Following many protracted disputes between the federal and provincial governments over land and railway responsibilities in the province, “An Act relating to the Island Railway, the Graving Dock, and Railway Lands of the Province” was drawn up by the Smithe Ministry of B.C. and passed the Provincial legislature on December 19, 1883. Subsequently known as the “Settlement Act”, the measure passed the Dominion house on March 21, 1884, and formally granted the Peace River land to the Federal Government. Ottawa, however, did not immediately select which Peace River lands were to be acquired, thus the entire area from the Rockies east to the Alberta boundary became a provincial government reserve, prohibiting homesteading, pending selection of the prescribed, unalienated claim by the Dominion government.
The choice was long delayed. Eventually, though, the first federal government survey to determine the boundaries of its B.C. Peace River land was undertaken in 1905 and 1906 by J.A. Macdonell Macdonell’s instructions were to select and locate the three and one half million acres “in one rectangular block”, and to report on topographic features, climate, soil, timber, minerals, and other resources, after determining the suitability of the area for settlement.
As a result of Macdonell’s exploratory surveys, the Dominion government took possession of its “Peace River Block” in 1907. The boundaries of the Dominion Peace River Block extended 35 miles north and south of the Peace River and for a distance of 74 miles west of the Alberta boundary — altogether 3,500,000 acres. Although after 1930 the term “Peace River Block” had no legal status, it remained in popular usage, and was extended to include small belts of agricultural activity outside the former block, the whole area embracing approximately 6000 square miles. Prior to the selection of the Block, the Peace River country, because reserve land and therefore inalienable, had attracted few settlers — only a few scattered pioneers engaged in farming. With promises of railway communication from the province, the land now began to open up to agricultural settlement. North and south of the block, the B.C. Government was already selling large acreages to speculators, and when the federal government completed its survey of the southeast part of the Peace River Block, it announced that this land would be thrown open for free homesteading in the early months of 1912. Land surveyors and settlers began entering the Block in large numbers in the years before World War I.
The whole of the Peace River country was divided into two Dominion Land Agencies, and for the convenience of settlers and land seekers, a number of local offices were maintained. Each had an agent authorized to attend to the disposal of Crown lands, the control of Crown timber, and the recording of mineral claims. Lands in the Block north of the Peace River fell within the jurisdiction of the Peace River Land Agency, the main office located in the town of Peace River with sub-offices at High Prairie, Donnelly, Fort St. John, and Fort Vermilion. Those lands south of the Peace River fell within the jurisdiction of the Grande Prairie Land Agency, with the main office in the town of Grande Prairie and sub-offices in Spirit River, Beaverlodge, Pouce Coupe, and Fort St. John. Although the Peace River Block lands were administered by Ottawa, in other respects the Block remained part of British Columbia, looking to Victoria for roads, schools, police, and other provincial government services.
As a direct consequence of the numerous disputes which arose between federal and provincial governments over land, water, and mineral rights within the Block, as well as the inconvenience to local inhabitants and the administrative confusion wrought by the existence of two separated authorities in the area, negotiations began in the late 1920’s for the return of these lands and resources to the respective provinces. Finally, an agreement was made on the 20th of February 1930 between the Dominion of Canada and the Province of British Columbia. The total area of 10,976,000 acres in the Railway Belt and the Peace River Block — of which the Dominion had disposed of 4,920,500 acres to homesteads, parks, timber berths, grazing leases, forest reserves, and Indian reserves — were transferred back to the Province.
(Source not recorded at B.C. Provincial Archives, Victoria)