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Original title:  Image courtesy of the Powell River Historical Museum & Archives, Powell River, British Columbia.

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POWELL, ISRAEL WOOD, doctor, politician, Indian superintendent, and businessman; b. 27 April 1836 in Colborne, Norfolk County, Upper Canada, son of Israel Wood Powell, a merchant, and Melinda Boss; brother of Walker Powell; m. 25 Jan. 1865 Jane (Jennie) Branks in Victoria, and they had five sons and four daughters; d. there 25 Feb. 1915.

Israel Wood Powell was tutored in anatomy and physiology by Dr Charles William Covernton for three years at Port Dover, Upper Canada, and in 1856 he enrolled in the medical faculty of McGill College in Montreal. After graduating in 1860 he returned to Port Dover, where he commenced a medical practice. Less than two years later, he headed for New Zealand, but news of gold discoveries in the Cariboo district of British Columbia diverted him. He arrived in Victoria on 13 May 1862 and two weeks later opened an office in the Anglo-American Hotel.

During his early years in the city, Powell volunteered as the surgeon for the fire department and served in the Victoria Rifle Volunteer Corps, the local militia. From April 1864 until 1872 he was surgeon to the hospital operated by the French Benevolent and Mutual Society. While at McGill, he had become a freemason and back in Port Dover he had helped establish a lodge. In Victoria he presumably used his masonic connections to build his medical practice. He quickly met a number of American masons who were uncomfortable with the English rites employed in the existing lodge. Powell suggested an affiliation with the Grand Lodge of Scotland, which followed American rites in the Canadas, and he was a founding member of Vancouver Lodge No.421, which was organized in October 1862. In December he became its master and in 1867 the provincial grand master. From 1871 to 1875 he would be the first grand master of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia, which brought together the lodges under English and Scottish jurisdictions. Later, in 1877, he severed his connections with the masons because of a wrong done to him by a fellow member, and he did not rejoin until ten months before his death.

Powell’s professional status and active participation in community organizations made him well known. In 1863, slightly over a year after his arrival, he was elected to the House of Assembly of Vancouver Island on a platform that included responsible government and free public schools. When the General Board of Education was set up in 1865, Powell was appointed to it and he served as chairman from 22 June 1867 to April 1869.

As early as 1866 Powell, with his colleague Amor De Cosmos*, had proposed confederation with the Canadian colonies. Powell lost his seat that year, and when he ran again in 1868 on a pro-confederation platform he was again defeated. Out of office he continued to be a leading advocate of the idea, until its realization in 1871. His long-standing support landed him the position of superintendent of Indian affairs in British Columbia on 17 Oct. 1872. Since the federal government believed that military authority would be necessary in dealing with native people, he was also made a lieutenant-colonel in the militia. Powell occupied the superintendent’s post for 17 years and put his stamp on Indian affairs in the Canadian province with the largest aboriginal population.

More sympathetic to native people than most of his contemporaries were [see Sir Joseph William Trutch*], Powell supported claims to land and justice so long as they were consistent with his goal of assimilation. He was a constant critic of the provincial government’s resistance to providing aboriginal people with land and water rights, and he fought for the establishment of reserves so that Indians would have a sound economic base. On the other hand, he worked to subvert communal ownership and the potlatch, a ceremony at the core of west-coast aboriginal culture, and in 1884 he succeeded in having the Indian Act amended to outlaw potlatching. When the first prosecutions under the act failed, Powell counselled the agents under him to dissuade Indians from potlatching but not to prosecute. Powell’s non-confrontational approach to Indian affairs headed off aboriginal dissatisfaction with the law and with the loss of lands. In 1887 he helped defuse a challenge to federal authority after Chief Isadore* of the Kutenai people defied the local magistrate and released one of his band members from jail. Powell was retired from the superintendent’s position in 1889 on the grounds of ill health.

Powell had collected and purchased aboriginal artefacts, both on his own behalf and for institutions. At the behest of Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn* from the Geological Survey of Canada, he sent east three crates of masks and tools – about 350 items, mostly of Haida and Tsimshian origin – which became the core of the west-coast ethnographic collection of the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa. He shipped “Flathead” skulls to the University of Toronto museum and masks to Princess Louise*, wife of Governor General Lord Lorne [Campbell], who in turn gave one to the crown princess of Prussia.

Even before he had obtained the Indian superintendency, Powell was known for his business acumen, and while he held office he continued with his ventures. Anticipating the selection of Coal Harbour as the eventual terminus of the transcontinental railway, in 1877 he and some associates, of whom David Oppenheimer* was probably one, purchased 330 acres that now comprise downtown Vancouver, and he belonged to a syndicate known as the Vancouver Improvement Company which included Charles Thomas Dupont, David and Isaac Oppenheimer, and John Robson* and which consolidated this land. With the assistance of friends in the provincial and federal cabinets, he helped broker a deal that made the lands part of the Canadian Pacific Railway terminus.

When the Medical Act was passed in 1886, Powell was elected the first president of the Medical Council of British Columbia. An active lobbyist for a provincial university, in 1890 he was appointed the first chancellor of the University of British Columbia, before the institution existed. Rivalry between Vancouver Island and the mainland over its location, together with financial difficulties, scuttled the university, which would not be resurrected in his lifetime.

In 1890, shortly after his retirement as Indian superintendent, Powell sold his shares in the Vancouver Improvement Company. At his death in 1915 he had investments in farms in the Fraser valley, Cowichan valley, and Saanich peninsula, and in the Hotel Wilson of Victoria, as well as in buildings and lots in Vancouver and North Vancouver. The names of various places in British Columbia, including Powell River, commemorate this pioneer of the province.

John Lutz

BCARS, A/E/P87; GR 1052, file 6005; GR 1304, 13: f.307; GR 1372, F 1445. NA, MG 26, A: RG 10, 3626; 3756, file 360; 3792, file 45094 (mfm. at BCARS). Daily Colonist (Victoria), 14, 30 May 1862; 15 July, 24 Aug. 1863; 23, 29 April 1864; 26 Jan., 24 June 1867; 6 Oct. 1872; 21 Oct. 1890; 26 Feb. 1915; 18 May 1924. F. J. Bayfield, “Hon. Israel Wood Powell, m.d., p.g.m., our first grand master,” Freemasons, Grand Lodge of British Columbia, Proc. (Vancouver), 67 (1938): 189–93. F. F. Fatt, “Victoria, B.C., in 1862, and the founding of Vancouver Lodge . . . ,” Grand Lodge of British Columbia, Proc., 62 (1933): 162–81. Robin Fisher, Contact and conflict: Indian-European relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890 (Vancouver, 1977). B. A. McKelvie, “Lieutenant-Colonel Israel Wood Powell, m.d., c.m.,” British Columbia Hist. Quarterly (Victoria), 11 (1947): 33–54. J. L. Runnalls, “Lt. Col. Israel Wood Powell, m.d., c.m., physician, statesman, freemason, 1836–1915,” Canadian Masonic Research Assoc., Papers, 1949–1976 (3v., [Toronto], 1986),no.110.

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Cite This Article

John Lutz, “POWELL, ISRAEL WOOD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/powell_israel_wood_14E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/powell_israel_wood_14E.html
Author of Article:   John Lutz
Title of Article:   POWELL, ISRAEL WOOD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   October 1, 2023