KnowBC Launches Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Nov 15, 2009 - 3 comments

Today the KnowBC blog introduces something completely different.

For the past few years I (that`s me, Daniel Francis, editor of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia) have been writing a history of coastal BC, titled Where Mountains Meet the Sea. It is a narrative account of coastal BC since contact, synthesizing much of the information that currently exists in a wide variety of other sources.

Some day Where Mountains Meet the Sea will be published as a book. Meanwhile I have decided to serialize the content here on the blog. Starting today I am going to post several thousand words of the history each Sunday. Today is the Introduction; next week the narrative begins with the arrival of European explorers on the coast. (The introduction explains why I begin there.)

I will label each post `coast history` so that readers wishing to consult earlier posts need only click on the label. The entire `book` will also be indexed via the blog`s search function.

This is a bit of an experiment. There may well be wrinkles, but we`ll get them ironed out. Naturally all comments are welcome. Let`s get started...


A History of Coastal British Columbia
By Daniel Francis


As a youngster growing up in Vancouver, I did not know that coastal British Columbia existed. No one told me it was there. The beach a few blocks from our house was one of my favourite places to walk, swim and sunbathe, yet I never thought to wonder about the world that spread beyond the horizon. There was no mention of it at school, where we busily memorized the names and histories of Britain’s colonial possessions. My parents had moved to BC from Ontario and Saskatchewan in the 1930s. They were urban professionals with no connection to the hinterland. There were argilite carvings on the sidetables in the living room of our house, but no one thought to explain to me their origins at Slatechuck Mountain on Haida Gwaii. I did not know the language of the coast; did not even know there was a language that I did not know. The terms gyppo, steam donkey, float house and midden meant nothing to me; I would have laughed at the absurdity of them.

The one exception was Bowen Island, a small island in Howe Sound less than an hour from downtown Vancouver. My family began holidaying there in the 1950s and my parents eventually built a house where I spent all my youthful summers and most of my winter weekends. In the early days, sannies carried us to the island. Later my father acquired his own speedboat, or we travelled by car ferry. It was a far cry from a lonely float house at a coastal logging show, or a cannery in Rivers Inlet, or a stump ranch up some fog-shrouded inlet. But it was a beginning, and it must have imprinted somewhere on my imagination. Later, sailing along the coast with my sister and her husband in their boat, I began to appreciate its beauty and became intrigued by its history. This place, I concluded, was equal to any other region of the world. Why not tell its story?

Depending on one’s point of view, the coast historically was either at the centre or on the margins. To the First Nations people, who were living here when the Europeans arrived, the coast was home, the centre of the known world. It was the location of their history and the source of their spirituality. The universe was created right here. To the European latecomers, on the other hand, the coast was an isolated wilderness at the edge of the known world.

To some degree this difference of perspective has persisted to the present day. EuroCanadians have always tended to situate coastal British Columbia in relation to somewhere else, as a margin rather than a centre. The coast is “land’s end”; it lies on the edge of the Pacific Rim; it is the west coast of Canada. For the purposes of this history, however, the coast is back at the centre of the story.

There have been many books written about coastal British Columbia but most of them deal with a particular aspect of the history, whether it is exploration, or logging, or the fishing industry, or marine navigation, or whatever. What I hope to accomplish in Where Mountains Meet the Sea is to weave these disparate threads into a single narrative account of life on the coast.

It must be emphasized that the beginning of a European presence here should not be confused with the beginning of history. Europeans entered a world with its own long complicated past about which they knew nothing. “From our perspective,” the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation has written, “Europeans did not ‘discover’ this part of the world, nor is the European arrival the single most important event in our history.” But it is with this arrival that I choose to begin my story, largely because to go back farther requires a knowledge of ethnography and archaeology that I do not possess, and also because my story is going to be long enough without extending it back into the mists of pre-recorded time.

While I was working on this book, a friend who has spent a lot of time in his boat cruising the coast, suggested that I call it “The Perfect Place”. While I know what he meant, he was wrong of course. No place is perfect. As we shall see, many imperfect things have happened here. But if coastal British Columbia is not perfect, it is certainly special and it is the special quality of life here that I hope to convey in what follows.