For 125 years, Vancouver has been a city on the cusp
At the launch of the PuSh festival in January, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson took a few moments to reflect on the city’s history. Standing on the stage at the Five Sixty club, he announced that a free family event would be held at Jack Poole Plaza on April 6 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the city’s incorporation in 1886.
“I think they were in a tent at the corner of Water and Carrall streets,” Robertson said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
Indeed we have. At the time of the city’s birth, the population was only about 1,000. The centre of town was a saloon in the Deighton Hotel, which was previously run by “Gassy Jack” Deighton.
Three months after incorporation, the hotel and most of the rest of the village by the sea were ravaged by a horrific fire.
“We had a blank slate to start off with,” civic historian John Atkin told the Georgia Straight recently by phone as he was walking to the memorial service for journalist and civic historian Chuck Davis. “Then the city just took off like a rocket.”
Transcontinental trains began arriving in Vancouver in May 1887, helping to spawn a boom that has continued to this day.
By 1891, the city was home to 13,709 residents, and the population grew almost nine times, to 120,847, by 1911. In another 20 years, the population more than doubled to 246,593.
Atkin said that the other overarching theme of the city’s history has been its diversity.
“Vancouver, certainly right from day one, is a multicultural city—more by accident,” he commented. “It’s a city where you can find anybody from anywhere. That was true from the first days until today, as well.”
In a curious way, Vancouver has also been a harbinger of societal changes—for better and for worse—throughout its history.
In the second half of the 19th century, B.C. was well on its way to becoming a diverse society. A huge number of Chinese people moved to the province to help build the transcontinental railway and work in the mines. Japanese immigrants moved to B.C. to become miners and fishermen. South Asians were attracted to employment in the forestry and agricultural industries. People of African descent came across the U.S. border in significant numbers, notably to the Victoria area.
Canada’s first census in 1871 determined that B.C.’s population was 36,247, according to the Chronicle of Canada, but that didn’t include an estimated 36,000 Natives who were also living in the province. They were left out of the survey.
Racism intensified shortly after the city was incorporated. In February 1887, the provincial government suspended the city’s charter after a mob descended on Chinese workers’ camps at False Creek.
The nascent labour movement—for which Vancouver later became so famous—objected to the arrival of Asian immigrants, who were blamed for undercutting wages. A head tax on Chinese immigrants, which was initially imposed at $50 in 1885, was doubled to $100 in 1900.
Tensions continued escalating and came to a head on September 7, 1907, when a mob of hundreds descended on Chinatown and Japantown following a public meeting of the Asiatic Exclusion League. Stores and homes were vandalized.
“The violence in that riot surprised and alarmed most of the other anti-Asian groups in North America,” Atkin noted. “They in fact toned down their protests and disavowed themselves from the Vancouver group because of the level of destruction on the street. So, in fact, not meaning to, we actually had an impact.”
This event and others motivated B.C. politicians to push the federal government to clamp down on immigration.
In 1908, as a result of this pressure, Ottawa reached an agreement with Japan to restrict Japanese emigration to Canada to fewer than 1,000 people per year. That was followed by a virtual ban on Chinese immigration in 1923.
Moreover, Parliament had earlier passed a law requiring immigrants to make a continuous journey from their country of origin to Canada, which effectively barred immigration from South Asia. That’s because it was impossible to sail from the Indian subcontinent to this country without stopping for supplies.
When hundreds of immigrants from India arrived in Vancouver’s harbour in 1914 aboard the Komagata Maru, after stopping for provisions in Hong Kong, the vessel was turned back to sea by immigration officials and some were shot by British security forces upon their return to India.
The opposition to Asian immigration in Vancouver set the tone for how the federal government decided to populate the Prairies. In 1896, then–interior minister Clifford Sifton announced a plan to lure immigrants from preferred countries. At the same time, he refused to grant land to East Asians, Italians, Jews, and people of African descent.
The ethnic makeup of the Prairies is linked to how Vancouverites responded to diversity in the late 19th century.