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.”
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.”