History of Brass Bands in BC


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Research Project: History of Brass Bands in British Columbia

First Nations Brass Bands


Much of the information in this article is summarized from the following publications:

  • Mattison, D. (1981) On the March. Indian Brass Bands, 1866-1915. British Columbia Historical News, Vol. 15, No.1 6-14

  • McIntosh, D. (1989). History of Music in British Columbia 1850 – 1950.Victoria: Sono Nis Press

  • Neylan, S. with Meyer, M. (2006). “Here Comes the Band!”: Cultural Collaboration, Connective Traditions, and Aboriginal Brass Bands on British Columbia’s North Coast, 1875-1964. BC Studies, No. 152, Winter 2006/07, pp. 35 - 66

  • Tsimpsian brass band on the north side of the 500 block of Hastings Street

    John Tyson, City of Vancouver Archives, In P120.
    This photo is labeled “Tsimpsian brass band on the north side of the 500 block of Hastings Street” (downtown Vancouver), ca. 1900


    I approached the writing of this aspect of the history of brass bands in British Columbia with a high degree of trepidation. In fact it has taken the better part of two years to get to the point where I am prepared to write down my discoveries.

    This document is produced from the perspective of musical interest and research. As someone who has enjoyed playing and listening to brass bands all my life I was intrigued when photographs of First Nations brass bands were first brought to my attention. Up to that time I had no idea that brass bands had ever existed in the First Nations communities. Everything that follows is based upon that introduction. I wish to thank Norman Stanfield of the School of Music at the University of British Columbia for bringing these photographs to my attention.

    Even though this is intended as a summary of a musical phenomenon, it is impossible to set down this record without at least some reference to the colonization that was occurring at the time. The historical context of the loss of First Nations culture and imposition of a foreign culture is the backdrop to the First Nations brass band movement.

    My trepidation arose from concern that I did not know the First Nations perspective on these brass bands. Were they truly embraced or were they just another component of cultural imperialism that is today looked upon with disdain. I had no contacts in the First Nations communities and there were difficulties tracking the historical threads because all surviving documentation comes from non-First Nations sources. Writings from religious leaders, newspaper reports, and government officials only tell the side of the European colonists. The First Nations voices are silent.

    As an example, the following is a brief summary of the effect of European colonization of the Coast Salish Nation. It is taken directly from the Sechelt website at:


    by Heather Till

    The Shishalh Peoples

    The Sechelt area was originally occupied by natives of the Coast Salish nation, specifically the shishalh tribe, from which the town of Sechelt took its name. Much of their settlement was concentrated in the protected inland areas along the Sechelt Inlet where natural food and fresh water were abundant. The shishalh enjoyed a thriving community, rich in culture and family tradition. Their first contact with white settlers, likely the Catholic missionary Father Paul Durieu, was not an agreeable one. One of the first European innovations to alter the shishalh's traditional way of life was smallpox. In 1862, a severe epidemic took the lives of over 90% of the Coast's Native population.

    Many of the survivors considered this plague a punishment from the spirit world, in some way connected to the powerful medicine of the black-robed missionaries. One of the largest mass conversions in history took place right after this epidemic, perhaps as a desperate attempt to placate the hostile forces that had brought on the illness. Father Durieu "successfully" confirmed into the Catholic faith every surviving member of the shishalh tribe.

    Shortly afterwards, he began the controversial residential school system, choosing the area known to the Natives as Chateleech as the site for the first school. By shishalh standards, it was a generally inhospitable spot for year-round living due to its open exposure to both weather and attack, and the lack of fresh water. Despite this, St. Augustine's Residential School was officially opened on June 29, 1904, on the present day site of the House of Chiefs in Sechelt. Rigid discipline was enforced. Children were not allowed to speak their native language, even to their parents, who were forced to learn English to communicate with their own children. Students could not live at home even if they lived within sight of the school. Parental visits were limited to one or two hours a week and were supervised by hovering nuns. The School burned to the ground in 1917, and classes were held in temporary quarters until it was rebuilt in 1922. It continued to play a major role in shishalh history until the 1960's.

    Native culture was strictly suppressed by the theocratic regime of Durieu and his preists. His converts were forced to burn centuries-old totem poles and other "paraphernalia of the medicine men" and to abandon their potlatches, dancing and winter festivities. Durieu instead began an all-Native brass band and travelling theatre troupe and encouraged such non-traditional economic pursuits as logging and commercial-scale hunting and fishing.

    The population (and the morale) of the shishalh continued to decline under the influences of the church. An official 1881 census showed only 167 band members left of the original body of 5000. Only a sad remnant remained of what was once referred to as "one big smoke" extending from Gower Point to Saltery Bay. Most of the repertoire of songs, dances, stories and art have been lost. Only in the recent past has this trend begun to be reversed with the push by present-day Band members to reclaim their lost heritage and a measure of the pride they once had in their unique culture.

    Sechelt First Nations Brass Band

    City of Vancouver Archives, Out P427
    Sechelt First Nations Brass Band, ca. 1890

    The Role of the Church

    All of the initial First Nations brass bands have their origins within the missionary work of the various Christian Churches. It was from these first church bands that other community-based bands developed. To understand the rationale behind the development of brass bands it is important to understand a couple of principles that were guiding the missionaries.


    Acculturation is the process of adopting traits from another religion. This is an anthropological term and can usually occur in one of three ways. It can be:

    1. Passively directive, such as encouraging the observance of the moral behaviour of those from one culture who wish to influence another culture with regard to the inherent superiority of the former.
    2. Aggressive such as through military subjugation or even slavery.
    3. Re-educational, in that it either demeans or dismisses the subjugated culture. It still had as its ultimate aim the total destruction and then assimilation of the "conquered" society.

    It was this last understanding of acculturation that was almost always followed by missionaries.


    The principle of reductions was that the First Nations peoples could be converted to Christianity and western civilization only if they were isolated from their own former culture and such evil influences of western civilization as drinking and gambling, or any contacts with bad, immoral Europeans. Instead, they were subjected only to what the missionary judged was “good” in western civilization. In what was a very paternalistic system, their Native “children” were expected to learn what was ultimately “best” for them from their missionary “fathers.”

    Central to this system was the destruction of the entire Native culture, which almost all missionaries had always generally believed promoted laziness and moral corruption. As such, heading the list of those things that had to be destroyed was the “idolatrous” system of Native spirituality.

    Roman Catholic Brass Bands

    In 1864, the Roman Catholic Church was the first to develop a brass band at St. Mary’s Mission.


    The Oblates were a Roman Catholic Religious order founded by Eugene de Mazenod after the French revolution. This order was greatly influenced by the Augustinian theology of suffering, fatalism and original sin that is dominated by a vengeful God. The order preached Hell and fire and brimstone sermons, added to which were masses, catechizing, processions, religious theatricals (especially passion plays), the planting of crosses in public spaces, and the organizing of parish societies that were usually devoted to some practical objective such as temperance.

    The Oblates adopted the reduction method, but they never achieved such extreme levels of control (as, for example, the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay) due mainly to the First Nations proximity to European settlers and their resistance, both direct and indirect, to such programs.

    The Durieu System

    The Durieu system was named after the first bishop of New Westminster, Paul Durieu (1890-1899). His system was a formalization of the reduction method that Durieu hoped, with the advent of federal funding of residential schools, could finally be implemented in tandem with such institutions.

    Bishop Paul Durieu

    Roman Catholic Bishop Paul Durieu

    The system included:

    • An "Indian court." Its judges were the elders (chiefs) or other important members of the tribe. There they passed judgements on the violators of church law, family quarrels, rowdyism, etc. Each village should have "two chiefs," one approved by the Indian agent and the other by the priest. The first was a "mere figure head," while the second, called the "Eucharistic chief" by Durieu because of his much greater importance, could be deposed by the priest as he saw fit.
    • The central element of the Durieu system was the Catholic religion. To impart memorized doctrine, the priest appointed at least two catechists, a man for the boys and a woman for the girls from among the "most competent." Sunday was the central day of religious observance, and when no priest was present to say Mass, under the catechist's direction, the whole community would engage in morning and evening prayers, the rosary, catechism classes, vespers and stations of the cross. Regular confession was mandatory.
    • Time was given to communal amusement, such as games and sports, which were expected to produce an atmosphere of "general glee."
    • Marriage was controlled under the Catholic religion and designed to break down tribal traditions.
    • A rigid, almost monastic-like discipline.
    • Christian play or entertainment was permitted. All totem poles, rattles, expensive coats, and other paraphernalia of the medicine men had to be destroyed, and potlatches, gambling, dancing and some winter festivals had to be discontinued. In the place of such "pagan" things, Durieu substituted "Christian ones." In addition to long processions in honor of the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Durieu also established brass bands in each village to accompany religious celebrations. The most famous example of these were the Passion plays, especially those at St. Mary's at Mission.1

    1. McNally, V.J. The Lord’s Distant Vineyard (pp.129 – 139) The University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers

    From a brass band perspective, what is, at least initially, most perplexing about this system is how did francophone priests from France select an ensemble that is so totally aligned with working class Great Britain. And yet, brass bands were not a uniquely British phenomenon. Brass bands also developed in France (called fanfare bands) amongst the working class and it was in France that Adolphe Sax manufactured his saxhorns. Perhaps brass bands are not so unusual a choice for the French priests.

    Bishop Paul Durieu

    Thoissey Fanfare Band, ca. 1878
    An example of brass bands in France.

    From the European perspective, the development of First Nations brass bands was probably based upon a combination of the following factors.

    Factors influencing the decision to form brass bands


    Brass instruments are robust and durable and on-going maintenance is simple and straight forward. In comparison to a concert band a brass band has fewer instruments limited to only 10 different types: 2 styles of cornet, flugel horn, tenor horn, baritone horn, tenor and bass trombone, euphonium and two types of tuba. Consequently, the cost of establishing and maintaining a brass band is cheaper than its concert band alternative. In addition, brass instruments are suited to both indoor and outdoor playing. Thus with a small investment a community could have a musical ensemble that could play at any community event. The instruments could withstand, without extensive maintenance, the rigors of the rain forest environment.

    Ease of learning:

    The method of producing notes on a brass instrument is the same regardless of the instrument. Similarly, the valve combinations are the same throughout the range of instruments. Consequently, individual and ensemble tutoring is uniform and simplified.

    The only exception is the slide trombone, but it is interesting to note that most photographs show valve rather than slide trombones. However, before jumping to this ease of learning conclusion, it is important to note that the valve trombone was in use in Great Britain at this time, so it is not unlikely that valve trombones would be included in a purchased “set” of instruments.

    The brass band is unique in its scoring of music in that all of the instruments, with the exception of the bass trombone, are scored in treble clef. This would facilitate players changing instruments, but, more importantly, facilitate the teaching of music. Everyone could be taught the same reading skills.


    The era of colonization occurred at the same time as the rapid development of the brass band as a working class phenomenon in Great Britain. The Victorian era belief was that music (especially high art music) represented a force for the moral elevation of working people. The performance and reception of music was a ‘rational recreation’, a panacea for the many ills to which the working class were believed to be susceptible.2 The missionaries adopted the same “civilizing” approach in their development of the brass band amongst the First Nations peoples.

    In addition, the missionaries believed that the inherent competitive aspect of the brass band provided the First Nations with a civilized competitive outlet as compared with inter-tribal warfare. Finally, the bands were seen as a controlled recreational pursuit to keep people busy, especially in the winter months.

    2. Herbert, T. (2000) The British Brass Band A Musical and Social History (pp. 32-33). Oxford University Press

    Some Second Thoughts

    From my perspective the use of brass bands for 'rational recreation', as described above, still ranks high on the list as a motivation for starting brass bands in the first place (see Timeline) years 1846, 1850 and 1871 for entries on rational recreation.

    But the more I research this field the more I am left with a sense that 'rational recreation' may have simply been the rationalization applied after the fact. My reason for thinking this is that there does not appear to be a brass band concept applied to the religious conversions going on at the very beginning of the colonization process. In fact, there are many missions and even some schools established years before the first band appears, which was the St. Mary's Mission Brass Band (1864).

    The first brass band at St. Mary's Mission was developed by Harry Edwards and then directed by Brother Patrick Collins. While we do not know much about Harry Edwards or Brother Collins, the history of brass bands amongst the First Nations peoples might be attributed to the simple fact that Mr. Edwards and Brother Collins were brass band afficionados who brought their passion with them when they came to British Columbia. The experiment at St. Mary's Mission was so successful that it became adopted in other missions and by other religions, only with the added trappings of 'reational recreation.' (Note: Henry Edwards is credited with leading the Squamish Nation Brass Band in 1886. This may be the same person that started the St. Mary's Brass Band.)

    Other Religions

    The second brass band to be formed in British Columbia was in Metlakatla by the lay Anglican missionary, William Duncan. From this seed a great deal of interest developed. When the Metlakatla ensemble played at different villages those villages wanted to develop their own band. Within a few years a number of brass bands were formed amongst the Nis’ga and Tsimshian, including bands at Aiyansh, Greenville (Lakkalzap) and Kincolith.

    William Duncan

    Anglican Lay Missionary William Duncan

    The Salvation Army also contributed to the interest in brass band music, although the Salvation Army was later on the scene than the other Protestant churches. Salvation Army Bands were required to remain faithful to the Salvation Army repertoire. Consequently, Salvation Army groups tended to be somewhat insular from the other non-Salvation Army bands.

    The advent of the Salvation Army prompted a response from other Churches on the north coast of British Columbia. The Anglican missions organized the Church Army and the Methodists created the Epworth League. Many of these groups were concerned primarily with marching with the aid of drums and flags.

    The village bands were often involved in the various church events, including weddings and funerals. The opening of new churches was accompanied by brass bands, such as the opening of the Aiyansh Holy Trinity Church being attended by the Aiyansh, Kincolith and Greenville bands, along with a Church Army contingent, in 1896.

    Church Army

    The Church Army, date and location unknown.

    Residential Schools

    The tragedy of the residential school system is still being dealt with by the First Nations peoples. From a band perspective, many of the residential schools had brass bands. Bands from Coqualeetza, St. Mary’s Mission, Kuper Island, and St. Eugene Mission (Kootenay Industrial) were renowned for their playing excellence and were often called upon to play at events in local communities. Click here for more information on residential schools brass bands.

    St. Eugene Mission Band, Fort Steele Archives

    Fort Steele Heritage Town Archives, FS 8.126
    St. Eugene (Cranbrook) Mission bands (mandolin band for females, brass band for males), date unknown.


    While the initial impetus for brass bands came from the various churches, many non-church groups also developed. It is these community bands that lasted the longest and often developed into concert bands. It was also the community bands who took up the competitive nature of the brass band.

    Competitions and other Band Gatherings

    Competition played a large part in the life of the west coast First Nations bands. The bands were keen inter-village competitors to determine the bragging rights to the “best band on the west coast”. Bands would travel from village to village, displaying their uniforms and promoting the qualifications of their musical director.

    However, the most import aspect was the band’s ability in playing marches, hymns and patriotic airs. Of special importance was which band could play the most complex selection which was usually a medley of tunes from operas, such as “Recollections of Donizetti”.

    In the 1800's the largest gathering of brass bands was in June 1890. Six Catholic brass bands assembled for the opening services at Our Lady of the Rosary. This was a non-competitive gathering.

    The formal competitions of note include:

    In his memoir "Call Me Hank", Henry Pennier makes the following reference to First Nations Brass Bands:3

    "For the Indians on the coast from where Vancouver is now and farther up, their meeting place most always was Sechelt where there was a big wood church on the beach with a couple a high towers you could see from a long ways away. It only burned down a few years back."

    "That is where the big brass band competitions were. Did you know that in those days most all the bigger reserves had Indian brass bands? Oh yes. Much later on at the big yearly exhibition in Vancouver the Indian brass band competitions was something everyone looked forward to. Although none of them was educated too well, they sure could read their music notes, but I myself do not know one note from another. The missionaries sure must have had to get a lot of donation money to buy all those instruments for the young braves but I guess they thought it was a good way to do God's work."

    3. Pennier, H. (2006) Call me Hank: A Stó:Lő Man's Reflections on Logging, Living and Growing Old (pp. 9). University of Toronto Press

    Metlakatla P991-66-6050

    J.D. Allen Photographic Company, Prince Rupert city and Regional Archives, 499
    Metlakatla Brass Band marching during the July 1, 1912 Dominion Day festivities.

    Other Brass Band Activities

    Weddings and Funerals

    First Nations brass bands performed at weddings and funerals. In fact, these ceremonies provide one of the richest sources of photographs of these bands. Band members would be paid by the relatives of the deceased, as though they belonged to the paternal lineage of the deceased. In the event of a funeral for a band member the players would contribute to help pay for the funeral expenses.

    Skidegate Wedding Party

    United Church of Canada Archives 93.049-503
    Skidegate Wedding Party, 18--


    Bands were a symbol of the solidarity of Aboriginal workers within the fishing industry, with brass bands appearing at marches, rallies, parades, and during strikes. During the1900 strike the Port Simpson Brass Band led the parade and played at the 15 July rally in Vancouver, and it also travelled to Nanaimo to raise funds for the striking fishers.

    Seasonal Activities and the Salmon

    Band members moved, along with other workers, to the various salmon canneries along the coast. When workers headed home from these canneries, such as Lowe Inlet and Rivers Inlet, they were often accompanied by a Brass Band, which played for each group upon its arrival home and which gave concerts at the villages along the way. Upon completion of the fishing season, the band's regular practice would resume.

    In addition to gatherings related to work, brass bands also performed at large intertribal gatherings, potlatches, local ceremonies, feasts and other seasonal festivals.

    Last Potlatch h_02498

    Garrett Smith, photographer.
    Labeled "The last potlatch, Victoria", this photo shows a brass band standing in the centre of the circle, ca. 189?

    Ceremonial Occasions

    First Nations brass bands played a significant part in formal occasions and ceremonies. These occasions included visits by government commissions, politicians, religious authorities, and royalty along with regular cermonies such as those associated with religious festivals or special days such as Dominion Day or Empire Day. Visitors were greeted by hereditary chiefs and by a band, who, dressed in military-style uniforms, would perform patriotic tunes (such as God Save the King).

    St. Christopher's Church Parade in Pemberton 191-

    BC Archives Collection C-00990.
    St. Christopher's Church Parade in Pemberton 191-. The procession is lead by a brass band, which is probably either the Squamish or Lillooet Brass Band.

    The following two photographs make an interesting study. The first is of an unidentified brass band leading a procession or parade. This is followed by a procession of important people, perhaps chiefs or elders. There is no question that this is an important event that is being heralded by the brass band.

    First Nations Band

    BC Archives AA-00909

    Unidentified First Nations Band leading a parade.

    First Nations Procession

    BC Archives AA-00641

    Procession following the band in the previous photo.

    Cultural Collaboration

    Susan Neylan4 makes a number of points regarding first nations brass bands:

    • Ceremonies: "These examples of how brass bands were integrated into older Aboriginal ceremonies points to a kind of cultural collaboration that stands quite apart from “resistance” to colonialism. Consider that band members were village representatives (in many cases they were hereditary chiefs) who, as clan and house representatives, reinforced the traditional ceremonial system by attending potlatch events that required their presence as both witnesses and participants. Hence, bands were valued because they were part of maintaining and adapting older cultural institutions that were crucial to the cultural and socio-economic survival of Northwest Coast First Nations." In the case of the Tsimshian Nation: "The above examples suggest ways in which certain traditional Tsimshian functions were transposed onto brass bands in ways that were quite different from what had been intended by the missionaries when they first introduced them. Brass bands and other (post) colonial musical forms, it seems clear, could serve to integrate people with, rather than to distance them from, their cultural practices.
    • Uniforms: "While the band uniforms may, on face value, have represented a form of assimilation, on further reflection they actually represent a form of First Nations authority, especially in the context of greeting political representatives.
    • Traditional Leadership Roles: "In many north coast village groups, male hereditary chiefs acting as band leaders extended their traditional leadership roles and maintained old social structures within these outwardly new cultural forms. The notion of communal property, the presence of consecutive generations of players, and the hereditary nature of positions within the band all point to distinctly Aboriginal characteristics."
    • Brass Bands and the Crown: "The brass bands were part of the performative context that allowed First Nations to assert their position. In other words, it was their music, not merely the chief ’s welcomes and speeches, that “talked back” to colonial officials." "Northwest Coast peoples continued to assert themselves as sovereign peoples at public events, ironically honouring the British Crown and Canadian nation even as these powers denied them such status."

    4. Neylan, S. with Meyer, M. (2006). “Here Comes the Band!”: Cultural Collaboration, Connective Traditions, and Aboriginal Brass Bands on British Columbia’s North Coast, 1875-1964. BC Studies, No. 152, Winter 2006/07, pp. 35 - 66

    Composition of First Nations Brass Band

    The best estimate of numbers is that 35 First Nations brass bands existed in BC from 1864 until around the First World War. This number demonstrates the enthusiasm and intensity with which the west coast First Nations peoples adopted the music of the brass band. While they had a large musical and artistic culture of their own, the west coast First Nations peoples appear to have assimilated western music simply as an extension of their own culture.

    In general the bands tended to be smaller in size to their British counterparts. Player numbers usually were in the 15 -20 range as compared to the standard complement of 26 (percussion not included). These ensembles may have been smaller in number due to the fact that the communities they were from were small. Typically, the communities numbered a few hundred people and could muster not only a brass band but a number of other musical ensembles.

    Transition or Disappearance

    While many bands are undoubtedly brass bands, even from the beginning some brass bands were supplemented by the occasional clarinet or saxophone. There is no doubt, however, that the template for the development of the bands was that of the brass band, as photographs from the era show primarily brass instruments.

    However, with the approach of World War I the instrumentation of bands is clearly moving to that of concert bands. After the war there are no photographs of brass bands.

    First Nations Brass Bands

    Records exist of bands in the following locations:

    First Nations Personalities

    Author: Brian Stride (2012)

    Updated 2012 Feb 24, 23:55 EST/EDT

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