Now that October is here, it is only a matter of time before the rain on British Columbia’s west coast becomes a constant sheet. Now is the perfect moment to get outside while there is still sun left to do it in. To honour the nation-wide Culture Days initiative and celebrate Canada’s history and culture, On This Spot is featuring a different city and town across the country each day. Today, enjoy three of the self-guided walking tours On This Spot has created for the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo. All of our tours are available for free both online and through the On This Spot app.
The first tour we are featuring today explores Nanaimo’s early history from the 1850s to the 1920s, looking at the lives of those who lived and worked here. The tour begins with the early pioneer days and the town that grew up around the tiny cluster of log cabins and the warren of mine shafts that ran under downtown and the surrounding areas. As more immigrants came and the community grew, people worked to improve the city. In the 1860s and 1870s, libraries, schools, and a fire department were set up. New businesses sprang into being—including a huge variety of pubs and saloons. At this time, democratic self-government was set up, too (though to our eyes these halting early efforts might seem somewhat comical). Throughout the tour, we will see the immense challenges these pioneers faced in laying the foundations for the city we know today.
The second tour, “Robert Dunsmuir: Captain of Industry or Robber Baron?” dives into the life and legacy of a controversial figure in BC’s history: Robert Dunsmuir, the coal baron who was loved by business moguls and hated by the working class of the province. Dunsmuir came to British Columbia from Scotland as a lowly indentured miner for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1851. He soon proved himself a tireless and loyal worker and rose rapidly to manage the company’s Nanaimo coal mining operations. In 1870, he set out to build his own mining company and before long had quashed the well-established competition. Through shrewd business tactics and ruthless cost cutting, often at the expense of the well-being of his miners, he quickly became the richest man in the province, but his harsh, inhumane tactics for gaining wealth made him a despised figure to most of his workers. A fascinating individual, Robert Dunsmuir remains perhaps the most controversial figure in this province’s history, and one who left an indelible mark on Nanaimo.
The final tour that we are featuring today for Culture Days looks at a more recent Nanaimo: the postwar Nanaimo, a place of change and growth. In this tour we will walk through the pivotal years after World War II, when Nanaimo underwent an explosive economic boom that profoundly shaped the city we know today. The late 1940s and 1950s were an exciting time, marked by new industries, buildings, and communities that contributed to reshaping Nanaimo from a hardscrabble mining town to a major Vancouver Island hub of industry, shopping, and culture. The era was defined by strongly held civic mindedness and active government engagement, attitudes that were formed in the trials of the Great Depression and the Second World War.