Attempting to describe the city's culture, I only came up with the collection of 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 West. But, remaining slightly on the fringe of that general culture, Nanaimo has some distinct elements that make it romantic and interesting:
The Hudson's Bay Company was on the west coast to get sea otter furs, as far back as the end of the 1700s. The British government supported the HBC's operations in the area, with the condition that the HBC would foster colonization of Vancouver Island. Victoria was selected as the seat of the colony, but there were difficulties in generating enough income to support the colonists beyond mere subsistence, and the growing American interests down in the Oregon Territory were threatening to win the locals over to their side. Governor James Douglas was looking for a resource to help establish the colony further.
Flash backward sixty million years - the area that is now the Gulf of Georgia was a shallow tropical ocean. Huge swamps and fertile lagoons rotted and were covered over with sediments. These became vast coal fields under Nanaimo. When the agent from Victoria came to (what is now) Nanaimo at the invitation of a local indigenous man, he reportedly danced with joy when he saw the coal seams.
The coal seemed endless, and it was high quality, so Nanaimo grew steadily for the next half century. People came from all over to exploit the coal, timber, sandstone, fisheries, and each other. Imagine a bustling frontier town accessible only by boat, 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 the Dutch ships that broke up under fire 150 years ago, as they tried to land on the shore to pillage the town. (I'm just making that up for fun — but the explosion of the Oscar in 1913 was far more exciting, anyway.)
So, what's the big deal about the Bastion? It's not that big - not a castle, not even as big as a schooner… The Bastion gets a lot more interesting as you read about its history – even those stories which don't mention the Bastion, at least are staged with the Bastion as backdrop. It stands immutably in the time-lapse while everything around it grows and crumbles.
There's a story about all of the colonist families taking shelter in this surprisingly spacious fort. An armada of 100 canoes had arrived, filled with hostile Kwakiutl warriors from the north - three of their people had been slain and they wanted to exact revenge on the local Snuneymoux. The Snuneymoux chief was renowned - a great man - and he offered himself as suitable compensation for three regular men. The Kwakiutl agreed, shot him dead, and left the area. One wonders if perhaps the bastion's armaments (cannons with grapeshot for a very effective spread) could have been used to help the Snuneymoux to fight back against the invaders. There was friendship between the settlers and the First Nation, and this would have been a suitable gesture by the colonists, to fight alongside the local first people.
The view from the Bastion during this encounter must have been surreal. The expansive harbour and distant mountains must have helped this scene to remind each European settler that they were very, very far from their homeland.
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 — 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 sort of ended 60 years ago. Or at least it changed - we're no longer digging millions of tons of high-grade anthracite coal out of the ground like we did for 100 years. There were ridiculous amounts of money moving around in those days, and the streets of Nanaimo were packed by a much denser population (all wearing fine hats regardless of their social classes). It must have been very cool, to be in a seaside city like Nanaimo in the days before television and cars.
The 1980s/1990s expansion of the city northward, with big-box stores and huge malls every few blocks along the highway, drained the crowds out of the older, more interesting part of Nanaimo. (But the downtown has seen a huge revitalization since the mid-2000s and continues to develop with dense residential developments.)
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. Three large Chinatowns have been here, the final one burning completely in 1960. And our erstwhile visitor information centre, Beban House (1930s mansion), 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. There is conspicuous poverty, especially in the southern half of the city (but increasingly spreading out, less concentrated than it used to be).
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 pirates. Work with me here.
But for residents, this problem is serious. It must be addressed. Theft is common, there are needles in the grass sometimes, there is human trafficking. 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:
- Instead of thinking about what those people should be doing differently, try to see their suffering. I struggle with this myself, because I often wish I could be "just sitting around in a park" and I feel like the street people are having a more relaxed time than I am. I try to remember they aren't happy.
- Stand up to injustices when you see them. You don't have to be heroic, confronting people on the street. Just be vocal in your social circles about what you think is right. Start small, and you'll feel yourself getting stronger.
- Donate to organizations which promote healing, and which lend support to people struggling to get away from the underworld.
- Be good to children.
Pirate Themes in Nanaimo
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 a modern city, and while our Bastion was always prepared to defend us against marauders, we never got to use its cannons offensively. 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 Front Street 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 former mayor 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 promoted development of local islands including Protection Island. 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: Sway’ 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.
CHLY 101.7 FM
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.
Live Music Venues
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.
Multicultural village square
Like most cities in Canada, Nanaimo is a hub of international activity, bringing together people from all over the world. But Nanaimo has some additional factors which create an even more cosmopolitan aspect than other Canadian cities have:
We teach English well
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 culture!
Our lifestyle attracts all kinds
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.
Gulf Island town
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 – the boho artistic streak is not as concentrated as places like Salt Spring and Hornby Islands. But it's certainly alive and well in Nanaimo!
First Nations town
In Nanaimo, indigenous people are not simply a memory – their presence here is very tangible and visible, and we're proud of it. While there are certainly relics of the old pre-contact 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 indigenous neighbours and elders. Nanaimo has a lot of resources and there is room for all to prosper if we establish a vision that is inclusive and imaginative.
The Arts One: First Nations program at VIU provides not only a venue for indigenous students to get formal education in matters relating to their nation and heritage; it's also open to non-indigenous people, providing a unique opportunity for our two cultures to have some reconciliation and mutual understanding.
Of the waves of immigrants who came to BC in the nineteenth century, 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. I recommend reading The Concubine's Children by BC's own Denise Chong - it illustrates a common background for the men who came here to work from China, barely scraping by in BC while still managing to send money home to their rural villages.
They also endured intense bigotry from the more numerous white populations - the Chinese were viewed as unfair competition in the labour market, because they were willing to work for less. The Chinese men who died in the coal mines were not even named by the bosses when they died (they show up in the accident registers as "Chinaman #42", etc).
When the unions succeeded in having the Chinese workers excluded from going underground in the coal mines, the mine manager Samuel Robins hired them to clear the land that became Five Acres / Harewood.
There were 3 or 4 Chinatowns:
- The first one was downtown, roughly where the "China Steps" are now. But they were forced out in the mid-late 1800s when the town began to spread in that direction.
- The second was to the south, roughly between Bayview Elementary school and Fifth St. It was there until 1908.
- In 1908 some Chinese businessmen purchased land at the top of Hecate St and the community was moved to there. It was a wonderful place to visit, very compact with frontier-style wooden buildings with false fronts - there was even an opera house.
- In the 1920s the Chinatown was expanded (nearer to Machleary St) - this is often considered to be the 4th Chinatown.
There was some improvement in racial relations by the mid-20th century, with Chinese food/entertainment venues being very popular haunts for the white population of Nanaimo. But when the historic Chinatown burned to the ground in 1960, a lot of its "old time" residents picked up and moved to Vancouver or Victoria. Today, Chinese Canadians are integrated like everyone else and shouldn't be separated out in a section like this - but I just wanted to mention the old history, and their contribution to the city's origins.
Landscape art gallery
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 like E.J. Hughes and Emily Carr, and perhaps 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 are Vancouver Island. Visit any of the local art galleries and you'll see a lot of great styles.
Nanaimo Marine Festival (Bathtub Races)
Beginning with the Silly Boat Regatta and culminating in the bathtub races 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 over 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.
People from all walks get out into the wilds for their entertainment. Congregations happen at trailheads and beaches, and at the pubs for wings and a pint on the way home. In the past 20 years, the mountain bike clubs have contributed vastly to trail-building behind the city, with the result that people come from all over to ride our beautiful trails.
The Nanaimo River is a unique jewel, providing residents and visitors with the deepest, warmest swimming holes on Vancouver Island.