The text on this page merely reflects observations and whimsy by one or more local writers. Please feel free to submit your ideas.
Attempting to describe the city's culture, we only came up with the collection of distinct illustrations below. But it must be noted that these are not distinct groups. There is so much crossover, so many stereotypes being broken.
Like other Canadians, Nanaimo-ites take part in the industrialized, western consciousness — we watch our popular tv shows and we identify with the general culture of North America and the Protestant west. But, remaining slightly on the fringe of that general culture, Nanaimo has some distinct elements that make it romantic and interesting:
|Victorian colony||Pirate town||Music town|
|Multicultural village square||Ghost town||Gulf Island town|
|First Nations town||Chinese-Canadian town||Landscape art gallery|
|Bathtub race course||Outdoor playground||"...little bit redneck"|
(The links will simply bring you down this page)
Nanaimo is only younger than Victoria and Vancouver, as a city (speaking of BC only).
But its story begins 60 million years ago, when huge tracts of swamps and fertile lagoons rotted, and were covered over with sediments. The resulting coal fields became the sites of prosperous towns in Victorian British Columbia, starting with Nanaimo in the early 1850's.
The coal seemed endless, and it was high quality, so Nanaimo grew steadily for the next half century. People came from all over the place to exploit the coal, timber, sandstone, fisheries, and each other. Try to imagine a bustling town described by Charles Dickens, carved out of the mossy, forested coastline of the Gulf Islands region.
North America's last Hudson's Bay Company free-standing bastion (blockhouse) is here in Nanaimo. We call it the Bastion of course, and its cannons are still fired on occasion, inviting citizens to look out across the harbour and to remember ships breaking up under fire 150 years ago, as they tried to land on the shore and pillage the fort. (But, that never actually happened, though the explosion of the Oscar in 1913 was far more exciting, anyway.)
So, what's the big deal about the Bastion? Well, it's our best symbol of what happened to this place, and how most of us got here. It's a very relevant artifact for us, really. It's better than having just a few old muskets, or even a little antique boat. This is a whole playhouse!
There's a story about a bunch of German tourists getting a guided tour in downtown Nanaimo. The local tour guide kept talking about the Bastion, making it sound very ancient (it's 150 years old), until a lady in the group blurted out: "My HOUSE in Germany is FIVE hundred years old! We want to see native stuff!" It seems that the Bastion, the oldest building in Nanaimo and possibly the second oldest in all of BC, will always be more important as a keepsake for Canadians, than as a showpiece for old-world tourists.
Nanaimo is thriving. Nanaimo is dead.
This is an old city (for BC), and no amount of teal-coloured paint will hide the rot at our wharfs. Nanaimo has a Pacific Northwest Gothic thing — you know, that thing with tugboats and ravens and a cloudy sky. It's palpable as you walk downtown, or explore the thunderous beaches and misty forests.
It's a "ghost town" to the extent that there was a boom and it's over. We're no longer digging millions of tons of high-grade coal out of the ground, like we did in the Victorian era and onward into the first third of the twentieth century. There were ridiculous amounts of money moving around in those days, and the streets of Nanaimo were packed by a much denser population. It must have been very cool, to be in a seaside city like Nanaimo in the days before television and cars.
The expansion of the city northward, with big-box stores and huge malls every few blocks along the highway, has drained the crowds out of the older, more interesting part of Nanaimo. Many residents never even come downtown. But that's changing.
Nanaimo is also a ghost town on account of its...ghosts. Whether or not you believe in the paranormal, you must be sensitive to the massive historic legacy everywhere you look: dilapidated buildings, old bottles poking out of colourful dirt, shorelines piled with shell middens of the first peoples. Strolling around Newcastle Island in particular, one is aware of human activity spanning a thousand years and more; the island was a longtime seasonal home for villages of native peoples, then it was crawling with Europeans and Chinese and Japanese between the 1850's and 1940's.
Many people are certain that there are real ghosts here. Hundreds of miners died underground in various explosions and accidents (fueling decades of labour disputes), and some people think the miners' subterranean ghosts hold Nanaimo in some kind of cursed state.
This region was also a great meeting place for aboriginal nations, and the site of battles and massacres. At least three Chinatowns have burned to the ground here, too, and our visitor information centre, Beban House, is nationally recognized as a haunted site.
There are some other restless spirits in Nanaimo: the people addicted to hard drugs, who exist in any city — but they do seem to be more conspicuous in some parts of Nanaimo.
It can't be (and shouldn't be) ignored that Nanaimo has a major problem with poverty and bad drugs. Much of Downtown, and for a few blocks southward, there is conspicuous poverty — a lot of people are obviously very down-and-out.
The good news for visitors is that you're unlikely to be bothered by any of these people. Most of them wish to be left alone, too. Just consider them to be a part of our genuine maritime identity. You know, smugglers and all that. Yeah, pirates, sure.
But for residents, this problem is serious. It must be addressed. Theft is common, there are needles in the grass sometimes, young girls are selling themselves for crystal meth. Everybody knows it's wrong, but too many of us think there's nothing we can do about it. That's wrong, too. Try any of the following:
Nanaimo dabbles in "pirate" themes. Why? Because we can.
Our Gulf of Georgia (Salish Sea) is like the Caribbean was: an archipelago on the frontier, a string of lights along a dark coastline. And come to think of it, our peoples are similar to those who took to the water 400 years ago: a blend of romantics and isolationists, at odds over how to enjoy the spoils available in the beautiful wilds.
The resemblance might end there. Nanaimo is hardly Port Royal 1660, and while our Bastion was always prepared to defend us againts marauders, we never got to use its cannons. However, there are many forces in Nanaimo that consciously recreate the light-hearted pirate culture of Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean. And why not? We have boats, and alcohol, and open space, and money. We should really play this up more.
Some businesses are doing their part. Pirate Chips down on Victoria Crescent pays a sassy tribute to peglegs and walking the plank, and the Harbour Chandlery on Esplanade even has some sort of kids' play ship out front.
But nowhere in Nanaimo will you find anything that attempts to serve real "pirate" fare. We have no "pirate show" or even a "pirate playground", and Pirates Park has a dock, but no flags or sloops. No, everything here that's pirate is tongue-in-cheek, and that's fine with us. It's a lot of fun on the waterfront in our motley boats during the Marine Festival, or walking around Protection Island, where placenames are deliberate: Captain Morgan's Boulevard, Spyglass Lookout, Billy Bones Bay, Treasure Trail.
It's mostly thanks to Frank Ney that we can pull it off without feeling silly. He was so off-the-wall in his pirate regalia, whether it was at a child's birthday or a city council meeting. Frank was the one who bought and subdivided Protection Island with its pirate themes. He also organized the Bathtub Races and was "admiral" of the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society. Today, a statue of Frank Ney watches over our holy-of-holies, that most public of Nanaimo places: Swy-a-Lana Lagoon and Maffeo-Sutton Park.
This is a real music city. Not only does Nanaimo nurture the likes of David Gogo and Diana Krall, but we also keep a good stock of other musicians in the city at all times.
One extremely important centre of the music scene in Nanaimo is the independent, "campus" radio station, CHLY (101.7 FM). It really is a valuable asset for Nanaimo, disseminating an interest in everything "grassroots" while being independent and mostly non-commercial. There is so much music played on CHLY that you will never hear on the other local frequencies.
Sites for great jams are all around, but the most accessible live music is at the licensed venues downtown. Or you should look to Vancouver Island University, whose music program thrives on a steady stream of talented students and instructors. There are also numerous restaurants and cocktail lounges that bring in live acts – but currently, only the Queen's Hotel downtown has live music every night.
The Port Theatre is a classy venue that brings in all kinds of acts, from famous pianists to Pink Floyd tribute bands (see their upcoming musical acts). Or, look at the musical events listings on HarbourLiving.ca for acts all around town.
|Jerry Paquette||Gary Feljgaard||Diana Krall|
|David Gogo||Ken Hamm||Jim Erkiletian (Banjo Jim)|
|Steve Jones||Donna Konsorado||Michael Patrick|
|Howie James||Cathy Davis|
(Please contact us to suggest others for this list.)
Thanks to Cathy Davis for her contributions to this section, including the following:
I started a coffeehouse at the Scout Hut as there was none at that time. It was a marvellous venue with kitchen and lots of space. it was also cheap. I met a lot of musicians there that I still know and play music with. it was a space you could bring your kids and feel safe in, and hear some great tunes.
Once upon a time the Palace Hotel was the place for all kinds of music. Many of us giggling musicians got our start there including Michael Patrick, Peter Scheibel and Steve Wizska. Can't forget Little Davey Peters.
The Elks and the Cassidy were famous for country jams.
Alpha Barr was the jam hostess at the Cassidy for over 25 years. She still yodels today.
Like most cities in Canada, Nanaimo is a hub of international activity, bringing together peoples from all over the world. But Nanaimo has some additional factors which create an even more cosmopolitan aspect than other Canadian cities have:
The new (2007) Port of Nanaimo Conference Centre is a well-equipped, well-staffed facility in a great location. As a city, we have the amenities and attractions to host a few dozen massive international conferences per year.
A lot of people come to Nanaimo to study English. Vancouver Island University hosts thousands of international students from all over the globe. It's really great to see these students out in the community, adding to the local colour!
As a "destination" city with a lot of appeal, Nanaimo attracts many different kinds of immigrants. People from all over the world like clean air, mild weather, natural beauty, a high standard of living, and space to breathe.
Are you new to Nanaimo, and feeling like a fish out of water? If so, please visit our "Immigrant Welcome Centre" downtown. It's managed by the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society, which does all kinds of work with immigrants, including translation services, helping with government forms, family counselling, and English classes.
The gulf islands and Vancouver Island have always appealed to those who seek a quieter, slower, naturally beautiful lifestyle. Artists and artisans, naturalists, healers, shamans, singer/songwriters, visionaries and comedians, schoolteachers, tradespeople, writers of every kind and people with hobby farms – these are examples of whom you might sit beside on BC Ferries.
Nanaimo's population is diluted and varied, primarily urban – so you won't see an intense concentration of what I'm choosing to call "gulf island lifestyle" – what you might find on Lasqueti Island or Hornby or Saltspring. But if you can't see its presence in Nanaimo, you must be blind. The Nanaimo Farmers' Market (Fridays downtown), the Gabriola ferry terminal, Protection Island, parts of Jinglepot Rd and Harewood, the college, the campus radio station, the boutique shops downtown, and the art in the galleries all resonate with westcoast laidback feeling. There are drum circles in downtown Nanaimo all summer, along with dancing, stilt-walking, fire-dancing, and music jams. If you're looking for this kind of thing, you should really check out the waterfront, and look for notices at the Gabriola Island ferry terminal!
In Nanaimo, people of aboriginal descent are not simply a memory – the native presence here is very tangible and visible, and we're proud of it. While there are certainly relics of the old native life preserved throughout the city, we are also fortunate to have a living voice from a significant population of First Nations peoples. The local nation is called Snuneymuxw, a Coast Salish people.
The culture of Nanaimo has been informed and affected in cool ways by the First Nations peoples of the past and present, and it's heartening to see that our primarily non-native governments are increasingly seeking the counsels of our aboriginal brothers and sisters and elders. Nanaimo is blessed with an amazing heritage and there is room for all to prosper if we establish a vision that is inclusive and imaginitive.
The Arts One: First Nations program at VIU provides not only a venue for aboriginal students to get formal education in matters relating to their nation and heritage; it's also open to non-natives, providing a unique opportunity for our two cultures to have some reconciliation and mutual understanding.
There are ancient pictures (petroglyphs) carved into the living rock, here, usually believed to have been associated with powerful rituals. We have a more detailed page about petroglyphs, or, there are some more petroglyph photos and comments in our forum.
Of the waves of immigrants who came to BC in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Chinese are prominent for their numbers, but also for the patient industriousness with which they endured the pioneering lifestyle and the hard work of the railroads and mines.
They also endured intense bigotry from the more numerous white populations. The Chinese men were given the worst jobs in the mines, working in deplorable conditions and not even named by the bosses when they died (they show up in the accident registers as "Chinaman #42", etc). Their ramshackle Chinatowns burned to the ground three times in a few decades, and foul play is usually thought to be responsible.
So it's no wonder that Chinese-Canadian Nanaimo-ites aren't beaming with local pride and joining the great Can-Can dance at Nanaimo's rich pageant. However, the past fades, and the newer consciousness of Nanaimo is more inclusive. It seems appropriately Chinese that those bad memories are being laid to rest, though not quite forgotten.
Some fine landscape art ends up in the homes and galleries around Nanaimo. The local aesthetics are by turns beautiful, wild, and gloomy as the tides, which the local artists translate well into drunken, vibrant paintings. There are distinctive styles in Nanaimo which seem to derive from BC artists as E.J. Hughes and Emily Carr, and of course international figures like El Greco.
Arbutus trees and sandstone, driftwood-choked inlets and the wide open sea, mountain vistas and great forests all make for stunning landscapes, and local artists are gifted in reproducing some of the unique combinations of form and colour that make Vancouver Island so stunning. Visit any of the local art galleries and you'll see a lot of great styles.
Beginning with the Silly Boat Regatta and culminating in the bathtub races at 11am on the following Sunday, the Nanaimo Marine Festival is considered by many residents and returning visitors to be the event of the year. "There's the marine festival, and all the days in between." That kind of thing.
The International World Championship Bathtub Race (the event around which the Marine Festival revolves) is almost 50 years old. No matter what you're into, it's likely you'll find something to entertain you during this exciting Festival.
The outdoors are a huge part of our cultural identity in Nanaimo. The city is spread out along a wide hump of Vancouver Island, between the Gulf of Georgia and the mountainous center of Vancouver Island. The result is an amazing variety of outdoor recreation, from diving to mountainbiking to mountaineering and kayaking — there's even world-class spelunking.
There isn't necessarily a prominent "sport culture" in the city, as people from all walks get out into the wilds for their entertainment. Congregations happen at trailheads and local events aplenty, and at the pubs for wings and a pint on the way home from the mountain or the shore.
The Nanaimo River is a unique jewel, providing residents and visitors with the deepest, warmest swimming holes on Vancouver Island.
We don't know what "redneck" means in your hometown, but 'round here it typically refers to blue-collar people (but not always), who also have conservative social values like bigotry and anti-intellectualism.
There is another kind of "redneck", however, who associates with certain elements of the redneck described above, but who may not identify with bigotry or anti-intellectualism. This more liberal sort of "redneck" is simply a group that shares behaviour patterns such as:
And there are also other variants of "liberal redneck" who are more likely to listen to punk or alt-rock, and who dress more like cowboys or farmers, and who may prefer film and whiskey to trucks and beer.
Anyway the point is, some people have said that there are more "rednecks" in Nanaimo than in the bigger cities. But that is usually the case, with smaller cities and with the suburbs. In Nanaimo's case, most of the rednecks are harmless.
So generally speaking: There is plenty of in-your-face liberalism to balance the conservatives, in Nanaimo. And there is also a lot of art and education to dilute strongly the effect of those who deride progress and diversity.