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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

The Lion’s Roar

By Susan Stenersen Gerle

A three year old child questions everything. My granddaughter, EmmyLou, was no different as she looked up at me. I was perched on one of the lions guarding the doors of the the old Vancouver Court House, now housing the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“Grandma, why are you sitting on that lion?”

I grinned down at her. “Your Great, Great, Great Grandpa Johnston carved this lion. He told his grandson, my Dad, it was the best job he ever had!”


I was prepared for her comment and immediately answered. “He only had to make a cut on the granite when the sculptor came out and gave him directions. Otherwise he got to sit and wait on the steps of the courthouse and watch the world go by.” I climbed off the lion and sat down on the steps, pulling her down beside me. “Just like we are doing right now.”

“Why?’ I remember when her uncle and mother were little. Sometimes I’d count the number of whys they said each day but usually I gave up Their little minds were huge sponges, absorbing all the answers I could throw at them and the questions were endless. It was important for me to tell them stories of their heritage. Now I could also share the stories with my granddaughter.

“Your family is part of the history of Vancouver. Great Uncle Robert Johnston traveled from New Brunswick in 1888 during the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway to BC. His younger brother, John Alexander, joined him in 1896. John was my Great Grandpa and he was a stone cutter. John and Robert’s mother and other brothers and sister came in 1899 after their father died. My Great Grandma, Ida Craig, came out in 1900 to marry Great Grandpa John.”

EmmyLou looked confused with all the information I was giving her but a moment later she suddenly smiled. “Mommy and Daddy are married.”

“Yes they are sweetie.”

“Did Great Grandma and Grandpa have a big wedding on the beach too?” EmmyLou’s memory brought up the vision of her parent’s wedding pictures.

“I think they had a little wedding in the house at 887 Richards Street.”

“Can we go see their house and visit them?”

How does one explain the concept of time to a three year old? A hundred years had passed by.

“ Great Grandpa and Grandma moved away and eventually died. The house was torn down.”


“The house and Great Grandma and Grandpa were very old.” I quickly changed the subject before ten more whys followed.

“I used to go to the Bay with my Grandma and Grandpa.” There was no sense telling her about my trips to Woodwards and Eaton’s and the White Lunch, long gone from the neighbourhood.

“Mommy and I walk to the Bay sometimes. We go shopping and look at things.”

“Maybe you and I should go shopping there too, just like I used to do with my Grandma.”

“Before we go shopping, Grandma, I want to sit on the lion too.”

I took her small hand and we made our way up the stairs. I helped her climb up and settle on to the back of the lion, just as my Grandmother had done with me sixty years before.

The stone was cold and smooth but EmmyLou reached out and patted the lion’s mane anyway.
“Nice kitty cat.” I wasn’t surprised to hear the sound of a lion roaring coming from her shortly after.

I helped her down a few minutes later and we continued on our journey through downtown. I realized how lucky I was to be able to share parts of my childhood stories with my granddaughter.

Great Uncle Robert Johnston, the first one to come west to Vancouver, was a proud Vancouverite. His picture hangs in the BC Sports Hall of Fame as an unbeatable Sculler in the Pacific Northwest.

My Grandma, Catherine, was the first child born while Great Grandma and Grandpa Johnston still lived at the house on Richards Street. Shortly after, her parents built their own home on the south side of False Creek at 761 8th Ave. W. By then, Great Grandpa was well established as a stone cutter with Monument Works. He worked on the Heather Pavilion at Vancouver General Hospital and Vancouver Normal School as well as the Empress Hotel. In 1910 he worked with John Bruce, the sculptor who designed the lions. They were carved from granite quarried from Nelson Island.

In 1912, Great Grandma and Grandpa decided that the city was no place to raise children properly. The population of Vancouver was already over 100,000 people. They moved out to the Fraser Valley to farm but Great Grandpa Johnston also continued to work as a stone cutter in Vancouver.

There are so many memories for me each time I come to visit my granddaughter and now she is old enough to understand them. Luckily, my Grandma Catherine took an interest in the family history and gathered letters and pictures for 30 years before she passed away in 1983. Her nephew, Craig Johnston, took over and is still gathering information.

We finally got back to her family condo on Barclay Street in Vancouver’s west end. She was excited to see her mother, Paula, who immediately asked her daughter, “So, what did you and Grandma do?”

EmmyLou thought for a moment and then explained, “Mommy, I made Great Grandpa’s lion roar!”

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