For 125 years, Vancouver has been a city on the cusp

As Vancouver prepares for its 125th birthday, it’s a good time to reflect on how often it has been a harbinger of societal change.

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      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.

      In the early part of the 20th century, Vancouver’s labour movement was also on the cusp of change.

      After union organizer Albert “Ginger” Goodwin was shot by a police officer near Comox Lake in 1918, Vancouver workers staged the first general strike in Canadian history.

      According to historian Daniel Francis’s 2010 book Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror, a mob of 300 people attacked the labour movement’s headquarters, twice trying to throw a union leader out a window. This presaged a larger and longer general strike the following year in Winnipeg.

      The most violent clash of the Great Depression also had its roots in Vancouver. In April 1935, 1,500 men in relief camps decided to go on strike after earning just 20 cents a day. They gathered in Vancouver and began what became known as the On-to-Ottawa Trek.

      The prime minister, R. B. Bennett, condemned the march as a Communist plot, and it culminated in a riot in Regina on July 1, 1935, when police fired bullets at protesters.

      Vancouver was also a hothouse of change in the 1960s and early 1970s.

      The city helped to kick-start the global environmental movement by giving birth to Greenpeace, whose young volunteers courageously sailed up to Alaska to oppose a nuclear-bomb test. Former Greenpeace activist and onetime Georgia Straight writer Paul Watson went on to found the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has helped curb the commercial exploitation of whales and dolphins.

      Around the same time, Vancouverites prevented the degradation and depopulation of the downtown by stopping construction of a freeway that would have overrun Chinatown.

      Atkin pointed out that in the 1950s and early 1960s, the city had vast tracts of land that could be developed.

      “So we ended up building the suburbs in the city of Vancouver,” he said, referring to single-family areas outside the core. “And we never, ever had that sort of flight to the suburbs, where our downtown was abandoned.”¦I think that, in some ways, intuitively led campaigners and protesters [and future politicians] like Mike Harcourt and Darlene Marzari to reject freeways and urban renewal because the city wasn’t down in the dumps like some of its North American counterparts.”

      Now, cities around the world are trying to emulate our record of maintaining a vibrant city core.

      In the early 1980s, Vancouver’s peace movement was among the most vigorous in the world.

      Tens of thousands of people would stream across the Burrard Bridge in annual peace marches. This was part of a global movement that led to a major arms-reduction treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, signed in 1987.

      In that same era, wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen put Vancouver on the map on disability issues, creating momentum for change that spread around the world.

      Vancouver’s aboriginal people have played their part in sending signals that things are about to change in this country. In 1990, a member of the Musqueam First Nation, Ronald Edward Sparrow, won a landmark ruling in the Supreme Court.

      The highest court in the land recognized aboriginal people’s right to fish for food and ceremonial purposes ahead of other user groups. This gave birth to the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategies, not to mention a greater recognition of indigenous rights.

      Of course, a contributing factor behind this was the courageous stance of Vancouver lawyer Tom Berger nearly a decade earlier, when the Trudeau government wasn’t prepared to acknowledge aboriginal and treaty rights in the constitution. Berger, then a B.C. Supreme Court justice, took a very public stance, which helped force the government’s hand.

      More recently, Vancouver’s urban aboriginal people have been involved in campaigns that are reverberating across the country. Younger activists such as Preston Guno, Curtis Clearsky, Melanie Mark, and others pushed the Vancouver Police Department to treat aboriginal youths with more respect. Kat Norris helped bring about about an inquiry into the death of a Mi'kmaq man, Frank Paul, who was found dead after police dumped his body in an alley in 1998. And through her walks for justice, Gladys Radek has ensured that missing aboriginal women remain in the national consciousness.

      In the 1990s, Vancouver became a global trend-setter in the antismoking movement. It was one of the first cities in the western industrialized world to ban tobacco use in restaurants. That, too, caught on elsewhere.

      Vancouver also became a centre of the global movement for same-sex issues involving spousal benefits, marriage, equal adoption rights, freedom from discrimination in school curricula, and progressive police relations. This was thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like Murray and Peter Corren, Jim Deva, Alan Herbert, and barbara findlay. Once again, what started in Vancouver was copied elsewhere.

      The same was true for treatment of people with HIV/AIDS, with B.C. researchers, including Dr. Julio Montaner, stunning the world by turning this once-terminal condition into a manageable disease.

      More recently, Vancouver has been a leader in the global battle to end the war on drugs. This was the first major North American city to open a supervised-injection site and embrace the “four pillars” approach (prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement) to address drug addiction. Activists in other cities are trying to follow our example.

      One of the largest trends in the past 25 years was globalization. Once again, Vancouver was ahead of the curve, inviting the world to Expo 86. The World’s Fair and subsequent global attention were catalysts for a torrent of international investment in the city. This, along with various decisions by city councils, contributed to a rash of new residential skyscrapers popping up in the city.

      The impact of Expo 86 spurred the business community, politicians, and much of the general public to embrace the notion of hosting the 2010 Winter Games, regardless of any financial risk this posed.

      That’s not to say we haven’t experienced some horrors along the way. While civic officials were preoccupied with topping global rankings of the most livable cities, Canada’s worst serial killer, Robert William Pickton, was preying on Downtown Eastside women without facing much heat from local police.

      Meanwhile, our homeless population skyrocketed and child poverty became endemic in certain neighbourhoods. The growing gap between rich and poor in many other places around the world has also been on display in our town for several years.

      Perhaps if we can start addressing this in a meaningful way, we’ll once again be on the cusp of change. And this will be in keeping with Vancouver’s history.




      Mar 31, 2011 at 11:00am

      This city needs to take better care of its heritage buildings. The original Pantages Theatre on Hastings is about to crumble and city hall is trying to shoehorn another music hall downtown. Not to mention the impending destruction of Chinatown. Do we want the whole city to look like plain-jane Yaletown?

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      Sean Bickerton

      Mar 31, 2011 at 12:11pm

      Great sweeping article by Charlie Smith encapsulating the best and worst of our passionate history is fitting tribute to our city on its 125th!

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      JG Smith

      Jul 10, 2012 at 4:46pm

      An unvarnished and damning description of our 19th century racism - excluding and abusing almost everyone. A chastening article for Canadians who look down on US racism. It's gratifying to see how we evolved into a more just and decent city despite this inauspicous beginning. Yet there is an unfortunate 'natural selection' going on at present whereby only the intensely acquistive can even afford to live here. Maybe that's why our focus on peace, social justice and the environment is slowly being supplanted in favour of conservatism, toys and a preoccupation with house prices.

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