Discovering Vancouver Island

As well as seeing some of the magnificent Canadian wildlife, my recent visit to Vancouver Island gave me the chance to learn a little about the history and peoples of British Columbia – from the First Nations and the European settlers to the construction of the Rocky Mountain Railway and island life today.

The island has been homeland to many indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

Modern day Vancouver Island celebrates and protects its history by means of inspirational murals of its roots of the First Nations, the pioneers and the Chinese labourers plus much more, all instilled in artwork in the town of Chemainus.

sunset Vancouver Island

Social Wellness Walks

First Nations and European Settlers

The Nuu-chah-nulth span most of the west coast, while the Coast Salish cover the Southeastern Island and southernmost extremities along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The traditions, values and culture are closely tied to the natural local resources such as the abundant salmon. European settlers arrived in the 1700’s, and after the third voyage of Captain James Cook, who spent a month during 1778 at Nootka Sound, on the island’s western coast. Cook claimed it for Great Britain. In 1786 John Meares arrived on the island and set up a single-building trading post near the native village of Yuquot (Friendly Cove) at the entrance to Nootka Sound in 1788. The fur trade became very competitive and eventually reached the island and in part led to a permanent settlement here.

The Chemainus murals

In Chemainus, an outdoor gallery of murals depicts steam ships, tugboats and trains, as well as portraits of tribal braves, and scenes featuring settlers, Chinese labourers, pioneers and others who have contributed to the story of this small Cowichan town.

Chemainus murals

The town is close to the port of Nanaimo and has been an inspiration to visitors and locals alike since one of the residents Karl Schutz, came up with the concept of painting history on the walls. The many elaborate and inspiring murals are now a part of the Festivals of Murals Society who oversee and protect the murals. There are now at least over 3 dozen murals on business walls throughout the downtown Chemainus area.

mural chemainus life and work

Totem Poles of Duncan

Totem poles, made by First Nation craftsmen, are another big Vancouver Island attraction. Around 80 of these can be seen in the nearby town of Duncan, the ‘city of totems’, with towering examples featuring carved figures ravens, whales and other animals as well as human figures.

The Totem pole collection is on traditional lands of the Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) people.

duncan totem pole

The Cowichan tribes have lived here since time immemorial according to their oral tradition and are the largest indigenous population in British Columbia.

The totem pole collection is an on-going project that has developed one of the world’s largest, outdoor collection of publicly displayed totem poles, which began in 1985. Non-native communities started erecting totem poles in prominent locations to encourage visitors to the area in the early 20th century and this has continued. Duncan was officially designated the City of Totems© in 1986.

city of totems

The totem poles represent two cultures coming together. Duncan began as a village called Alderlea in 1887, when William Chalmers Duncan donated farmland for the town site. The City of Duncan was incorporated in 1912. The City shares a boundary with Cowichan Tribes lands in the heart of the City’s commercial core.

Thunderbird Park and the city of Victoria

Thunderbird Park in Victoria, the provincial capital, is another place to admire totem poles. The park takes its name from the mythological Thunderbird of Indigenous North American cultures which is depicted on many totem poles. 

thunderbird park vancouver

First erected on the site in 1940 as part of a conservation effort to preserve some of the region’s rapidly deteriorating Indigenous art. The site was opened as Thunderbird Park in 1941. By 1951 a great many of the totem poles had begun to decay so a restoration program began in 1952 by the British Columbia Museum and has been an ongoing program ever since.

Empress Hotel Vancouver

The city has lots more to offer visitors, as well. This attractive coastal city feels a bit like England with its manicured lawns, hanging flower baskets and colonial buildings such as the domed parliament building and the grand Empress Hotel that overlooks the harbour.  As you might well imagine, the restaurants have a wonderful reputation for amazing fish and chips so while visiting this very British orientated city, sampling the fish and chips is a must.

Named after Queen Victoria, it’s known as the ‘City of Gardens’ and makes a popular day trip from the city of Vancouver on the British Columbia mainland. Is it easy to travel to Victoria from Mainland Vancouver? –  Yes, it can be reached via a scenic ferry ride or a short flight on a float plane, which lands in the harbour and provides passengers with stunning views of the Gulf Islands as you come into land.

hotel and harbour

Canada’s Oldest Chinatown

In complete contrast, Victoria is also home to Canada’s oldest Chinatown, which is the second-oldest one in North America (San Francisco’s is the oldest). The area has stunning architecture with red and gold lanterns strung above the street, its gate is named The Gate of Harmonious Interest, the area has plenty of shops and eateries to discover. Chinatown is also where visitors will find Fan Tan Alley, which is one of the narrowest streets in Canada. Today it houses all kinds of retailers.

island at dusk

Vancouver Island in British Columbia has a very diverse and cultural mix that is full of history and wonder, First Nations settlements and elaborate totem poles in Duncan, along with rich tradition and inspirational artwork in the form of stunning murals in Chemainus.

The capital of Victoria harking back to colonial times with very British themed gardens and architecture and even boasting amazing fish and chips. But how big is Vancouver Island?

The island is 456 km (283 mi) in length, 100 km (62 mi) in width at its widest point. It is the largest island on the west coasts of the Americas, full of character and charm.

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  1. Fab photos from wild and wonderful Vancouver Island!

  2. Dianne Greenlay says:

    Fantastic photography. I am fortunate enough to be able to visit Vancouver Island and neighbouring Salt Spring Island on a yearly basis. Your photos have perfectly captured the area’s essence.

  3. laure lev says:

    Good post/photos, and the point made it looking like England, is so true.

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