Why might one read the history of a city? For many of us, it’s to gain context and an understanding of how a place came to be. After whom are these streets named? Who was welcomed here — or excluded? How did a city’s social policies develop, its neighbourhoods form, its parks and public spaces take shape? Choose a starting point, we ask historians, and trace a line to the present, making the actions and attitudes of those who came before us comprehensible, if not necessarily sympathetic. Tell us who we were, so we can understand who we are and what we might be.
In Becoming Vancouver: A History, Daniel Francis takes on such a project with enthusiasm, telling a story of successes and failures and, perhaps most important, countering the tendency, on the part of individuals and society as a whole, to forget the past. Because Vancouver is young and ever-changing, it has been called “a city without a history,” and that invites some to view it as a hyper-modern metropolis moving toward a “gleaming, high-tech version of the future.” We should be wary of this narrative, Francis cautions, because presenting Canada’s third-largest city as “a place outside of history — drunk on the possibilities of the future; indifferent to the events of the past” is one way to hand it over “to the forces of global consumerism that sometimes threaten to overwhelm it.” And if Vancouver has no past, then we are absolved from reckoning with it.
As an award-winning historian, Francis naturally believes Vancouver has a rich story. The one he tells is of a city divided, existing “in tension between competing ideas of itself.” Is it a “liveable” community, he asks, with abundant green space, a slower pace of life, and more modest development than San Francisco or Toronto? Or does it have its sights set on “world-class” status: sophisticated, extensively developed, and welcoming of international capital? Some might quibble with such a dichotomy, especially when a term like “liveable” is wielded by everyone from affordable housing proponents to not-in-my-backyard opponents of most things new.
In this municipality, as in many others, the debate often is far more complicated than one of small versus big. Indeed, tensions are seen in everyday disagreements around “preservation versus redevelopment; density versus suburban sprawl; bike paths versus car culture; lotus land versus global metropolis; Green City versus City of Glass.” According to Francis, friction is not new to the Lower Mainland. Vancouver has been a place of contested narratives — and land claims — from the very start.
Thankfully, Becoming Vancouver cuts a clear path through the morass of competing views. Francis sees the place’s history as primarily defined by two intricately enmeshed factors: real estate and “the question of race.”
Vancouver’s troubled history often begins with the colonial settlement and expropriation of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples — the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations — and their forced displacement and assimilation. It continues with rampant real estate speculation, which was present before the city’s founding and is still a strong force to this day, contributing to multiple housing crises and exacerbating anti-Asian racism. Throughout the late 1800s and well into the 1900s, laws were passed to limit immigration and disenfranchise Asian residents; these restrictions helped shape the city’s landscape by creating ethnic ghettos, which lacked many of the protections other neighbourhoods offered. The disappearance of Japantown on Powell Street, following the internment of Japanese residents during the Second World War, and the razing of the historically Black district known as Hogan’s Alley, in the 1970s, illustrate the ways in which real estate has always been about power and influence.
The outsize role of the Canadian Pacific Railway in shaping the city in the 1880s is a case in point. William Cornelius Van Horne, the CPR’s managing director, decided that Vancouver would be the terminus for its transcontinental line, not Port Moody, twenty kilometres to the east, as had been planned. Van Horne was even responsible for naming Vancouver, arguing that its association with Vancouver Island would help people place it in their minds, unlike Granville, the name the colonial government had given to the original townsite. Through a remarkably generous land grant, courtesy of the new province, the CPR became “the city’s preeminent landowner and major employer.”
While the general narrative of colonial violence and racial intolerance may be increasingly familiar to some readers, Francis offers numerous anecdotes and details that present it in new and often shocking ways. For instance, when road builders working in Stanley Park in 1888 happened upon a large midden — a refuse heap that attested to thousands of years of Indigenous occupation — its crushed shells were excavated and used as surfacing material. As the new road cut through the park, it literally paved over history. Another example: in 1913, when predominantly white settlement was expanding south, the Squamish were pressured to sell their thirty-two-hectare reserve at Sen-ákw, which included a village at the entrance to False Creek. “Afterward the attorney general actually boasted how he had obtained the land for far less than it was worth,” Francis writes. And another: when a prominent Chinese businessman, Tong Louie, and his wife, Geraldine, bought a house in the community of Dunbar in 1941, the first ethnic Chinese family to do so, “their arrival was met by petitions and protests from their neighbours demanding council stop the ‘Oriental’ invasion,” which supposedly led to a 20 percent drop in property values. Explicitly supporting the protest was Halford Wilson, a bigoted alderman, whose “strident anti-Asian views were no impediment to his consistently winning re-election to council.”
These examples and others may ultimately represent small moments in history, but they illuminate larger stories: of racism and injustice, as well as of activism, arts and culture, urban development, political campaigns, enterprise, and technological change. Readers may know that the neighbourhood around False Creek was once an industrial centre, but the scene today — with its flotilla of sailboats resting on blue waters, pedestrians ambling along the seawall, and shiny waterfront condos — makes it hard to imagine such a past. Francis successfully transports us to a time when this picturesque area was, according to one newspaper, “a garbage dump, a sewer outlet.” The air pollution was so intense that dense fogs would descend. A teamster who worked in the 1930s and ’40s “recalled the fog being so thick that drivers would have to hire youngsters to walk ahead of them with a flashlight showing the way.” (This particular problem was eventually solved through environmental regulation, rezoning, and redevelopment.)
Becoming Vancouver is a repository of interesting facts: from the poet Al Purdy being told to guard the Burrard Street Bridge with a wooden weapon during the Second World War (“his superiors did not trust him with a real one”), to the local business elite’s complicated rum-running schemes during Prohibition in the United States, to attempts to make the wealthy Shaughnessy neighbourhood its own municipality.
Even more eye-opening are the recurring themes in this sweeping survey. From the start, for instance, officials have grappled with poor and homeless people, razing the shantytowns known as “jungles” during the Great Depression, evicting the residents of villages of floating homes on False Creek in the 1950s, and displacing whole communities in order to superficially beautify the city before major events like Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. History also repeats itself when it comes to the Vancouver Police Department. In discussing the city’s changing fortunes in the postwar era, Francis notes that “one thing that remained the same was the inability of the police force to avoid scandal.” He focuses on several instances of corruption, incompetence, and police brutality, including the death of a Black stevedore named Clarence Clemons in 1952 and the failure to catch the serial killer Robert Pickton in the 1990s and early 2000s. Today’s calls to “defund” the VPD may be new but only in terms of the language being used. Another constant? Politicians pledging to be tough on crime.
A natural response when faced with stark historical patterns is to feel depressed — at how slow we are to learn our lesson, at how much suffering each generation must experience anew. We hope that by studying the past we might be able to recognize harmful rhetoric and resist it. We’ve been here before, after all. One of the most striking recurrences in this particular history is the “blank slate” trope. It describes the approach of city planners who repeatedly saw demolishing older neighbourhoods as the only path to urban renewal. It also speaks to literal, if temporary, obliteration: only two months after Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, it burned down to the ground. Most significantly, though, the blank slate trope encapsulates the views of early settlers who claimed the land generations ago and of those still propagating a narrative of pioneering courage and industry.
As CPR’s chief surveyor, Lachlan Hamilton marked out and named what would become some of the city’s streets. A plaque installed in 1952 describes Hamilton as standing “in the silent solitude of the primeval forest,” where he “commenced to measure an empty land into the streets of Vancouver.” As a corrective to this type of commemoration, Francis launches his work with an account of the original names given to the area — long before Spanish and British mariners sailed into Burrard Inlet in the late 1700s. In 1932, a Squamish man in his mid-fifties, August Jack Khahtsahlano, met with the city archivist, James Matthews, to share what he had learned from the elders in his community. Based on these conversations, and in consultation with elders from other First Nations, Matthews created a map that identified sixty-five historic villages located along Burrard Inlet. As Francis skillfully demonstrates, the place called Vancouver has always had a rich story — if you know where to look and to whom to listen.
Gregory Betts would likely agree. The title of his scholarly history of Vancouver’s literary innovators, Finding Nothing: The VanGardes 1959–1975, has a dual meaning: it speaks to the way many settlers viewed Indigenous cultures, and it calls out the smugness of mid-twentieth-century critics and even artists, who saw “the unenlightened margins” relying on “culture moving from the imperial centre.” If a place like Vancouver exhibited signs of flourishing cultural activity, people at the time thought, it surely originated elsewhere — like in Paris, London, or New York.
Betts, an English professor at Brock University, in Ontario, understands literary modernism not as a “one-way flow of influence” but “as a series of productive tensions between the global and the local, the technological and the traditional.” By writing what he calls (with a nod to the University of Toronto’s Heather Murray) a “ ‘microhistory’ with a transnational frame,” he tells the story of multiple avant-gardes coalescing in Vancouver in the 1960s and ’70s. He incorporates the people and events found at the margins, which means creating “space for many of the voices lost in the habitual telling of the story of Vancouver’s ongoing emergence.” In doing so, he deftly maps connections between communities, artistic movements, and ideologies the world over.
An anecdote in the introduction of Finding Nothing illustrates Betts’s larger argument. In the summer of 1963, several celebrated American poets, among them Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley, visited Vancouver. They had been invited to co-teach a poetry course with Warren Tallman, an English professor at the University of British Columbia, but soon the course grew into an event: the Vancouver Poetry Conference, or VPC. Only one Canadian poet, Margaret Avison, participated (Tallman was an American expat); well-established modernist writers such as Earle Birney and Dorothy Livesay and their younger peers like Frank Davey and Phyllis Webb were not invited to share their work, an exclusion that Betts reads as a telling erasure. A big success at the time, the VPC quickly gained legendary status and has been credited as “something of an origin story for modernism and avant-gardism in Vancouver, despite the already existent legacies of both in the city.”
The story that’s been passed down about the VPC is woefully incomplete, Betts argues. During the conference, for example, Ginsberg made an “off-program private visit” to Stella Gysin, the mother of the artist and writer Brion Gysin, a Canadian who was living in Paris. Gysin, who had been part of André Breton’s Surrealist movement, was involved in all kinds of aesthetic experiments across a wide range of media and kept impressive company, calling Tristan Tzara and William S. Burroughs his friends and collaborators. To Betts, the fact that Ginsberg’s visit has been largely absent from the VPC’s enduring mythology is emblematic of a culturally colonial attitude. Did these American poets come to Vancouver and truly find nothing? Or were they simply not looking?
Betts uses the term “VanGardes” to refer to a number of aesthetic communities that overlapped and intermingled throughout the period. He devotes a chapter to the publication Tish, which ran from 1961 to 1969. It was influenced by the New American poets and featured such writers as Frank Davey, George Bowering, Fred Wah, and Daphne Marlatt. Betts also pays close attention to the poet bill bissett and his magazine, Blewointment; to intermedia and visual arts, including collage and concrete poetry; to the West Coast Surrealists; and to Gladys Hindmarch, Audrey Thomas, and other experimental feminist writers who explored embodiment, gender, and identity. And he considers the current moment, using the term “post-avant” to characterize contemporary Canadian literature, in which an awareness of capitalism’s discontents is accompanied by a depressing lack of “liberating alternatives.”
Francis’s Becoming Vancouver, which is more accessible and broader in scope than Finding Nothing, spends a single paragraph summarizing this exciting moment of artistic development. But Betts truly dives in, with hundreds of pages of text, photography, excerpted poetry, and various reproductions. He pairs extensive research with a spirited passion for his subject matter, while avoiding the trap of romanticizing his subject. Ultimately, Finding Nothing is an important study of a generation of writers who rejected the view that Vancouver was “an inevitably marginal, desolate space,” by challenging, however imperfectly, the colonial mentality they had inherited and using the “tools of international modernism and avant-gardism” to forge new approaches to art.