The native war canoes swept across Victoria’s Harbour, synchronized paddles flashing as they moved through the narrows now spanned by the Johnson Street Bridge, across the Inner Harbour and then through “the Gorge” to the calm of its inland Gorge Waterway and a picnic end to the day.
Leading this First Nations procession and providing the perfect paddle-beat was a slow-speed launch carrying a military band dressed in the costume of early traders and explorers of the 1700s.
In the lead Canoe were the Nitinaht, the paddlers dressed in white. Then came the Clo-oose in light blue; the Malahat wearing pink; then West Saanich and Quamichan – each wearing yellow. Close behind came the Khenipsen in green then Kuper Island, dark blue. The Tsawout of South Saanich sporting blue and yellow were followed by Nanaimo in red and white.
Also included were three canoes billed simply as two “Americans” – one wearing green and white, the other pink and yellow and a “Clam-Clam-A-Litz” in red and green.
Following the war canoes was a motor launch carrying Sir Robert Kindersley, Governor of the Hudson Bay Company; his wife; and a gaggle of HBC head office types out west to celebrate the company’s 250th founding anniversary – and taking a look at its latest western Canada development, a brand-new department store.
It was May 1920, and for Victoria, a visit from HBC’s head honcho, who was also a Knight of the Realm, was as close as local toffs could get to royal celebrations without having to say “Your Majesty.”
The First World War and Canada’s military record in France, at sea and in the air, had done much to move Canada from the role of remote country cousin to solid, loyal member of the British Commonwealth family. And no province cherished that growing up more than Canada’s far western outpost which, despite frequent cries for change, clung to the British in its provincial name and its Queen’s name – Victoria – for the capital city.
When Sir Robert and Lady Kindersley were later welcomed to Government House for a private dinner with 40 guests, I’m sure Sir Robert and his wife would have felt right at home. With his grand, new, company store looking for a fair slice of a growing city’s prosperity, all the stops would have been pulled.
In addition to the war canoe procession – a grand spectacle in its own right –the traditional Victoria Day parade stretching “more than two miles” and jammed with marching bands, floats – and new-fangled motor vehicles – had jammed city streets.
It was during Sir Robert’s visit that the Vancouver Island Automobile Club organized an adventurous “motor excursion” from Victoria City Hall to Elk Lake. There had been talk afoot about taxpayers buying Elk and Beaver lakes and preserving the area in perpetuity.
The Colonist newspaper reported that 40 residents signed up for “the excursion” but didn’t specify whether that meant 40 cars and drivers or 10 cars with a driver and three passengers. Whatever, it was by all accounts a great success leaving city hall at 2:30 p.m. precisely and traversing “the seven miles to Elk Lake in little over 20 minutes.”
The dream was never wholly fulfilled, but the primary goal of preserving Elk and Beaver lakes for future generations was. And, when urban families are again able to swarm their beaches for summer’s traditional activities, they might whisper a thank you to the folks who, 100 years ago, thought of the future.
What part of the original Elk -Beaver Lake park plan never made the final cut? The original plan saw Elk Lake developed for recreation; great beaches, a bit of fishing and boating, with Beaver Lake proposed as the ideal site for a swimming pool complex.
The swimming pool complex for Beaver never made the map when the property became the fantastic park it is today. I wonder how many, if any, residents or visitors swimming at the modern Commonwealth Pools out Royal Oak way know they are but a hefty stones throw from Beaver Lake where the original dreamers had hoped to see them. Not on the original plan – but close enough to claim a credit.
Final thoughts: That must have been a spectacular sight 100 years ago to watch a dozen or more 40-foot war canoes driving through the ocean, keeping the pride and traditions of their ancestors alive.
It all happened three years before I was born. But I feel quite privileged to have been allowed to wander half a world away from my birth-home and be invited to witness the survival of thousand year old native legends, and the birth of dreams a hundred years ago.
And I wonder what the writers of 2120 will have to say about my generations “gifts” to their way of life?