When navigating the BC Coast, boaters often see “IR” or the words “Indian Reserve” on charts. Many wonder what this designation means, as there may, or may not be, evidence of habitation.

What is an Indian Reserve?

Indian Reserve (IR) are tracts of land set aside under the Indian Act and treaty agreements for the exclusive use of an Indian band. Reserves are governed by one or more band Chiefs and Councils. A single band may control one or several reserves, while some reserves are shared between multiple bands. Band members possess the right to live on reserve lands, and band administrative and political structures are frequently located there. Reserve lands are not strictly “owned” by bands but are held in trust for bands by the Crown.

Indian Reserves in Canada

Of the 638,000 First Nations people who reported being Registered Indians, nearly half live on one of the 3,100 Indian Reserves in Canada. Many reserves, especially on British Columbia waters, are small, remote, non-contiguous pieces of land that may or may not have year-round resident population. Some are used only seasonally by the band.

Indian Reserve Communities

In the Broughtons, Health Bay (Gilford Island) and New Vancouver (Harbledown Island) are examples of communities with small populations of band residents. In fact, both of these communities have docks that welcome visiting boaters. Others, such as Mamaliliculla (Village Island) and Karlukwees (Turnour Island) are settlements that are not currently inhabited but have historic buildings and structures from the previous habitation. See separate entries in the Waggoner Guide for more information on these sites. Many others have no local names, buildings or other signs of habitation except, perhaps, a centuries-old midden. They may only be marked by signs indicating the named band territory.

Respect the Rules

Regardless of whether First Nations people are present, all of these lands should be treated as private land and respected by visitors. Some Reserves, such as Mamaliliculla on Village island, require formal permission to visit and charge a fee to see the village. All of these reserve lands are protected by British Columbia’s Heritage Conservation Act, which prohibits damage to the sites or removal of material that constitutes part of the site. For personal safety and out of respect for First Nations property, visitors should not enter abandoned buildings.

Indian Reserves recognize and respect the 10,000-year inhabitation of the BC Coast by First Nations people. Each site is unique and some, such as New Vancouver, currently offer tours to visitors. Check the Waggoner Guide for information about contacting Band offices for permission to visit.  If you visit, please respect these places that are sacred to the people to whom they are entrusted. Take only photos and leave only footprints.