Peter O’Reilly

Peter O’Reilly was born March 27, 1827 in England to Patrick O’Reilly and Mary Blundell and was raised in Ireland. He was a Lieutenant with tie Irish Revenue Police until 1857. He Left Ireland in 1859 for Victoria. Shortly after his arrival he became the high sheriff of the colony where he was responsible for arranging the hanging of condemned criminals. He held this position until 1866.

O’Reilly was named assistant gold commissioner in 1860 for the Similkameen region and the Hope District. He administered the law in the gold fields, issued mining licenses, recorded claims and other duties. In 1862 he was named the chief gold commissioner for the province and was stationed in Richfield. While there he often worked with Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie who would remain his lifelong friend. As a result of the union of Vancouver Island and British Columbia in 1866 O’Reilly’s position was officially changed to become a county court judge. From 1864 to 1870 and then again in 1871 O’Reilly served on the Legislative Council of BC which was soon dissolved as a result of confederation. O’Reilly continued as county court judge for the Yale District for the next ten years until he learned of the opening of the position of Indian Reserve Commission in 1880. He travelled to Ottawa in hopes of securing the position. His family connection to Sir John A. MacDonald through his brother-in-law Joseph Trutch. For the next 18 years he would serve as the reserve commissioner.

O’Reilly’s reserve allotments have been criticized by current scholars as being inadequate and disregarding Aboriginal title. He also reduced the size of many reserves alloted by the the Joint Reserve Commission and his predecessor Gilbert M. Sproat. As a result of complaints from the Tsimshian regarding the reserves he laid out at Metlakatla in 1882 his reserve allotments were reviewed by provincial commission in 1884. O’Reilly claimed that when possible he had granted the Tsimshian’s requests in all of his decisions and the commission approved his allotments. and extent of reserves have been criticized by modern scholars. It has been suggested that he made niggardly allocations, and that because he had private investments in ranching operations he was sympathetic to ranchers generally, whose interests might conflict with the land requirements of Indians. Like most influential British Columbians of his time, he refused to accept the concept of aboriginal entitlement as a basis for claims. Later in his role as commissioner he did concede some rights in the areas of traditional hunting and gathering activities such as his promises to assure these rights to Chiefs in the Skeena and Bulkley regions.

O’Reilly retired from government service in 1898 to spend time at his home Point Ellice House in Victoria and enjoying his family’s social status. He died of heart failure at home where he lived with his daughter Kit on September 3, 1905.


  1. Brealey, Ken. “Travels from Point Ellice: Peter O’Reilly and the Indian Reserve System in British Columbia” BC Studies No 115/6, (1997): pp. 181-236.
  2. Harris, Cole. Making Native Space. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.
  3. BC Archives, O’Reilly Family Papers.
  4. Williams, David Ricardo. “Peter O’Reilly” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto, Universite Laval.
  5. BC, Legislative Assembly, “Metlakatlah inquiry, 1884: report of the commissioners, together with the evidence” Sessional papers, 1885: 131–36.
  6. Cail, R. E. Land, Man and the Law: The Disposal of Crown Lands in British Columbia, 1871–1913, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1974.