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Why Vancouver? Why You?

Thank you to all entrants. Please visit the semifinalist page to view the top ten essays as determined by our panel and the public voting. Click here to view the top ten

Full Circle

By Rick Archambault


I grew up in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, a lush farming area with Canada’s largest Air Force base (where my father worked) planted in the middle. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to move to “the city.” My father and I didn’t get along, and I felt trapped in a rural community. I didn’t know my place in the world, and I didn’t have much confidence, but I knew I didn’t belong in the Valley.

Vancouver wasn’t on my horizon then. I’d heard about Kitsilano Beach and Mayor Tom Campbell, the hippie-hater, but that was all.

In 1972, after graduating from university in Halifax, I attended Theatre Canada in Saskatoon as part of a university drama production. We travelled by train, but after the festival, when everyone else boarded the east-bound train, I got out on the highway and start hitch-hiking west. I’d heard there were “youth hostels” everywhere to accommodate my generation. We were all hitch-hiking in those days, even timid, shy me.

My first view of Vancouver was from the back seat of someone’s car as we drove west on Broadway. I was amazed: I thought Broadway was only in New York City. My first night’s stay was at the Catholic Charities hostel downtown. The red brick building is still there, unlike so many of the other old places I stayed in back then.

On that trip and subsequent ones, I hitched as far west as Long Beach, looked out across the cold Pacific, and realized I couldn’t get any further away from home without leaving Canada. But Vancouver was a city, and that’s where I wanted to be, so after a couple transcontinental marathons, I stayed.

In the fall of 1973, I went to UBC (because I didn’t know what else to do with my life), and lived in a communal house in Point Grey. Communal houses were common then, and they were vital to my social life. With my house-mates, I climbed Grouse Mountain, not on the Grind but on some “back way” they knew about. We went to Wreck Beach together and to a rock concert at the Coliseum – the biggest venue in town. We shopped at the Naam (when it was a grocery store) and Lifestream, where I learned about vegetarianism and natural foods.

Stuart and Cori, my first and best friends in Vancouver, had just moved there from Edmonton. Together we marvelled at how incredibly green everything was – the lawns, the trees, the parks and boulevards. Though we’d grown up thousands of miles apart, we shared the Canadian experience of long, cold winters. Together we had our first Vancouver Christmas, walking the seawall from English Bay Beach toward Stanley Park. The sun was as warm and yellow as butterscotch, the park was as green as a summer’s day, and we were grinning and grinning at each other and saying, “Can you BELIEVE this? We are so lucky to be here!”

My new-found paradise had its downsides. Although my first autumn started with warm, golden sun into early October, it continued with forty straight days of rain. A house-mate said to me when I complained, “I like walking in the rain. You have to like it. This is Vancouver.”

At first, I attributed another downside of Vancouver life to all that rainfall. I asked myself, “Why don’t people look at you here? Are their eyes down to keep out the rain?”

So many people seemed cold and distant. Coming from warm and friendly Nova Scotia, I was used to getting into conversations with people without much effort, even though I was shy. I’d traded the restrictions of rural life for the freedom of anonymity. To meet people, I had to break out of my shyness and take the initiative.

Sometimes, in those early days, I’d go to Discovery Park on the hillside above Jericho School in Point Grey and look at downtown spread out on its peninsula. I was starting to see Vancouver differently. I’d say to myself, “Vancouver isn’t small, but it’s so far from everything, stuck way out here on the western edge of Canada.” After driving south for hours, you’d be in… Seattle. Drive east for a WHOLE DAY?…Calgary. Underwhelming.

New York, Boston, Montreal and Toronto seemed far away. Had I made the wrong choice? Should I have stayed in the East? But that was before everyone started saying that the future of Canada lay in closer ties with Asia, before architects and urban planners started talking about “Vancouverism,” before Expo 86, before Hong Kong 1997 and Hollywood North. Now I can say to myself: I’m way out on the edge AND at the centre of something, all at once.

I’ve had many homes in Vancouver – west side, east side – but always within sight of the North Shore mountains, always close to the waterfront – English Bay or Burrard Inlet. Oh yes, I wanted to live in a big city, and I love it, but I need to be able to see and feel the land and sea, as I did in Nova Scotia.

I guess there are some things you can’t leave behind.

That’s why I’ve ended up in Strathcona. In the middle of the metropolis, I feel like I live in a village. My wife and I were first attracted by the old houses. In a young city, they reminded me of old homes back East. We were attracted by the small town feeling of Strathcona: its size and shape were limited by the waterfront and the False Creek flats, people knew most of their neighbours (alas, not so much nowadays), and the community felt united in common cause.

Somehow I’ve come full circle. My chosen home is in a part of Vancouver that reminds me of my birthplace, and it’s a bit like the home I needed to escape all those years ago.

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