An excerpt from the Fall 2023 edition of British Columbia History.
1A Dream Marches On
Happy 90th anniversary to City of Vancouver Archives. Its collection captures the city’s story through 7.2 million photographs, 6,800 maps, 2,800 audio recordings, documents measured in kilometres and terabytes of digital material.
How did it begin? Major James Skitt Matthews, born in Newtown, Wales, and raised in New Zealand, was appointed the first city archivist in 1933 and brought along his vast personal collection. Matthews had landed in Vancouver as a 20-year-old, in 1898, where he worked for Imperial Oil and, later, operated a tugboat business. Twice wounded during the Great War, he achieved the rank of major, and never gave it up.
Matthews interviewed hundreds of people, including Squamish Chief August Jack Khatsahlano. Fiercely
defensive about the collection, Matthews often sparred with mayors and bureaucrats—at one time he took his collection home during a dust-up with the library board. He refused to retire, remaining on the job until age 91. The current archives repository in Vanier Park is named in his honour. BC historian Jean Barman has written: “James Skitt Matthews is arguably the single most important individual in the history of Vancouver. While others generated events, he ensured that a record of their activities would survive.”  Visit the City of Vancouver Archives: searcharchives.vancouver.ca.
There has been movement on an NDP election promise made three years ago to build a South Asian Museum. Lana Popham, Minister of Arts, Culture, Tourism and Sport, hosted a roundtable of community leaders and stakeholders to discuss creation of the first museum of its kind in Canada.
There were 100 South Asians living in British Columbia in 1901. By the 2021 census, that number had grown to 473,970. They faced systemic and overt racism, including restrictions on immigration and voting rights.
The South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley is part of the working group attempting to develop a collective vision for a museum and commented on the gathering: “The primary focus was for community leaders to share their thoughts on how the Ministry should engage with the community to help establish the next steps in realizing the exciting project of a South Asian Museum.”
Some delegates reject the South Asian label and are concerned it homogenizes distinct ethnic communities. The door is now open to further engagement.
3James McMillan Expedition: 200th anniversary
Next year will mark 200 years since fur trader James McMillan paddled north from Fort Vancouver (at the mouth of the Columbia River) in search of a new location for a Hudson’s Bay Company fort. The Americans were expanding into Oregon and Washington territory, and the HBC could see the writing on the wall. After reaching Mud Bay, the party followed an Indigenous route along the Nicomekl River, portaged to the Salmon River (across what became Langley Prairie) and landed on the shores of the Fraser River. Fort Langley was built three years later, becoming the first permanent non-Indigenous settlement in coastal British Columbia.
The band of adventurers featured a mix of English, Canadiens, Indigenous guides, Métis and Kanaka
peoples (Hawaiians). A Francophone heritage picnic has sprouted in recent years where the McMillan party began its portage from the Nicomekl, directly beside historic Michaud House (home to the first Francophone family in Langley). Joanne Plourde and her group, Voyageurs & Co., dress in period costume, belt out Voyageur songs and welcome storytellers from BC and Washington State. It’s a celebration of fur trade history and of new relationships formed with Indigenous peoples. Plans are in the works for further acknowledgement of the 1824 expedition, including by the Surrey Historical Society.
4Return of Sacred Salmon Site
Hundreds of people gathered beside the Okanagan River as drums and songs honoured the return of a sacred fishing site. The Osoyoos Indian Band says it was denied access when reserve lands were taken back by the provincial and federal governments. The 1913 McKenna-McBride Royal Commission opened the door to reduce the size of reserves. The syilx people had fished here for thousands of years and always regarded the loss of 71 acres as theft; a blockade was launched by syilx Okanagan Nation members back in 1974.
Recently a one-acre parcel came on the market and the Osoyoos Indian Band purchased it. y̓ilmixʷm ki law na Chief Clarence Louie told the gathering, “Land is always more important than money. Always has been and always will be. We don’t like the fact that we have to buy our own land back, but that’s just the way it is.”
5Navvy Jack House: Still standing
Scheduled to be demolished by the District of West Vancouver, Navvy Jack house has a second lease on life. A grassroots campaign (that included West Vancouver Historical Society) convinced the District to apply brakes to the plan. Built in about 1874 by a Welshman, John Thomas, the pioneer building is the oldest structure in West Vancouver, and was the location of its first post office. Thomas, a.k.a. Navvy Jack, was a true pioneer who hunted for Cariboo gold and who ran the first ferry service from Ambleside to Vancouver and also a successful gravel business. He married a granddaughter of “Old Chief” Kiapilano and is an ancestor to many Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam families.
Vacant since 2017, the house sits just above the tide line on Argyle Avenue. This spring, the district announced it had located a partner to restore the home and turn it into a café where settler and
Indigenous history can be shared and celebrated. The district will contribute $1 million and a $1.6-million fundraising campaign continues: information about the history of the house is at Save Navvy Jack House, savenavvyjackhouse.com. •
1 Jean Barman, foreword to The Man Who Saved Vancouver: Major James Skitt Matthews, by Daphne Sleigh (Surrey, BC: Heritage House, 2008)
Mark Forsythe travels through BC and back in time, exploring the unique work of British Columbia Historical Federation members.