William May Halliday was born in Wellington County, Ontario in 1866. He reportedly moved to the Comox area with his family on July 1, 1873.
He worked in Victoria for the publisher R.T. Williams & Co. and is credited as the author of Williams’ British Columbia Directory 1891: Containing general information and directories of the various cities and settlements in the province.
In 1893 William and his brother Ernest Halliday settled a pre-emption and built a homestead in the estuary at Kingcome Inlet, the traditional territory of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation.
William lived on the homestead until about 1897, when he moved to Alert Bay and took on a job as assistant principal at St. Michael’s Residential School.
Ernest and his family stayed on the Kingcome farm. Until recently, the progeny of the long-horned cows reared by the Hallidays roamed wild on the tidal flats.
In 1906 William took on the job of Indian Agent for the Kwakewlth Agency, serving the North Island and adjacent Mainland Inlets. He served in this capacity for 26 years.
In 1913 Halliday first made some of the first potlatch arrests, but the courts were not supportive of the arrests and gave very lenient sentences.
After a change in legislation, in early 1921 a huge potlatch was hosted by Dan Cranmer at Village Island. Informants reported the event to Halliday, and 34 people were arrested. Participants were encouraged to plead guilty, and could avoid prison time if they swore that they would stop participating in the potlatch activities and forfeit their paraphernalia. While some agreed to these terms, others did not, and these men were sentenced to between 2 and 6 months hard jail time in Oakalla Prison in Vancouver.
In 1921 and 1927 artist Mollie Wilson completed paintings on the rocky shore by the mouth of the Kingcome River which depicted First Nations ceremonial coppers in conflict with cows, meant to symbolize the clash of cultures between the First Nations and Halliday.
It has been reported that Halliday and other bureaucrats illegally sold ceremonial items and took others for their personal collections. This treatment of many sacred items was very offensive to many of the Kwakwaka'wakw, and many items were only discovered when efforts began in earnest to have the items returned to the community in the 1960s.
Halliday is quoted as having reported to his superiors: “The potlatch is killed.” This has become a well-known quote related to the potlatch ban.
Halliday is now looked back upon as having presided over an unfortunate and misguided government initiative, however in his mind he spent decades working to help advance the interests and cause of local First Nations. In 1935 he published a book about his experiences, called Potlatch and Totem and the Recollections of an Indian Agent.
William May Halliday retired in 1932 to Victoria, where he passed away in 1957.