At the time of European contact in the 1790s, the people inhabiting the coast of British Columbia in the northern Strait of Georgia area were the Pentlatch, the Comox and the Sechelt. Their languages are identified by these same names and belong to the Coast Salish division of the Salishan language family. In the early 1800s the Pentlatch, who lived along the east coast of Vancouver Island from the vicinity of Kye Bay in the north to the approximate area of Parksville in the south, suffered greatly from disease and from Aboriginal raiding parties from the west coast of the island. Gradually the Pentlatch became absorbed by their northern neighbours, the Comox. The last speaker of the Pentlatch language died in 1940.

The Comox of Vancouver Island were also the victims of inter-Aboriginal hostilities in the early 1800s. Their northern neighbours, the Lekwiltok, began to expand southward, displacing the Island Comox from their territory that extended from around Salmon River to Kye Bay (see Kwakwaka'wakw).

Descendants

The remaining Island Comox descendants live on the Comox Indian Reserve. Comox Band membership was 258 in 1996, 114 of whom lived on-reserve. Through intermarriage, the people living at Comox adopted both the ceremonials and the language (called Kwakwala) of the Lekwiltok. The Island Comox dialect of the Comox language is now moribund. Some Island Comox traditions have been retained and are a source of distinct cultural pride.

The Comox-speaking Coast Salish people along the eastern shore of the northern Georgia Strait fared better. Sometimes referred to as Mainland Comox, they are composed of the Homalco, Klahoose and Sliammon, living in the area from Bute Inlet in the north to Stillwater in the south. Formerly the Homalco and Klahoose occupied the protected waters of Bute and Toba inlets respectively, as well as the adjacent islands. By the late 1800s, when reserves were established, their main villages were located at Church House near the entrance to Bute Inlet, the now abandoned home of the Homalco, and at Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island, the home of about 270 Klahoose.

The main Homalco village is now a reserve of 366 people established in the town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Many Homalco and Klahoose, along with the Sliammon, live on the reserve at the mouth of Sliammon Creek (north of Powell River), formerly a traditional Sliammon village and now a modern one of about 812. The Sechelt, who traditionally occupied Jervis Inlet, both sides of the Sechelt Peninsula and the adjacent islands, number 961 (1996) of whom 524 live on reserves adjacent to the town of Sechelt. The Sechelt Band was the first in Canada to be granted authority to manage its own land under the provisions of the Indian Act.

Natural Resources

Like other Northwest Coast Aboriginal people, the northern Georgia Strait Coast Salish had access to a wealth of natural resources, including the five species of Pacific Salmon, rockfish, seals, shellfish, deer, mountain goats, bear and migratory birds. Vegetable foods provided the necessary complement to fish and meat. An inventory of a traditional house would indicate that the giant western red cedar was the most versatile of plant materials. Its strong, easily split wood was used for making house planks, dugout canoes, boxes, barbecuing sticks, drying racks and bowls. Western red cedar inner bark was pounded until soft and used for mats, ropes, clothing and ceremonial costumes. The art of cedar-root basketry is still practised by some women.

All of the Northern Georgia Strait Coast Salish are involved in commercial fishing and salmon enhancement programs. Forestry and shellfish harvesting also provides employment. The Comox Band operates a successful art gallery specializing in Aboriginal art of the region.

See also Aboriginal People: Northwest Coast and general articles under Aboriginal People.