Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

A Tour of Stanley Park

Jun 8, 2013


Stanley Park, Vancouver's jewel of an urban green space, celebrates its 125th anniversary this summer and last week I thought it might be fun to acknowledge the event by tagging along on a walking tour of the park.

Our very knowledgeable tour leader, Jolene Cumming, of the Stanley Park History Group, started us off at the rock garden (above photo) behind the pavilion. The garden was forgotten for years until parts of it were revealed by the devastating 2006 windstorm.

We then walked past a pair of statues commemorating a couple of "dead, white guys": Lord Stanley, the Governor General after whom the park is named, and US President Warren Harding, who gave a speech here during his visit to the city in 1923. (A week later, Harding died in San Francisco; back in Vancouver the Kiwanis Club raised the money to commission his monument, designed by well-known local sculptor Charles Marega.)

The tour proceeded down to the seawall that rings the park and we made our way along to the totem poles at Brockton Point. I've always considered this to be the most ironic place in the city. First of all the authorities evicted the Squamish Nation inhabitants of the park -- a process which Jolene described well -- and then some well-meaning heritage buffs organized this collection of poles from other First Nations up the coast to celebrate the Aboriginal culture that had just been eradicated.

After pausing for a snack, we continued on to the former village of Whoi Whoi, aka Lumberman's Arch, and then back to our starting point.

I was struck as Jolene described the different sites how the narrative of Stanley Park has changed so dramatically since the appearance of Jean Barman's very fine book, Stanley Park's Secrets, in 2005. BB (Before Barman), most people thought that the park was a haven of pristine nature and an example of far-sighted civic leadership. AB (After Barman), a different narrative of dispossession and injustice frames the park history.

I had not realized until I read her book, for example, that City Council, influenced by the Canadian Pacific Railway, persuaded the federal government to set aside land for the park principally to keep it off the real estate market and thereby protect the value of neighbouring lots, most of which were owned by CP. Nor were most of us aware of how the First Nations living in the park were evicted, along with many so-called squatters who had taken up residence along the waterfront. Stanley Park's Secrets is an excellent example of the way that a single book can quite suddenly change the way a community thinks about even its most iconic events and locations.

By the way, the walking tour of the park was sponsored by The History Education Network, based at UBC.