Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Counterfactual Vancouver

April 13, 2017

Let's indulge in some counterfactuality.

Recently I was doing some house-sitting in Kitsilano, which gave me a chance to visit some of that neighbourhood's historic sights, one of which is here


on the beach at the bottom of Trafalgar Street, looking across English Bay at the West End.

As you can see, there isn't much there. Now. But at one time the Canadian Pacific Railway had big plans for this beach.

In 1884, when the railway received a huge gift of land from the province, including much of what is now downtown Vancouver, Trafalgar was the western edge of the grant. At the time the railway anticipated bringing its main line all the way across the downtown peninsula out to this point where it planned to build a rail terminal and deep sea port. It seemed like a good way to avoid ships having to navigate the First Narrows into the inner harbour.

As it turned out, this Kitsilano location required the rail line to pass through Kits Point, where the Squamish people had been granted a reserve, and to occupy land that had been designated a naval reserve. So for once the government denied the CPR what it wanted and the terminal was built in the harbour near the foot of Granville Street, with major implications for the future of the new city. Granville Street became a major thoroughfare and the whole centre of gravity of downtown Vancouver shifted westward from the original townsite in Gastown to its present axis.

But what if the original plan had gone through? This beach would have become the Pacific terminus of the transcontinental railway and the entire development of the city would have been different. For one thing, the hill back of the beach


might have become the site of a palatial hotel and a whole other downtown would be perched on the slopes above Kitsilano Beach instead of the peaceful residential neighbourhood that now exists.

At the moment there is a small war memorial in the park at the foot of Trafalgar, but when the dog walkers and cyclists pause to admire the view there is no indication that the history of the city turned at this spot.

April 11, 2017

This past weekend was the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and I found myself getting irritated at the number of times I heard the old cliche that Canada was born at Vimy.

Much of the journalistic and academic commentary I read about the centennial made the point that this was not true, but nonetheless the generals and the politicians repeated it like a mantra. "Canada was born here," our prime minister said in his speech at the Vimy monument in France.

In their new book...

March 22, 2017


Next Tuesday, March 28, I am giving a talk about prohibition, sponsored by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation. Details are here.

You'll note that the event takes place at Hycroft, a fabulous mansion completed in 1911...

March 15, 2017

I recently prepared a short entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia about the Last Spike and I realized once again how important a single nine-day stretch in November 1885 was in the history of the country.

As you know, the Last Spike marked the conclusion of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The company held a modest ceremony at Eagle Pass not far from Revelstoke in the British...

March 10, 2017

The Vancouver Park Board has voted to stop displaying live cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, a real turning point in the history of the city.

Cetaceans have been part of the Aquarium...

March 7, 2017

The shortlist for the BC Book Prizes is out (see it here) and it highlights some pretty interesting history that was published in the province last year.

The list includes Gently to Nagasaki, Joy Kogawa's meditation on historical atrocity; Mark Leiren-Young's account of Moby Doll, The Killer Whale Who Changed the World; a history of the Gitxsan people, Mapping My Way Home, by longtime tribal leader Neil...