Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

The Potemkin Province

Sep 1, 2008

The Potemkin Province

The story goes that in 1787 the Russian general Prince Grigori Potemkin erected the facades of village buildings along the banks of the Dneiper River. When his former lover, Empress Catherine the Great, passed by on a tour of her Crimean territories, she was fooled into thinking that the mock villages actually existed and was impressed at the value of her new acquisitions and the accomplishments of her Prince. Ever since, the phrase “Potemkin village” has been used to indicate a situation where a false front disguises or distorts a less pleasant hidden reality. 

With the widespread use of the latest tourist slogan, “The Best Place on Earth”, British Columbia has elevated itself to the ranks of a “Potemkin Province”, a place of false fronts and pretense, marketed to the world as a beauty spot of unlimited abundance in order to obscure a history of pillage and environmental embarrassments.


Many British Columbians see themselves as living in paradise, the envy of the world. As our homegrown humorist Eric Nicol once observed, “British Columbians like to think of their province as a large body of land entirely surrounded by envy”. While many outsiders think of BC, when they think of it at all, as a rain-sodden outpost of meagre civilization, a province with too much geography and not enough industry, we who are privileged to live here insist that it is, well, the best place on earth.

            This smug and grandiose delusion is of relatively recent vintage. There was a time, long before the invention of tourism, when visitors to British Columbia saw it as the edge of nowhere, home to cannibals and some of the foulest weather on the planet. “This Coast is as Silent and Solatary [sic] as the House of death,” moaned the captain of one early-nineteenth-century trading vessel, “and I wish that I was as Clear from it I would take Verry good Care that no man Should Ever Catch me in this part of the world again.” Early traders called the interior of the province “The Siberia of the Fur Trade”, a reference to its isolation and forbidding winters. Later colonists huddled in their scattered settlements, fearful of the local Indians, occasionally dispatching gunboats to enforce their notional authority. They appreciated the wealth that BC offered in the form of plentiful natural resources, but they never would have thought they were living at the centre of the world. That was still London or San Francisco.

            As the twentieth century began, British Columbians, or at least those involved in the tourist trade, began to feel the need to elevate their rhetoric in order to attract visitors to the mountain parks and coastal hideaways. Once they had conjured up a place that was more playground than province, they inevitably began to believe their own publicity. Tourist brochures presented a fabricated image of the place, accompanied by breathtaking photographs of the wild coast or the majestic Interior, usually with a totem pole somewhere in the foreground. Early slogans that were used to sum up life here included  “The Evergreen Playground”, “Always Cool, Never Cold”, “The Playground of North America”, and, until very recently, “Beautiful British Columbia”.

            Of course these phrases give a partial, cartoonish character to the province. One does not look to the literature of tourist promotion for subtlety or accuracy. Still, to call oneself  “The Playground of North America”, or even “Beautiful British Columbia”, is a far cry from the triumphalist bombast of “The Best Place on Earth”. For the use of the superlative we must thank the Liberal government of Premier Gordon Campbell which began deploying the phrase as the focus of an advertising campaign in 2004.

British Columbia is unique in claiming that it is the “best” anything, anywhere. None of the other Canadian provinces feels the need for such a boastful slogan. The state of New Mexico appears to go one giant step further than BC; it bills itself as “The Best Place in the Universe”. But presumably this is a sly reference to the infamous alien spacecraft that supposedly crashed near the town of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and is done with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The government of British Columbia, on the other hand, displays no sense of humour whatsover about its claim. The Liberals firmly believe that our province is the best place on earth because they have made it so. (I suppose we should be thankful they did not decide to call us the best people on earth.) To the rest of us, it sounds a bit like the answer to one of the CBC’s sophomoric competitions, doesn’t it? Who are the ten most significant Canadians? Where are the three most important places in Canada? What is the Best Place On Earth?

In reality, of course, British Columbia is not a playground. Behind the billboard façade of ski slopes and totem poles, the Potemkin Province is a resource frontier and always has been. The earliest fur traders who arrived in the 1780s found the coastal kelp beds full of sea otter whose thick pelts they obtained from the local First Nations. It is estimated that before the trade laid waste to coastal waters, as many as 300,000 of these cuddly creatures inhabited the North Pacific basin. Within a few decades, otter skins had become a rare commodity and the newcomers had to turn their attention to other resources.

            Beginning with the sea otter, we have a long history of intolerance and waste when it comes to marine animals. Large whale species such as humpback, minke and gray were hunted from shore-based whaling operations starting in the 1860s. Humpbacks are a case in point. The last of these great behemoths were massacred on an August day in 1952.  “I will never forget that day,” recalled fisherman Billy Proctor, the venerable sage of Echo Bay in the Broughton Archipelago. “I was trolling in the mouth of Knight Inlet, and I seen the old Nahmint coming out towing all the old whales alongside. I just about cried...That was the last of the humpbacks in the mainland.” The Nahmint was a thirty-metre steel catcher boat belonging to the last whaling station on the coast at Coal Harbour in Quatsino Sound on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Most of the whales it relied on came from outside waters, but during the 1950s it mopped up the remnant populations in the inner waters inlet by inlet until there were no survivors. The station closed in 1967, but by then there were no whales left anyway. They have only recently begun returning.

            Seals and sea lions also fell victim to human predators, shot for their skins or because they were thought to be pests that threatened the commercial fishery. Between 1913 and 1969, more than 200,000 harbour seals were killed in BC for pelts and bounties. Sea lion rookeries were blown up with dynamite in the name of predator control. A recent book has documented how basking sharks, the second largest fish in the world, were all but eradicated from the coast by fisheries officers hunting them down and slicing them in half with a giant knife mounted on the bow of a boat.

Killer whales are a special case because they are considered the iconic animal of the coast with visitors coming from around the world to get a look at one in the wild. Yet forty years ago they were shot on sight or captured for sale to American aquariums. The hunt was stopped just this side of extinction. Basically, it was open season on any marine animal that seemed to interfere with the salmon fishery or had some commercial value of its own.

            The experience of the sea otters and the whales has been repeated time and again on the coast. No sooner has a resource – animal, mineral or plant – been identified as valuable to the outside world than it is harvested to the point of extinction. Whether it was the old-growth forests or salmon streams destroyed by logging, the pattern was the same. Nature was commodified and the commodities were harvested without thought for the future.

            Nor does this attitude belong to the past. The newspaper brings daily reminders that in the Potemkin Province, development trumps conservation. A few months ago local politicians were on the verge of allowing the construction of a housing development at the mouth of the Adams River, a project which would have threatened one of the most plentiful salmon runs in the world. Local protest stopped the project just in time. Similarly, fish farms are allowed to threaten wild salmon stocks on the coast, while it is only a matter of time before the government gives in to the economic imperative and allows drilling for oil in offshore waters. Add to this the devastation of the pine-beetle plague in the Interior and it is hard not to conclude that the best place on earth is looking the worse for wear.

Many British Columbians are nature worshippers, happiest when they are kayaking down a white-water rapid or bounding along a mountain trail. They may approve of the slogan because they believe it. The rest of us are expected to swallow our embarrassment and go along with the illusion. Since the government began using its bloviated catchphrase, at least one online petition has sprung up asking that it be rescinded. The petition calls it “embarrassingly arrogant”, “vague and mostly meaningless”, “presumptuous and distasteful”, and “shockingly pretentious”. They get no argument from me. But in the Potemkin Province, there is little hope that saner, less swollen heads will prevail.

Of course, BC is a beautiful place. Many places are. But the best place on earth? Not likely. No place is. At the same time, it is our place, a unique place, and it is our responsibility not to wreck it. To date we haven’t been doing a very good job. The most irritating thing about the Liberals’ slogan is that it tries to put a happy face on failure. We’ve been given a part of the world to look after and collectively we should be ashamed of ourselves for the clumsy way we have mishandled it. What we need from our government is a call to action, not an excuse to be complacent.