Two Days in the life of …

max.detail …Canadian Classroom on Rails

Day 8: Victoria BC

(Yesterday was spent exploring the western terminus of Canadian Pacific: Vancouver, a city created by the Railway’s arrival in 1986.)

Today will be spent in the provincial capital, founded as Fort Camosun by Hudson’s Bay trader James Douglas 40 years before Vancouver. Douglas’ choice of a location at the southern tip of Vancouver Island—the farthest south Canadian point west of Windsor Ontario—proved decisive in extending Canada’s boundary west along the 49th parallel from the east slope of the Rockies to Georgia Strait on the Pacific.

After an early optional continental breakfast about the train, we leave Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station at 7:30 aboard a Pacific Coach Lines bus for Tsawwassen on the boundary where we board a “Spirit” class BC Ferry for Swartz Bay on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

Our trip across Georgia (George III) Strait is the central one-third of the longer downtown-to-downtown intercity route that used to be taken by the Princess ships of CP’s British Columbia Coast Steamship Service.

Canadian Pacific established service to Vancouver in 1891 with arrival of the Empress of India, the first of a fleet of “white empresses” that completed the railway’s Canadian portage with Asia: the Northwest Passage goal of the European explorers of three centuries earlier.

Ten years later CP entered coastal shipping with “Princesses” that ran from Seattle, Washington to Skagway, Alaska, with five links from the mainland to Vancouver Island, including a Vancouver-Victoria-Seattle “Triangle” Route than ran year round, day and night, for half a century.

Canadian Pacific’s last passenger steamer, Princess Patricia, named after the daughter of Queen Victoria (who also gave her name to the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) regiment) returned to Vancouver from her final trip to Alaska on Thanksgiving, October 1981, 90 years after the Empress of India arrived on the West coast.

The “Pat” left a legacy that outlasted her and CP’s passenger services. Under charter to a Seattle businessman in 1964 she pioneered cruises down the coast to the Mexican Riviera when she would otherwise have been laid up for the winter. International “Princess Cruises” began with a Canadian ship. We’ll see her former berth in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

On the open water crossing of Georgia Strait, Canadian Classroom… will gather in a boardroom below the bridge of BC Ferries “Spirit” vessel for a run through of this history and preview of our day in the capital. We’ll then go on deck to enter Active Pass, “the narrows” between Galiano (starboard/right side) and Mayne (port/left), two of BC’s Gulf Islands.

The names of these islands mirror the joint Spanish-British history of our West coast that we saw yesterday in the Spanish Banks on English Bay in Vancouver. We’ll see more evidence of this partnership today.

Farther south are the San Juan Islands, the largest called “Bellevue” by the Hudson Bay traders who built a post there. Sovereignty of these islands almost led to war between Britain and the US in the mid-1800s. This last part of the lower Canada-US border to be settled was sent for arbitration to Kaiser Wilhelm who drew the line across George Strait between BC’s Gulf Islands and Washington State’s San Juan ones.

Our entire time in Victoria will be spent in the old part of the city around the Inner Harbour, an area we can cover by foot. Getting off the bus behind the Fairmont (formerly CP) Empress Hotel named for (who else but?) the City’s namesake in her role as Empress of India, we begin at Thunderbird Park, a collection of totem poles by coastal First Nations.

Beside the Park is Helmcken House, built by one of BC’s first European doctor who married James Douglas/Amelia Connolly’s daughter Cecilia. Three of their seven children, who died in infancy, are buried here.

Walking southward we come to the restored Académie Sainte Anne, founded by a group of sisters from Montréal. Victoria has a French history as well as an English and Spanish one. The region’s first police force was called Les Voltigeurs (“darts”) and was made of up retired voyageurs of the founding Hudson’s Bay Company. Saint Anne’s was one of the first educational institutions. James Douglas’ daughters attended here, and local archives have his correspondence in French with the nuns of the Académie in favour of his daughters’ dancing!

Québécois coming to Victoria are often surprised to discover a vibrant francophone community in a city that emphasizes its English heritage. This is not simply joie de vivre and geography working together in a climate where residents would rather enjoy life than to spend every hour working. It is part of Victoria’s history and goes back to its beginnings.

We continue our walk south to Beacon Hill Park on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the most southerly part of Canada west of Windsor, Ont. and the western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway.

From Beacon Hill we walk the by beaches beside Juan de Fuca Strait (named for the Greek navigator who entered it) to Ogden Point break-water that creates Victoria’s Outer Harbour for deep water shipping. We then follow the shoreline back to the Inner Harbour the James Bay area which contains colourful vintage houses build by generations of sea captains and sailors. Many of these are now B & Bs.

Our exploration around the Inner Harbour includes:

*  Quadra Park, named after Spain’s Commissioner who proved a friend to the Nootka First Nations and to George Vancouver

*  the British Columbia Legislature and Executive buildings and the public service “squirrel cages” behind them

*  the (Fairmont) Empress Hotel

*  Bastion Square site of original fort, and Market Square

*  Victoria’s Chinatown, one of the first in North America

Victoria City Hall’s statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, former Vancouver Island MP who brought BC into Confederation

We’ll cross the new Johnston Street Bridge across the Upper Harbour Gorge into the municipality of Esquimalt, home to a major naval base (Britain’s last on our Pacific Coast, and too large for us to visit today).

We’ll stop at the Princess Mary Restaurant, built around the salvaged dining room of a Canadian Pacific steamer that served the Gulf Islands. Inside are pictures of former CP “princesses” that preceded BC Ferries.

Esquimalt is southern terminus of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E & N) Railway that was the last link of the transcontinental line that was part of the terms by which British Columbia entered Confederation.

The mainline portion of Canadian Pacific was joined up without fanfare (“an iron spike as good as any other” – W.C. Van Horne) The Island line was finished a year later with a golden spike pounded by a silver hammer in the hands of Sir John A. himself near Shawnigan Lake, BC.

VIA Rail service on the line was suspended in 2011. Rehabilitation of the trackage, funded by the federal government, will permit restoration of service in 2015. Canadian Classroom… will ride the line to Nanaimo to BC Ferries, returning to Vancouver spend the night aboard our sleeper.

Vancouver Island contains the last island rail lines in Canada: the E & N and the Canfor logging line we see tomorrow on our ride northward to Port Hardy and the Prince Rupert ferry. The rail lines on Newfoundland, Prince Edward and Manitoulin Islands have all been removed.

Note – why we’re spending twice as long in BC as in other provinces:

Vancouver Island and British Columbia were once separate colonies. This can be seen in the names of BC Ferries’ two super-vessels: Spirit of Vancouver Island and Spirit of British Columbia. Vancouver Island was the first of the two and James Douglas was its second governor.

He was also governor of a second colony founded to establish order on the mainland during the Fraser gold rush. He was the child of a mixed marriage, married lifelong to an aboriginal and respectful of First Nations. Many British traders put away native partners as they rose in society.

For a short time Douglas was governor of both the Island Colony based in Victoria and the mainland one whose capital was at Fort Langley on the Fraser River. When he retired and went to London to be knighted by the Queen, separate governors were appointed to the two jurisdictions.

BC Governor Frederick Seymour managed to persuade Colonial officials Vancouver Island was insolvent and should merge with the mainland. Actually the reverse was true. The mainland economy was depressed after the Gold Rush; on the Island life continued largely unchanged.

Confederation was almost a fait accompli in the east. Nine months later, a motion was introduced in the west coast legislature in support of BC’s joining the Dominion of Canada. Had this come sooner or Seymour not persuaded London, Canada might have admitted two Pacific provinces!

The reverse happened two years earlier on PEI. Representatives of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island met in Charlottetown in 1864 to discuss Maritime union when delegates from Canada crashed the party with a larger Confederation proposal.

Had the Charlottetown conference completed its original task, a single Maritime province, probably named “Acadia,” would have joined with the Canadas, East and West, to set up a more balanced federation along the lines of the four regions provided for in the Canadian Senate.

This would have eliminated the precedent of a postage stamp province that became the model for Manitoba. It would have favoured Sir John’s contention that the West should not be given self-government until its white population and character had become more established. It would have robbed Louis Riel of the success of his first (Red River) uprising.


Day 46: Québec City

How does one dare in a day to “do” 408 years of history in a city that was a global pivot point? Champlain’s moving his HQ from the Bay of Fundy to a narrowing of the waters (what kébec means) on the Saint Lawrence was the first in a four-step change of centre for the West.

The Empire of the Saint Lawrence extending down the Mississippi was a counterweight to the First British Empire along the seacoast.

For two centuries two New World empires were in competition. Then on a single day the fall of one in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham—the same day Britain defeated France in the Battle of Pondicherry in the Indian Ocean—led to world power passing from Paris to London.

But not for long. Seventeen years later the American colonies of the victors, freed of need of British protection against France New and Old, declared their independence economically, politically and militarily.

From that striking out on their own came a new empire superseded Britain’s. Kébec/Kanata—the two at that time were indistinguishable—has been a satellite of all three world empires: the French, the British, the American and, for a lesser time on its Pacific coast, the fourth, earlier Spanish Empire. Québec was pivotal to three of those changes.

Against global tectonics, focusing on first farmers, founding mothers and Fathers of Confederation may seem trifling. Yet to paraphrase Margaret Mead, global events come from local initiatives.

We have 24 hours in a 21st century city that is walled and connected, European and North American, pulled between past stories and future hopes. We’ll spend the time looking for seeds/clues to a bigger picture.

Though we now think of Québec as a city or a province with a boundary at the Ottawa River, it once included a much larger region: what VIA Rail calls the “Windsor-Québec corridor” from the provincial capital south to Canada’s most southerly point. It includes Kingston where Governor Frontenac built Fort Cataraqui and effectively parleyed with the Iroquois. It includes Windsor, near the site of a “Walk that changed the World,” where fruit trees by the railway are offshoots of those planted by Jesuit fathers.

The biblical saint selected by Québec as Patron was also about bigger things than homegrown Hebrew religion. His 4-fold message (a) a non-racial citizenship, (b) social justice, (c) preparing a way in the wilds and (d) something greater to come. Ironically many of those setting groups named after him ignored these especially (a)! To see what the province that claimed him is about, we too must plunge into its stream of life …

Like its English counterpart at the other end of the country, another classic capital that lives in the shadow of a larger city it spawned, the historic centre of Québec is compact. One can get around by foot and cover the highlights in a few hours—though not with a microscope!

So the best plan of attack is not with a detailed plan but an overview, a sense of general direction and a willingness to step our serendipitously. Unlike Victoria, we don’t have to start/end our day with a ferry trip from our base. There is a splendid rail station in town where we can park …

(Last night after leaving Moncton NB we had a 5-part intro including:

*  physical and aboriginal prehistory of the area
*  Champlain: moving a trading base here from Port Royal
*  settlers and mentors: become a homeland
*  invaders: Phipps/Frontenac, Wolf/Montcalm, the Americans
*  the 20th century: 2 world wars, 4 referenda & a quiet revolution)

At 5:30 a.m. our coaches uncoupled from VIA’s Ocean at Charny QU and moved to Québec’s Gare du Palais (lower town) by 7 a.m. Meals today will be off the train; beverages/snacks will be stocked on board.

Overview – morning will be spent in the lower town/along the waterfront. At 11 a.m. we’ll make the climb to the upper town by one of two routes:

*  from the east end (near rail station) approximating the way taken by the emissary who was escorted,  blindfolded,  over obstacles to meet Governor Frontenac with William Phipps’ ultimatum of surrender

*  from Wolf’s Cove – the path taken by British troops led by bilingual Scot Alex Fraser (“fraisière) who persuaded the sentries who intercepted him that he was one of theirs

On arrival at the top the two parties will meet for lunch on the terrasse, make a brief visit to the Plaines d’Abraham for a general amnesty (!) and then visit a number of sites in the upper town including

l’Assemblée Nationale

*  la Citadelle (alternate residence of the Governor General)

*  la Grande Allée (restaurants and Victorian architecture)

An evening banquet will be served in Fairmont’s Château Frontenac, followed by free time in the hotel and a leisurely walk downhill to the Gare du Palais. Our coaches will remain in the terminal overnight and depart 5:35 on VIA train #33 for a five and one half hour trip to Ottawa.