By Mark Forsythe
And they’re off! When the ferry docks at Departure Bay, so begins a frantic race for the Island Highway, and Nanaimo is quickly in the rear-view mirror. This summer, why not visit the city’s historic downtown to see what you’ve been missing?
Also known as the “Hub City” (the downtown streets are laid out like the spokes on a wheel), Nanaimo is very walkable and easy to explore. Hoof it along the Harbourfront Walkway, then drop into the Art Gallery or Vancouver Island Military Museum. Both are just around the corner from the landmark Hudson’s Bay Company Bastion that’s been standing guard above the harbour since 1853.
The downtown is loaded with quaint shops, restaurants, and pubs — one of them inside a restored E&N Railway station. There are other impressive heritage structures, including the Nanaimo Courthouse that was designed by Francis Rattenbury. Built from granite and sandstone, it speaks to the prosperity of Nanaimo’s coal, lumber, and fishing industries, and the unbridled optimism of the era when it was constructed, in 1895.
For a strong sense of place and history, the Nanaimo Museum is an essential stop. Exhibits are numerous and varied: a coal mine, settler-era classroom, Snunéymuxw cultural artifacts, and a Hall of Fame dedicated to the city’s persistent love affair with sports, from soccer to track and field and hockey.
Manager Sophia Maher says she’s proud that the museum is part of a vibrant downtown. In addition to adapting to the pandemic, staff have been focused on renewing gallery spaces and expanding an exhibit about Nanaimo’s earliest inhabitants, the Snunéymuxw (“Nanaimo” is derived from their name.) At a city reconciliation event, Sophia asked Elder William White to visit the Museum and help deepen their presence.
“We tell lots of European stories, but we want to know what’s missing from the Snunéymuxw point of view. We’re missing thousands of years’ worth of history.” William, with a degree in history and anthropology, accepted the invitation: “I fell in love with their model of the longhouse, people making blankets, the spindle whorls, the welcome figure, and the regalia case.” He’s also keen to help animate the exhibit. “What can we add to make it more exciting for the museum-goer? We could possibly hear people speaking, drumming, or singing Welcome Songs.”
He also sees a need for more stories about the impact of colonialism on his people, through the eyes of the Snunéymuxw themselves. “How do we work the Indian Residential School experience into this? The discovery of coal?” William adds that when the Hudson’s Bay Company first showed interest in mining coal, the Company didn’t reveal that they would sell it. “Our people traded; that was our currency.”
The museum plans to move a rejuvenated Snunéymuxw exhibit to the front of the gallery space. Curator Aimee Greenaway says this will give it the weight it deserves, and will “reposition these stories.” Aimee sees this as part of a larger, necessary shift. “Our internal wiring is to tailor to interests and research, but there are also overlooked histories, from Metis to Jewish and Black histories.”
During the pandemic, the museum is discovering new ways to share stories, whether through online programming, one-on-one visits developed through an innovative “Bubble Buddies” project, or self-guided tours. Challenging and exciting times are ahead for the seven full-time and five part-time staff members. Nanaimo is a key intersection for travellers going to or from Vancouver Island; the Museum itself could become an important crossroad to reconciliation and understanding.
For William White, collaboration with the museum will “give people voices who have not been heard before. This development is the first time in history that the songs, values, and images will be brought forward for a new time and place.” He remembers listening to recordings of the late Anderson Tommy, who grew up at what is now Departure Bay. “His old people taught him a Welcome Song, and he remembered his old people telling him — he almost cried — you will hear this song echo long after we are gone.”
Nanaimo Museum: https://nanaimomuseum.ca. Located at the corner of Commercial and Museum Way.