Powell River is onto something good

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      The roads around the Powell River Historic Townsite slope precariously, like one wrong move could see you tumbling into the old pulp mill that sits at the bottom of the hill. Sunken ships ring the edge of the bay: a manmade breakwater that sees the Strait of Georgia eating away at the naval paint.

      It seems fitting for Powell River, a city currently in the midst of an existential debate, to have these ghosts on display. Built on the site of tiskʷat, Tla’amin Nation’s historic village site, the community is working to recognize the horrors of the past while also looking to the future. Once home to the world’s biggest paper mill and the country’s highest per-capita income for its (white) residents, this is a place where the spectres of colonialism linger. How does a boomtown built on unsustainable resource extraction begin its next chapter?

      In some ways, the town has effectively reinvented itself as a classic BC summer getaway. You can rent a kayak and paddle out past the sunken ship hulks; hike the winding trails to spectacular gorges and lakes; or visit in August and stain your fingers purple at the bustling Blackberry Festival.

      The Hulks, visible behind the remnants of the disused paper mill, act as a breakwater around Powell River Historic Townsite.

      But there’s plenty to do here outside of the warmest season. I’m in town for the qathet International Film Festival, which runs in early March at the historic Patricia Theatre. The film selection, like Powell River itself, celebrates diversity; WaaPaKe sees filmmaker Jules Koostachin come to town for the screening, while Montreal-shot Solo is preceded by new Powell River resident Conni Smudge putting on a drag show.

      The Patricia, as it’s lovingly known, is the longest-running movie theatre in Canada. It’s filled with seats that used to belong to Vancouver’s Orpheum (though, with a planned overhaul, soon there’ll be new rows of chairs. Patrons were delighted at this announcement). Peacock frescos and gilded panels on the walls hint at the venue’s rich history, while a ragtime-scored PSA at the beginning of every movie notes the venue’s role in colonialism. Indigenous patrons were segregated to the balcony until the mid-’70s; naming that harm is crucial in trying to repair it.

      The theatre lies just across a rainbow crosswalk from the delicious Royal Zayka (home to some of the best dhaal I’ve ever had), as well as the eclectic Old Courthouse Inn. Breakfast at the attached Edie Rae’s Cafe—named for proprietor Kelly Belanger’s mother-in-law—is nostalgic and hearty. The hotel itself has whispers of hauntings—from the piano that tinkles to life twice a day, to the kitschy china dolls arranged in the hallways, to stories of guests waking up to find a “grey lady” sitting on the end of their bed. (Belanger stops me on the stairs one day: he bought this place after seeing it advertised on the back pages of the Straight over a decade ago. Print matters!)

      It’s perfectly possible to eat your way through Powell River without getting bored. Supercharger Pizza, located in the downtown area a few kilometres from the historic townsite—serving seriously incredible pies and salads in a nostalgic ‘60s-tinged diner—is one of the new establishments heralding Powell River’s hipness. Down the road, Coastal Cookery offers Pacific Northwest cuisine sourced from local suppliers, with a spectacular view of the water that boasts fish and seafood; and 32 Lakes serves as the quintessentially perfect cafe and bakery, serving up strong coffee and punchy sourdough in aesthetic surroundings.

      The big issue bubbling here, from everyone I meet, is the name change. The town was named for Israel Powell, an architect of Canada’s brutal residential school system. Many residents, including the Tla’amin Nation, favour a new name; others want to keep things status quo. Powell River City Council has kicked the decision down the road, pleasing nobody.

      But, while the political climate is contentious, the town’s atmosphere is electric. The Powell River Festival of the Performing Arts, which runs through February and March, centres the community’s artistic talent, while PRISMA—taking place in June—brings two weeks of orchestral brilliance to town.

      Not that you need specific events to come here. The town is layered, with entrepreneurs finding their niche by sometimes filling several. Funky vintage stores hawk treasures at impossibly low prices; an ice cream parlour pivots to soup for the winter; a spa doubles up as a four-star hotel.

      The north end of the Sunshine Coast feels more stretched out than the south side. Trees are taller and skinnier here, climbing perilously towards the clouds. Cliffs are higher, the views over the ocean at a more acute angle—and the beaches are more narrow and windswept. I stand on a spit at Willingdon Beach and stare out at the water with the wind and salt whipping my face; Texada Island, Ahgykson Island, the distant yawning hills of Comox sprawl out before me. The sunsets are majestic.

      “It’s like Squamish 20 years ago,” someone muses to me. Powell River is an oasis of nature, far away enough from the city to feel remote but close enough to be accessible.

      Still affordable, still authentic; still quaint enough to feel like a hidden gem.