Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Bike to Work Week

May 24, 2017


Next week, May 29-June 4 is Bike to Work Week in Vancouver. 

Everything old is new again, including bike commuting. The inaugural bicycle in the city was owned by Dr. Robert Mathison, a dentist, who imported it from Ontario in 1887. According to the first archivist, Major James Matthews, by 1900 a bicycle "craze" had swept the city. "Almost every family had at least one," he wrote, "some had more."

"The bicycle became so popular," Matthews continued, "that racks were put up in the vestibules of the small office buildings to receive the 'machines' of those employed there and who had business there. At the City Hall, there was a long rack which would accommodate perhaps two dozen bicycles. Similar racks existed at the C.P.R. Depot, and also public places such as parks, post office and hotel lobbies.

"Dealers in bicycles did a 'land office' business, the managers of wholesale bicycle firms were important men and well known. Repairs shops were many; a knowledge of the merits or demerits of the different makes was essential to any young person with pretences of being up-to-date, and the performance of the best and fastest riders at the big bicycle meetings at Brockton Point and elsewhere were discussed on the corner, in the drawing room and the newspapers."

Nowadays Vancouverites work themselves into a lather about the pros and cons of bicycle lanes on downtown streets, but it turns out they are nothing new. Again, Major Matthews, writing about the early 1900s. "The 'machines' were so numerous that the City Council ordered special bicycle paths constructed on those streets which were most frequently used. These paths were invariably cinder surfaced, and rolled flat, and ran along the edge of the street between the gutter and wooden sidewalk. They were about six feet wide, and constantly kept in order, level and smooth, by city workmen."

The heyday of the bicycle was shortlived. In the pre-World-War-One period it was replaced by the streetcar and then the automobile as the main mode of urban transportation. Cycling continued to be a popular leisure activity, but its days as a commuter vehicle were over. At least until more recently.

You can find out more about Bike to Work Week here. (Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives CVA466-161903)

May 22, 2017

Congratulations to Rolf Knight who has been named this year's winner of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for a BC writer with a long and meritorious career.

I keep two of Knight's books close to hand. His Indians at Work is a compendious account of the Aboriginal labour force in BC, pathbreaking when it first...

May 18, 2017

Re. N8.2.jpg

I’ve recently been poking around the history of squatting in Vancouver. Issues of homelessness and transiency go right back to the origins of the city. Gassy Jack himself was a squatter and of course you could argue that we are all squatters, on native land.

During the Dirty Thirties the men in the photograph were among the thousands of single unemployed who arrived in the...

May 15, 2017

I've been thinking about adding to the din about cultural appropriation but since I've written an entire book that is mostly about the subject I thought I'd leave it at that.

Except to recommend that if you want to educate yourself about the issue, watch Jesse Wente's interview on CBC television, or listen to...

May 6, 2017

With next week's provincial election looming, and the Green Party looking to play a bit of the spoiler, I've been asked several times in the last few days whether BC has ever had a minority government. (Perhaps it is because I edited a giant encyclopedia about the province that people think I know stuff like that.)

To my shame, I didn't actually know, but I hazarded a guess. Yes, once in 1952, when the Social Credit Party was just getting started. In that year's vote, the Social...

May 4, 2017


My history of the district of North Vancouver, Where Mountains Meet the Sea, has been shortlisted by the BC Historical Federation for one of its book prizes

I'll be in Chilliwack later in the month when the envelope is opened at the BCHF annual meeting...