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Why Vancouver? Why You?

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Bred in the Bone

By Sal Robinson

Vancouver was the magnet that drew my ancestors from across the continent or the hemisphere, so I am genetically predisposed to love it.

Three hundred years after his seafaring antecedent was born in England, a machinist-engineer from New Brunswick moved to Vancouver’s West End with his wife and young son to take a job in the lumber business. That was in 1902, when my grandfather was four years old.

One June morning in 1904, an avid gardener who had emigrated from Edinburgh to Manitoba woke to find his sweet peas frozen. In disgust, he literally pulled up stakes, set his sights on the temperate climate of the west coast and brought his family to Vancouver. My grandmother was his elder daughter and she grew up in Mount Pleasant. She married the lumberman’s son; my mother was born at Bute Street Hospital.

Sometime before 1910, a teenager left his parents’ crowded Donegal home forever to make a life in Canada with his older brother, then employed at Kelly Douglas and living in a cottage he built at 11th and Yew. When that brother married in 1917, his Irish bride’s sister made the trip west to stand up with her. The sister married the younger brother the following year – their wedding photo was taken in Stanley Park at the hollow tree – and my grandparents settled in Kitsilano, where my father was born.

I grew up playing with kids whose family names are on buildings.

Our house was built on Wilson Road before it was 41st Avenue, in Point Grey before it was Vancouver, and we know the name of every person who called it home during one hundred years. Municipal clerk, city librarian, foundry owner, oil company executive, broadcaster: I consider them pioneers and community builders. In their own time, they were simply citizens.

Maybe living in the oldest house in the neighbourhood had something to do with it, but also bred in the bone is my reverence for things historical. My father collected Roman coins and would theorize about what transactions they’d been used in. I gather up items with more local connections. I sip my malt from my Vancouver Golden Jubilee glass and wonder who raised it in celebration it in 1936; I imagine the original owner stubbing out his cigarettes in my 1946 Diamond Jubilee ashtray; when I slit my envelopes with my Bogardus, Wickens & Begg letter opener, I look up at the stained glass windows they might have installed in my living room.

Everything that’s taken place here since Vancouver was incorporated has happened during the lives of people my relatives knew. Vancouver is old enough to fascinate, and young enough that our history is accessible. Thanks to city directories, early building permit applications, archived documents and photographs, we can be biographers of our homes and neighbourhoods and figure out what went before.

The Vancouver of my grandparents’ time was a small town. Now that Kitsilano is my stamping ground, whether I’m researching house histories or bygone breweries, I run into people I “know” or who are my “neighbours” – a hundred years ago. Did they flag down the tram where I wait for the bus? Did they watch salmon leaping up the creeks from the Point Grey foreshore where I wait for the blackberries to ripen? Did their children play on the derelict pilings of the cannery where we take a picnic and watch the sun set? Did the potion in the Vancouver Drug Company bottle I dug up in my back garden cure what ailed whoever took it? Was it the accountant, the optician, or the traveling salesman who tossed it there? Maybe it was the office manager who died young, or his widow who cleared out the medicine cabinet before moving away.

I feel a bond with these first citizens and the lives they made in their up-and-coming new city. Because I love Vancouver, as they did, I hope we don’t get lost in egos and legacies and some measureless goal of being “world class.” Provided we collectively realize that there is a limit to the number of souls our city can sustainably accommodate, and that continued livability depends on our putting a brake on development before that number is passed, our best times are not behind us. Vancouver is still an up-and-coming new city, and I share Pauline Johnson’s affection for what it is, and might be. From “Flint and Feather,” 1912:

“There’s wine in the cup, Vancouver,
And there’s warmth in my heart for you
While I drink to your health,
Your youth and your wealth,
And the things that you yet will do.”

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