Vancouver heritage plaques ignore First Nations history

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      Evoking a desolate setting, a plaque immortalizes a Canadian Pacific Railway surveyor as he began to lay out the early streets of a townsite that is now Vancouver.

      It was 1885, a year before the city was incorporated, and Lauchlan Alexander Hamilton stood at what is now 300 West Hastings Street, at the corner of Hamilton Street (which bears his name).

      “In the silent solitude of the primeval forest,” the plaque reads, “he drove a wooden stake in the earth and commenced to measure an empty land.”

      But the land wasn’t really empty. Now, aboriginal leaders are saying there should be some tangible recognition that their ancestors were here before Europeans arrived.

      “Things like that sort of play into the idea that the city of Vancouver grew out of a vast wilderness, when it wasn’t,” Musqueam Indian Band councillor Wade Grant said when asked by the Georgia Straight about the Hamilton plaque during a phone interview.

      Vancouver and its nearby areas are claimed as part of the traditional territories of the Musqueam as well as the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations. They all belong to the larger group of Coast Salish peoples, who inhabited what some call the Pacific Northwest in the present-day U.S. and Canada.

      “We are trying to overcome the idea that this was a barren land,” Grant said. “There were people that lived here and used this land for thousands of years.”

      The Hamilton plaque was unveiled in 1952 as part of celebrations commemorating Vancouver’s incorporation. It’s one of many markers around the city that remind aboriginal people that their history has been systematically eradicated.

      “It underlies a lot of the issues going on today, specifically aboriginal title and rights, land claims, the land question,” Don Bain noted.

      Bain, the executive director of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, took the Straight for a short walk on Water Street, home to the organization’s Gastown offices. A few steps from where the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation man works stands the Taylor Building, a five-storey brick-and-stone structure built in 1911 that is now a mixed retail and residential building.

      The building bears a City of Vancouver heritage marker noting that it was commissioned by Walter Taylor and Edward Clarence Taylor. The former was the founder of the Empress Manufacturing Company, which specialized in imported coffee and local jams and jellies. “It became one of the most successful local food suppliers,” the plaque recalls.

      According to Bain, signs like this one at 310 Water Street reinforce a “mythology” about a wild land “tamed” by Europeans.

      “It isn’t just about building heritage that should be recognized by the City of Vancouver,” Bain said. “It should [also] be the heritage of the land…the history of the land before Vancouver.”

      Don Bain argues that heritage markers should acknowledge the city's precolonial history.

      Across the street from where Bain stood is Hudson House, at 321 Water Street. Built in 1895, it served as the “main warehouse” for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur and liquor, according to a marker installed by the Gastown Business Improvement Association.

      The handsome five-storey red-brick building now houses a clothing store, a steak house, a coffee shop, and offices.

      But because markers like these don’t reflect the stories of the first inhabitants of Vancouver, tourists and many citizens don’t know the full history of places in the city, Bain said. “And I think that’s wrong.”

      Former Tsleil-Waututh chief Leah George-Wilson acknowledged that the city has been working over the years on “relationship-building” with First Nations. She also noted that there are many ways to strengthen the presence of aboriginal people in the city.

      “It doesn’t have to be [commemorative markers] but…it sounds good,” George-Wilson told the Straight by phone. “It needs to be something that the city works on with the First Nations. It can’t just be something the city goes out and does and says, ‘Hey, First Nations, come and look what we did.’ ”

      Musqueam councillor Grant noted that a few signs recognize the presence of aboriginal people in Vancouver “prior to colonization”. Back in 1933, the federal government recognized the Marpole midden in South Vancouver as a national historical site and placed a marker there.

      But these are few and far between, according to Grant. Noting that First Nations are eager to share their history with the world, Grant said: “We would love to have the ability to tell our story in our words in and around what is called the city of Vancouver now.”




      Apr 4, 2013 at 3:48am

      For once,Can't we have SOMETHING that does not have to allure or pay some homage to Natives? Enough already.


      Apr 4, 2013 at 4:15am

      I agree Nick, this is out of control. This practise of the full time victim is becoming rather pathetic.

      Mr Kotter (part 1)

      Apr 4, 2013 at 5:12am

      Mr Kotter says:
      Well, have to Educate “them again”. Unfortunetly, “THEY” just don’t get it….A long long long time ago….in a “First Nations Village” near you. The First Fleet had a widespread and lasting impact on the Aborigines. The first of these was the misunderstandings that resulted in hostilities between the whites and the Aborigines.
      At first the Aborigines regarded the strange white men in large ships as ghosts, possibly ghosts of their own ancestors. They were prepared to deal with them peacefully. As long as the two groups of people stayed out of each other’s way, there was no conflict.
      The real problems started when cultural misunderstandings occurred. In one example, Captain Arthur Phillip sought to meet with an aboriginal tribesman on the beach. In standard English manner, he thrust out his hand in welcome, to shake hands. Not understanding the cultural context, the Aborigine believed it was an act of aggression, and speared him in the shoulder.
      The Aborigines had no concept of ownership, and they did not see why the white strangers couldn’t share the land. They also didn’t see why they were not permitted to spear the big, easy-to-catch livestock of the white settlers for their own food.Tthese beasts were valuable and so naturally, the white settlers saw the aboriginal actions as attacks, and hostilities began to grow, with landowners sometimes gathering together and setting out to eradicate groups of “troublesome” Aborigines.
      The arrival of the First Fleet meant that Aborigines were forced off their land. Although this did not happen immediately, it was certainly a lasting impact. Many aboriginal tribes were forced from the abundant coastal areas where food was plentiful, into the more arid interior areas. To Aborigines, the connection with their homelands is part of their very identity, and the loss of their home was a wrenching process for them. It led to feelings of dispossession, feelings which have continued to this day!

      Mr Kotter (part 2)

      Apr 4, 2013 at 5:12am

      The arrival of the First Fleet also brought the introduction of diseases to which the Aborigines had no immunity. between the years 1788 and 1900, it has been estimated that as much as 90% of the aboriginal population was lost. Tasmanian Aborigines were completely eradicated. Simple diseases like measles, chickenpox and the ‘flu led to epidemics that swept through the aboriginal camps, wiping out many of them. For the first time, Aborigines faced real death and disease, which could not be countered by their bush medicines. There were also the more deadly diseases like smallpox.
      The First Fleet brought foods that were harmful to the Aborigines, again because they were not used to them. Flour, tea, tobacco and even alcohol were introduced, leading to obesity and alcoholism that has continued right through the generations.
      The First Fleet and subsequent European occupation also resulted in the introduction of many new animal and plant species, which ultimately led to the extinction or near-extinction of many, many native species. The balance of the land and the environment was lost, particularly once tree-clearing started and agriculture was introduced.
      Later on, Europeans interfered with the aboriginal way of life to the point where they took the aboriginal children away from their families. They believed the Aborigines were incapable of raising their children properly. The children were taught to be white, but often they were treated badly, and as little more than servants. This led to the loss of the aboriginal culture, languages and traditions, as the children gradually forgot everything they had been brought up to believe, and lacked the contact with their tribal elders to reinforce this knowledge and pass it on to their own children.
      There were many more impacts of the First Fleet and subsequent Europeans settlements on the aboriginal people, but these are the main ones.
      Again, these are the “Main” ones, and if “they” don’t like the “TRUE FACTS” then…Basically it could be considered reading material…while “THEY” go back / return on “THE BIG BOAT”.
      Peace Out!


      Apr 4, 2013 at 7:03am

      I would love for the natives to commemorate their history.let's have them bring out their history books and/or have the building or statues they have built that have lasted over 200 years have a plaque on them.

      Juan Carlos

      Apr 4, 2013 at 8:07am

      It's hard to find any country in the world who hasn't tried as hard as Canada to go back and right the wrongs performed many generations ago by the conquerors of the land and yet it does seem like it's never enough.

      I'm certainly not advocating towing the "look, you were conquered, now it's ours, go away!" line that many countries around the world employ to get rid of land claims, etc, but this country has bent over backwards, to the tune of billions of dollars worth of tax breaks, services, resources and recognition of the rich cultural history of the native peoples, their claims to land and helping them deal with their issues.

      It's simply not acceptable that for every 999 accommodations made, all we hear about is grief about the 1 out of 1,000 that doesn't sit right with someone.

      Somewhere in this story it does mention the tremendous effort being made with "relationship-building", but the one-way bashing continues. What about that horrific, hideous glowing billboard at the foot of the Burrard St. bridge? Who do I complain to about that? That's a lot more offensive than some little plaque on a building.


      Apr 4, 2013 at 8:39am

      Me standing in a feild does not make it a full field just as a collection of stone age fishing villages does not fill the Fraser valley.


      Apr 4, 2013 at 8:41am

      I know, right?? We get it: we stole your land and decimated your culture! Get over it already, geez!


      Apr 4, 2013 at 8:49am

      Man, if I was First Nations I'd be pissed too! They get totally ignored as human beings. White folks can be so pompus. Sometimes I am ashamed to be white.


      Apr 4, 2013 at 9:04am

      This is not about victimization or paying homage. This is about educating everyone about the whole history of the land. Omitting First Nations history is a very significant reason why disagreements and misunderstandings continue to plague us in society today.