How Poplar Island fell off the map

It started with a telephone call from Terry Slack. "Poplar's gone," he said. Slack is a 65-year-old Fraser River gill-netter who netted his first salmon out of the North Arm from his own oar-powered skiff when he was nine years old. "Poplar Island's gone," he repeated. "The GVRD map of parks on the river doesn't list it anymore."

Poplar Island is the last large undiked island in the Fraser River's North Arm. It is lush with cottonwoods and wild cherry. It lies just upriver from the Queensborough Bridge, which spans the North Arm between New Westminster and Lulu Island. It is a storied place.

The island was one of British Columbia's first Native reserves. Then it was a quarantine island for smallpox victims, and then the site of a major shipbuilding concern during the First World War, but for most of the 20th century it was a booming anchorage for local sawmills. You'd never know it to look at it now, but there was a time when it was clear-cut and left without a single tree standing. The B.C. government acquired the island for its "nature legacy" program in 1995, and it was to be held by the Greater Vancouver Regional District's park department as a strictly protected nature reserve, in perpetuity.

How could it be "gone"?

"I don't know," Slack said. Slack is a walking library of the Fraser River's ecology and working-class history, and don't know aren't words you expect to hear him say when he's asked about these things. Slack said the GVRD Parks bulletin had just come in the mail and he noticed that GVRD Parks' "Fraser Islands Reserve" consisted of Douglas Island, at the mouth of the Pitt River, and Don and Lion islands, just downstream of Annacis Island, but Poplar Island wasn't marked.

After several telephone calls to various GVRD Parks officials, it turned out that the island that New Westminster's official community plan describes as "a GVRD park designated for strict conservation" and that New Westminster's official civic Web site identifies as having been "acquired as a nature reserve by the GVRD" never was a GVRD park to begin with.

"Well, that's strange," said New Westminster's beloved Dorothy Beach, the 92-year-old environmental activist who still lives in her family home on River Drive, which looks out across a narrow channel to Poplar Island. "We thought it was established as a park," Beach said.

"People make mistakes" is how New Westminster senior planner Stephen Scheving explained how even New Westminster's planners got Poplar Island wrong. And as we will see, that is a fair defence. But it is a long story.

The earliest marine charts show it as being more or less attached to Lulu Island, but it was identified as an island by the Royal Engineers, who were laying out New Westminster's streets in the 1860s. The Engineers' Col. Richard Clement Moody appears to have set aside the island as a "rancherie", or, more formally, an Indian reserve. By 1879, the federal government designated Poplar Island as one of three reserves of "the New Westminster Indian band', which at the time numbered about 400 people.

In the following years, however, the small band was decimated by smallpox. Aboriginal smallpox victims from throughout B.C.'s south coast were quarantined on Poplar Island and buried there. For decades, the Poplar Island reserve was designated as belonging to "all coast tribes", but the federal government removed it from its list of reserves and turned it over to the B.C. government in 1916.

That same year, the New Westminster Construction and Engin?eering Company built both a massive shipyard on the island and a bridge connecting it to New Westminster. During the following two years, as many as 600 workers laboured on the island and built, among other things, four warships for the government of France.

In 1936, the bridge gave out. By then, only fisheries warden William Albert Bowcott and his family lived on the island, and in 1945 the island was bought by New Westminster, which immediately sold it for a song to Rayonier Canada, a forest company that used the island mainly as an anchorage for its log booms. Over the years, the trees grew back.

In 1995, the B.C. government bought the island from Western Forest Products to contribute to a "legacy not only for present British Columbians but for future generations".

But the government had apparently not taken the island's graves into account. By 1995, the island was already identified in treaty- negotiation documents filed by the Musqueam, Katzie, and Tsawwassen communities. And the "New Westminster Indian band", which had for years existed only on paper, was formally revived by one of its sole descendants, Rhonda Larrabee, in 1994, and her band, too, quite reasonably, "claims" the island.

Scheving, the New Westminster planner, confirmed that-for tax purposes, at least-the island is still owned by the B.C. government, specifically Land and Water British Columbia Inc., which was initially set up to sell off Crown lands but is now being phased out, its functions reverting to various B.C. government departments.

And that's how Poplar Island was found, lost, found, and lost again.

For now, its greatest menaces are English ivy, which is smothering its smaller trees, and erosion from tugboats. Otherwise, it's the healthiest island left in the North Arm of the Fraser, from New Westminster all the way out to saltwater at the Iona Jetty.

The Chronicles Web log can be found at