Compared to the world’s great cities, Vancouver and Victoria are mere babies. Victoria only became a city in 1862; Vancouver in 1886. But long before Captain George Vancouver sailed into English Bay back in 1792, the First Nations people lived and fought and traded here. Their remarkable legacy still lingers on, despite their population being decimated by disease and their culture by regrettable government policies. Any history of the area has to start with their story.
In the late 18th century, Coast Salish villages dotted the lands all around Vancouver and Victoria, and archeological evidence suggests that they’d been settled here for some 10,000 years. Their society was a complex and sophisticated one, with a fascinating mythology. Different peoples had different traditions—the Haida, for instance, were known as great warriors, while others were known for their deftness in trading all up and down the coast. They lived richly off the bounty of the forest and sea, especially the salmon, which they enjoyed in celebratory feasts known as potlatches. And they were famous for their beautiful carvings and art, much of it made from cedar and copper.
When the Europeans arrived—led first by José María Narváez of Spain in 1791, then the British Captain George Vancouver a year later—they brought diseases that were unfamiliar and, as it proved, deadly to the indigenous people. It’s estimated that smallpox killed all but 600 of the 10,000 First Nations people who lived around the southern coast. Then the Europeans drove the survivors off the lands they wanted for themselves. As time went on, they forced them into residential schools, demanding that they give up their language, their culture, even their stories. It was a dark blot in Canada’s history, and it was only in 2008 that the federal government issued a formal apology for the system and its abuses.
Today, though, there is an upwelling of native pride, a revival of the old ways, and most of all, a brilliant resurgence in the art of the coastal peoples. Visitors can learn more about them at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, but their legacy is everywhere, from the welcome statues at Vancouver International Airport to the totem poles in Stanley Park and the First Nations shops and galleries in both cities.
Gold Rush & Boomtown
One can only imagine what it took for the explorer and fur trader Simon Fraser and his crew to make their way, back in 1808, through the rugged and dangerous canyons of what is now the Fraser River to become the first Europeans to set foot on the site of present-day Vancouver. They were soon followed by other trappers, traders, and merchants eager to take advantage of the richness of this new land. By the 1920s, the Hudson Bay Company had built forts in Victoria and Fort Langley, while the British, being no fools, had placed the whole region under their rule by the mid–19th century.
Then, in 1855, gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon, and by 1861 the rush was on. Some 25,000 men, mostly from California, flooded into the region to prospect for the precious nuggets. They were followed by other business, most notably, Vancouver’s first sawmills, which were kept busy processing timber for housing and shipbuilding. Vancouver wasn’t even a community yet, and it was already booming. That’s just what attracted a voluble saloonkeeper named John Deighton, better known as Gassy Jack. He opened a bar called the Globe to serve the sawmill workers in the neighborhood we know today as Gastown. This would be the beginning of the city of Vancouver: a rough, tough, boozy settlement, originally named Granville.
Meanwhile, over on Vancouver Island, Victoria was already a prosperous city, quietly making its fortune as a supply base for explorers, traders, and gold miners. In 1866, it was politically united with the Mainland and 5 years later, when British Columbia became part of the Canadian Confederation, Victoria was named the provincial capital. It was a proper, well-heeled community, settled largely by the English and Scots, but it was also home to North America’s second Chinatown and one of the continent’s largest importers and processors of opium.
Although Victoria boomed again as a supply city during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, the city’s reign as the province’s commercial center ended in 1886. That’s when the Canadian Pacific Railway terminus was built in what was now called Vancouver, not far from where Gassy Jack once served up tots of whiskey. In April of that year, Vancouver was incorporated as a city; 2 months later, it burned to the ground, but was quickly rebuilt, thus beginning its history as a city always in the process of reinventing itself.
Hippies & the Condo Boom
There is no underestimating the impact the railway had on Vancouver. Thousands of newcomers flooded in, including the Chinese who worked on building the railroad, and the city quickly became a key land and sea port. It also became a major driver of Canadian industries such as forestry, fishing, and shipbuilding, which attracted workers from Japan as well as Europe. By 1923, Vancouver was the third-largest city in Canada, and a glitzy, louche kind of town it was, with countless bars, dance halls, and saloons all aglow with neon lighting.
But it was still a remote outpost of civilization until the 1960s, when hippies and draft dodgers flooded in, especially to the neighborhood of Kitsilano. The era was marked by anti-war protests, peace rallies, marches, and the creation of Greenpeace in a Dunbar living room. A whole new Vancouver vibe emerged: a slightly flaky, hippie-dippy, lefty-leaning place, with the lingering aroma of really good marijuana.
Victoria, meanwhile, avoided most of the turmoil of the 20th century, and quietly developed a reputation as a major tourism destination, famous for its historic buildings, horse-drawn carriage rides, lush gardens, and afternoon teas.
On the Mainland, Vancouver was becoming a real economic powerhouse, and one with strong urban design and policies, thanks to visionaries like the city’s modernist architect and urban planner Arthur Erickson. Unlike many major cities, Vancouver decided against putting a freeway through the city, a decision that has preserved its beauty and livability. It also transformed the industrial lands of Granville Island into a collection of food market, boutiques, restaurants, artist studios, and theaters that is considered one of the best urban development projects in North America. On the other hand, many gracious old homes were destroyed and replaced with soulless condo towers, leading hometown writer and artist Douglas Coupland to label it the “City of Glass.”
Still, Expo ’86, which coincided with Vancouver’s 100th birthday, demonstrated just how far the city had come from its humble frontier-town beginnings. The World’s Fair drew more than 21 million visitors and left a legacy that included the Skytrain rapid transit system and a new pride in the city. And in 2010, thousands of athletes, volunteers, and visitors descended on Vancouver once again, this time for the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, while billions of people watched on televisions the world over. And what they saw was a young, brash, and beautiful city that had just grown up.