I was chatting with a new immigrant to Canada a few days ago; one who had arrived in Victoria in 2018. She felt she was adjusting reasonably well to a new job and making new friends in a new neighbourhood in a new country.
“But it hasn’t always been an easy year,” she said. “When did you come out?”
“June 1948,” I replied.
“Wow! You were a real pioneer. How did you get here?”
It wasn’t the first time I had been “admired” for being a post-war pioneer, nor the first time I had explained that while five days on an ocean liner, then five on a giant trans-continental train got a little wearing towards the end, it was luxury travel when compared with the covered wagons and carts of the real sod-busting pioneers.
British Columbia was well-established by the time I got here, but it hadn’t always been “British” – although the Brits had been poking around the coast since 1579. According to the late Salt Spring Island author Sam Bawlf, Francis Drake – later Sir Francis – circumnavigated Vancouver Island, reached the Queen Charlottes (now Haida Gwaii), then sailed back south via the Inside Passage making landfall at Campbell River and Nanaimo and declaring all the land north of what is now San Francisco to be “New Albion.”
But Drake was more interested in pirating Spanish treasure ships loaded with silver en route to the Royal Court of Spain than establishing wilderness outposts, so he left the Northwest to the Spaniards.
By the 1700s, Spain was the principal power with small outposts dotting the coast and one large one at Nootka here on Vancouver Island under the administration of one Bodega Quadra, and, for a few years, under a Spanish army captain named Don Pedro Alberni. Both are well remembered in the naming of Quadra Island, Quadra Street, the Alberni Canal and Valley and the twin cities of Port Alberni and Alberni, now amalgamated.
It was with Quadra that British Captain George Vancouver eventually negotiated the transfer of ownership of what the Spaniards called New Spain to the British. Quadra’s and Vancouver’s island became British and thus part of Drake’s New Albion. Spain gave up all claims of land between the Pacific Northwest and what was then Spanish California.
It would be close to another 200 years, 1858, before New Albion was officially named British Columbia by Queen Victoria … six years after the first street plan for Victoria and just four years before the City of Victoria was incorporated in 1862.
My “new immigrant” asked what happened to the native tribes living here when Spain, then England, claimed the land for their royal patrons and masters.
“They’re still here,” I said. “Still trying to get at least some of their land back.”
“I didn’t know that,” she replied.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “A lot of British Columbian’s don’t know or don’t care to know. It all happened in the real pioneer days when the white people seriously believed they were a superior race.”
Victoria was growing up from a tent city to a fort to a frontier town to a sophisticated city in the early 1900s. At least, that’s how it was portrayed in the pages of the Colonist … the oldest newspaper in Canada west of Winnipeg.
As the new century took hold, men and women – real pioneers on the edge of the known world – yearned for touches of the civilized world they had left.
In Victoria, a musical society was created and brought to the frontier the most famous violinist of the era, Arthur Hartman, who played to a sold-out audience in the Victoria Theatre.
The following day, the Colonist waxed eloquently in praise of Mr. Hartman’s “playing of selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city …”
With not a dry eye in the house or a native in the audience.