen Alexandra, also in attendance, was presented with three baskets made by Capilano’s daughter.
When the chiefs left their meeting with the King, a reporter asked them if the King granted their petition and Chief Capilano would shake his head.
Despite the refusal, Chief Capilano’s wife Mary would say that meeting the King was the highlight of her husband’s life.
In Canada, the government was embarrassed by the meeting with the King. Newspapers would call Chief Capilano an agitator and troublemaker. Some went as far as to describe him as a menace who was inflaming the minds.
Other newspapers would exaggerate the meeting. The Regina Morning Leader stated quote:
“When His Majesty heard how anxious the chiefs were to see him, he arranged that they should have an audience at Buckingham Palace.”
While he was in London, Chief Capilano would meet Pauline Johnson, a Mohawk poet and entertainer from Canada and they became fast friends.
The Vancouver Daily World reported quote:
As he arrived home, he was greeted by a large group of Indigenous who cheered him for what he attempted to do. His son Mathias would say quote:
“We will have three hacks at the station for the chiefs and a tally-ho for the welcoming band. We will march through the streets of Vancouver and then go across the Inlet on the ferry.”
Capilano would tell the Indigenous who gathered to greet him, said according to the Vancouver Province, quote:
“I am very glad to get back and see you all. I saw the great white chief, the King, he is a great man and treated us nice. We had a fine time and saw the big city.”
Upon his return to his reserve, he expelled the Roman Catholic Church stating that they did not support his trip and were no longer welcome in the community. He then began to work again on lobbying for Indigenous rights.
In September of 1906, during a visit by Earl Grey to Vancouver, Capilano would deliver a speech upon his arrival after he insisted that the local Indigenous be part of the welcome, with 200 coming out.
It was around this time that he was also showing frustration with the roadblocks put in his way in his efforts to help his people by meeting with people like Lord Grey. The Vancouver Daily World reported quote:
“Chief Joe Capilano who is in the city today is a very angry man. He alleges that clerical and official influence is at work to minimize the great work he is trying to do for his people. He says that his people are being told that it is foolish for them to turn out in old-fashioned costumes, it makes it look as if they were going backward.”
He was told that Lord Grey was not a representative of the government and could not help the Indigenous in their land claims. According to the same article, Capilano responded quote:
“It is wrong to say that he is no government man. Earl Grey will tell the government what I say. Then wait and people find out. They do not like that I see King and come back all safe and tell people. They want all the time to be everything and have people do as they say.”
In the spring of 1907, the chiefs sent two more petitions to the King. Lord Elgin then wrote to Earl Grey to tell him that the King would not take any steps on behalf of the Indigenous petitioners and that the matter was one for the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada.
In August of 1907, Chief Capilano was given portraits of Queen Victoria, King Edward and Queen Alexandra. These items, along with a silver sovereign with the image of Queen Victoria on it, became cherished family heirlooms.
For the next few years, Chief Capilano would tour British Columbia, speaking to Indigenous of his meeting with the King.
This would gain him derision from the media in Canada.
On May 22, 1907, the Free Press Prairie Farmer stated quote:
“Chief Joe Capilano who visited King Edward, suffers from swelled head.”
It continues, quote:
“The inhabitants of the reserve are generally peaceable and have in the past been easily managed but under the advice of Chief Joe they have lately shown a desire to buck against the orders of the Indian agent…The attitude of the Indians is regarded by certain white people who live close to the reserve as a menace to their peace and safety.”
The Vancouver Daily World would report in August 1907 quote:
The Vancouver Province reported at the same time quote:
“Chief Joe Capilano holds up the city. Demands payments of privileges on North Shore of Inlet. City will appeal to Indian agent.”
Capilano had asked for $55 from the city for putting pipe through the reserve. One civic official stated quote:
“This thing has got to come to a stop. Joe has been creating a great idea of himself since his trip to visit King Edward and now assumes the role of a dictator.”
In May 1908, Capilano travelled to Ottawa with a group of Indigenous leaders once again to meet with Prime Minister Laurier again and the Governor General. The purpose of this meeting was to stop the confiscation of Indigenous lands. Capilano would say quote:
“Our lands are being taken all over the coast and when we ask for particulars, we are told that the government has given them away. We have held meeting after meeting, and it has been decided to go and see Sir Wilfrid Laurier.”
The Vancouver Province would report on the visit quote:
“Joe Capilano is becoming a nuisance. The 25 Indians who recently arrived in Ottawa from British Columbia are determined to see no one but the Governor General and they have expressed the intention of remaining in Ottawa for a year if necessary until they obtain an interview with Earl Grey, who is now in Toronto.”
Two months later, Capilano was riding a horse when he fell and broke his leg and was badly kicked by the horse.
By 1909, with more Indigenous wanting to launch complaints over settlers taking land, the blame in the media fell on Joe Capilano.
The Vancouver Province reported in July of that year quote:
“It is also to be feared that a good deal of the unrest which exists in the north has been stirred up by our old friend Chief Joe Capilano. Certainly, the demand which is made for possession of the country up there may reasonably be attributed to his instigation.”
In 1909, Pauline Johnson and Chief Capilano met again in Vancouver and Pauline would include 13 freely edited Squamish legends, told to her by Chief Capilano, in her 1911 book Legends of Vancouver.
Macleans would write in 1952 quote:
“In their long walks together, Chief Joe spun his yarns about the meanings of landmarks such as Stanley Park’s Siwash Rock and Pauline would embellish them in her own imagination in the tradition of one Indian storyteller improving on another.”
Sadly, Chief Capilano would never see it published.
On March 10, 1910, Capilano would die in North Vancouver from what was believed to be tuberculosis.
Indigenous chiefs from across the Lower Mainland came out for his funeral.
Upon his death, the Vancouver Province would write quote:
“The late Chief Joe Capilano will be remembered by both Indians and whites that he was a great Indian. There never is in the history of Indians in the province that a native of British Columbia has crossed the great Atlantic Ocean, of which the late Chief Joe did some four years ago.”
When Chief Capilano met the King, he wore a buckskin jacket. That jacket was passed to his son, Mathias Joe, who wore it when he attended the coronation of King George in 1937.
The Salish blanket, which was also part of the trip to London, would be put in the Canadian Museum of History in the 1920s. In 2009, it was loaned to Whistler’s Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre.
Capilano University, opened in 1968 in North Vancouver, is also named for him. The name was submitted by North Shore residents.
Capilano’s great-grandson, Chief Joseph Mathias, would become an important Indigenous leader as well. He would serve as the vice-chair of the Assembly of First Nations and would help establish the BC Treaty Commission. He would die 90 years to the day of his great-grandfather.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Biographi, Vancouver Sun, British Museum, Wikipedia, Vancouver Semi-Weekly World, Vancouver Province, Free Press Prairie Farmer, Montreal Star, The Victoria Daily Times,