Pidgin: When the Slate's Wiped Clean
Coal Harbour: A Cautionary Tale About Lost Narratives
Ever strolled the Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes?
It’s pretty enough. But it doesn’t tell you much about a place that’s been lived in for upwards of 2000 years. Occupied long before the modern notion of a Riviera retreat for aristocrats, plutocrats and movie types.
The buildings facing the Mediterranean along the Croisette are newish by old world standards, and rather competitive in scale. Many broadcast a kind of deluxe, come hither anonymity. The roadway in front bustles, the esplanade is long and wide, lined with tall, well managed palms that permit clutter-free photo ops above the umbrella jammed beach.
It’s all very nice, and tidy. More’s the pity, because this sort of development has turned a stretch of photogenic coast into a cypher, revealing next to nothing about what went on before the critics started handing out Palmes d’Or. To sample an older, much tastier narrative, you have to hike over to the Vieux Port and wander the narrow streets behind it. Even there, the context is radically altered by the demands of a century-plus love affair with tourism. But the neighbourhood still has murmurs of a deeper, less orderly past.
When The Archivists walked Vancouver’s Coal Harbour waterfront, we had what we might cheekily call a “Croisette moment.” A disconnect, prompted by the feeling that, while we were in an attractive enough place, it all felt a bit too new and too worked on. Being the story hounds we are, our big question was: “What happened here before the radical makeover?"
We found answers in a basic enough premise: that every inhabited location perches on top of a midden, or trash pile, of artifact and lore. And when that rich cache is unearthed, we have the means for better knowing the neighbourhood. We are happy to push our premise further, and argue that when you know more about a place you won’t feel the same about it.
What happened here before the radical makeover?
Here are a few stories we found hidden under the veneer of Coal Harbour’s elegant new urban order.
For starters, this small indent of ocean had other names and purposes in place for thousands of years. We found an early map with the word P'k'als superimposed over Coal Harbour, and another where it referred to a xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) landmark closer to current-day Granville Street. There was a place farther to the west near Lost Lagoon that Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) people named Ch’elxwa’7elch (Which we’ve seen translated as “get dry”). We are curious about how this stretch of land and water received these names, and how such words might help us pick up threads of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language, culture, and history that have been absent from our civic discussion for about two-hundred years.
In one of only a few recorded interviews, August Jack Xats'alanexw(Khatsahlano) explained to Vancouver’s first archivist, Major James Skitt Matthews, how early Ch’elxwa’7elch served as a refuge for canoes from storms on the Salish Sea. The area became a mudflat when the tide receded and was a rich source of clams, smelt, herring, ducks, and berries. By 1885, the abundant marine life was driven away by overfishing and pollution from nearby Spratt’s Oilery.
The velocity and effort to record stories quickened as soon as colonists arrived, and by the middle of the 19th century the shore had a new name: Coal Harbour. It was bestowed by Colonel Moody, of Royal Engineers’ fame, when he verified earlier findings that the bluffs above the water showed traces of coal. The potential for readily available industrial fuel caused a brief flutter of speculation, but came to nothing and the newcomers’ ambitions refocused. But the name stuck.
For starters, this small indent of ocean had other names and purposes in place for thousands of years.
Before the colonel and any significant numbers of British settlers, it surprised us to know that a contingent of Hawaiians were already living around Burrard Inlet. They came in the early 19th century as Hudson’s Bay Company employees. When the drawing of the international border sealed the fate of the company’s fur trade monopoly, some stayed on. A few settled near the foot of Denman Street. These men, often known only by their last names (Eihu, Nahanee, Keamo and Nahu) courted and married Sḵwx̱wú7mesh women, cleared a patch of rainforest to make a farm and raised families. The tiny community became known as Kanaka Ranch; Kanaka being the Hawaiian word for human.
Settling on land was a more informal affair in those days, and few people worried about the legal jargon encumbering the European idea of property ownership. These Hawaiian-Sḵwx̱wú7mesh families of Kanaka Ranch were probably unaware that three Englishmen, would-be potters and brickmakers, had already bought and paid $1,500 for the block of land (called Government Lot 185) that took in their small settlement, and all of the present-day West End. The story of the “Three Greenhorns” has attracted a lot of press over the past 100 years; Kanaka Ranch, not so much. We’re inclined to ask why such vibrant lore lacks surface-level representation. Because, if it were present, it would probably adjust our view of Coal Harbour, and the ranch, which is part of today’s Devonian Park.
And, as usual, there was the railroad. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) had the biggest hand in reshaping the 19th century identity of Coal Harbour. The great nation building project was literally the talk of the colony, with regular, sometimes breathless updates about progress posted in Victoria’s Daily Colonist. It was the Confederation deal maker for the west coast and hopes were high that the line, when completed, would transform a backwater into a vital link of Britain’s globe girdling empire.
The story of the “Three Greenhorns” has attracted a lot of press over the past 100 years; Kanaka Ranch, not so much. We’re inclined to ask why such vibrant lore lacks surface-level representation.
As soon as the CPR arrived in Vancouver, industry boomed, especially in the eastern end of Coal Harbour, quickly muscling out agriculture and traditional food harvest as the economic mainstay. The shore was pushed out – to make room for a hodge-podge of rail yards, lumber mills and small marine businesses—transforming the quiet cove beyond recognition. Old photos and maps give a feel for Coal Harbour’s new industrial identity – there are shots of long, elegantly curved wooden keels being fashioned, workplaces that were no more than shacks, stark industrial silhouettes, odd looking industrial equipment and products that would do a steampunker proud, and the faces of men marked with a factory worker’s pride and exhaustion.
Woven into these changes is the ongoing tale of Kanaka Ranch women―among them, Mary See-em-ia, Maggie McPhee and Minnie McCord Smith. They added significant material to the sometimes turbulent narrative of Coal Harbour; ran the farm and households, sold produce and raised kids while their men worked the docks and mills of the town farther to the east. One of Minnie’s childhood memories offers a clue about the way of life; how apples “big as saucers” planted by her grandmother were prized everywhere.
Her aunt Mary, today celebrated by modern historians such as Jean Barman, was a matriarch of exceptional resolve. She took up the defense of the community when lawyers and land title holders tried to displace the Ranch folk, winning the right to continue living in her home, even though she had no proof of legal ownership. This account foreshadows recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings validating the stewardship and land rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Coal Harbour has often been ground zero for debates about exclusion and the racial violence that marked the first century of Vancouver. One man, John McDougal, defied prevailing conventions by refusing to fire Chinese labourers who had helped build the railway and were being employed at the time to clear land along Coal Harbour. McDougal’s story is mired in speculation: he might have been a champion of decency, or just a tough-minded opportunist with a nose for profit. Either way, he was not a man to run from a threat. His decision helped set off the first of the city’s race riots, and turned him, temporarily, into a figure of public scorn.
Later, just off the shore of Coal Harbour, many of us know some part of the harrowing story of immigrants from British India trapped on a ship by public opposition to their settling in Canada. The migrants on the Komagata Maru were turned back, and it took some sixty or more years for their struggle to be acknowledged. There is an esplanade plaque today that cites the incident. At the time, though, these disheartened immigrants would never have guessed that their story would make its way into Canadian history books, and be one of the sparks for a nation-wide movement of healing.
Then there was the arena that showed two sides; one, as the overgrown poster child for a development juggernaut that had been set loose on the city; the other, as a monument to civic pride and home to many great moments – such as Vancouver’s first and only Stanley Cup win. Regardless of which side you come down on, one thing is certain: Denman Arena had no shortage of spectacle and drama. That raucous energy later spilled over into an adjacent auditorium which was the toast of Vancouver’s 1950s entertainment scene. Builder Joe Patrick, and his two sons Frank and Lester, gave juice to a story of outsized entrepreneurial dreams, and even bigger sports ambitions. The property was bought and sold over the years, but the family’s legacy is secured in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Denman Arena’s cavernous space wasn’t just a venue for contests and concerts. It and the auditorium were centre stage for people with new ideas; for religious gatherings, military mustering, and political crusades. It was the epicentre of US singer and activist Paul Robeson’s face off against Canadian authorities during the McCarthy era; where Aimee Semple McPherson thumped her bible for jubilant believers; and where a promising new politician called John Diefenbaker launched his successful campaign for high office.
This story list is short, a sampling only of what isn’t readily discernible at ground level along Coal Harbour’s newish seawall. History’s been cleansed, in favour of a less contentious narrative centred more on the view.
But something interesting happened when we traced this lore back to its place of origin. Knowing about Mary See-em-ia, Joe Nahanee, John McDougal and the 376 British Indian citizens on the Komagata Maru changes everything. The place comes alive. It was startling because these stories were always here. We began to see Coal Harbour as unique, brimming with a potency found nowhere else.
Okay, we know lots went on in Coal Harbour; lots that makes the place stand out. So why were the stories rubbed away? Why weren’t they part of the makeover? Why did we have to go to so much trouble hunting for them, and unearthing them, so we could better know Coal Harbour?
Finding these stories also highlights a key finding; once you begin folding a multilayered past back into a present-day location, a kind of alchemical change happens. Your point of view about the place changes. When your point of view changes there’s a good chance a more robust conversation about the site will take shape.
So let’s chat.
To get things started, here is a “what if” reverie, powered by the stories we found. It may be judged too fanciful or financially burdensome, but it offers up the possibility of letting one or two historical cues serve as starting points for a more engaging conversation about where we live. We’d like to suggest a judicious investment in reviving some of the land enterprises that were hallmarks of Coal Harbour’s past. We figure, since “rewilding” now has a place our vocabulary, how about the idea of “reculturing?”
For instance, consider introducing a Kanaka Ranch public apple orchard or a garden that educates us about the abundance of indigenous plants this place once fostered. Get those saucer-sized apples back to market, or find out how to harvest and sauté tasty Hemlock cones. Or, set aside a wedge of the yacht-clogged basin and rebuild a couple of ocean coves for the farming of clams, mussels and varieties of other marine bounty. Taking inspiration from Haida Gwaii and Denali, perhaps it’s time to return the name ‘Lost Lagoon’ and restore Ch’elxwa’7elch?
These efforts at reculturing could set us in the direction of a new kind of engagement with public spaces. They offer up a chance to go beyond the brief, and not too meaningful, experience of a Riviera-style photo op. It's in our best interest to get reacquainted with the stories about where we live, the idea of inclusivity, and a deeper discussion about redress and the future of this place.
Our Research Drawer:
- ‘Conversations with Khatsahlano, 1932-1954’, August Jack Xats'alanexw and Major J. S. Matthews
- 'Denman Arena: Canada's First Artificial Rink', Greatest Hockey Legends, Joe Pelletier
- 'Early Vancouver', City of Vancouver Archives, Major J.S. Matthews
- 'Historical Markers', Vancouver Historical Society
- 'Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, & Inuit Issues in Canada', Chelsea Vowel
- 'Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History', Sean Kheraj
- 'Kanaka Heritage Lives on in BC', KnowBC, Daniel Francis
- 'Making Vancouver: Class, Status, and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913', Robert A.J. McDonald
- 'Our History Map', Musqueam Indian Band
- 'Paul Robeson at the Peace Arch', KnowBC, Daniel Francis
- 'Stanley Park's Secret', Jean Barman
- 'Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples', ICTINC, Bob Joseph
- 'Voices of the Canoe: Squamish Map Traditional Place Names', UBC Museum of Anthropology
Written by: John Wellwood
Researched and Edited by: John Wellwood and Todd Smith
Visual Design: Todd Smith