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What has become of my British Columbia?

How did British Columbia go from the stewardship of Amor de Cosmos, asks Hadani Ditmars, to Vancouver becoming an emptying hedge city?


 
A cargo ship passes Stanley Park under the Lions Gate Bridge into the Port of Vancouver, which would see a seven-fold increase in the amount of oil tankers if Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion is approved, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada November 18, 2016. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

A cargo ship passes Stanley Park under the Lions Gate Bridge into the Port of Vancouver in 2016. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

On the eve of British Columbia’s recent election, I contemplated my province’s destiny while taking in a performance of a new composition called Lucid Dreams.

Composed by Vancouver’s Jocelyn Morlock and performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with cello soloist Ariel Barnes, it was a highly charged and emotional performance. As he dove into the three-movement concerto, with a score featuring winds, horns, harp, percussion and strings, Barnes’s cello wound through jarring codas and vibrant passacaglias before reaching its dramatic conclusion, evoking a lucid dream: a kind of “waking dream” where the dreamer has some control over the narrative. It was not only a world premiere of the lush instrumental work—it was also the final performance of rising star Barnes as principal cellist with the VSO.

After a bittersweet goodbye hug with maestro Bramwell Tovey, Barnes, 40, went straight to the airport for a plane for Germany, where he has accepted a position with the Nuremberg Symphony, well before the end of the program.

The orchestra followed with an impassioned performance of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2—and it felt like they were playing on their very heartstrings. But it wasn’t just the pain of losing a cherished friend and colleague that made the evening so powerful. That night, the music seemed to express the pathos of this province, and serve as a kind of requiem for this city.

Barnes, whose young family will undoubtedly enjoy all the benefits Germans do in terms of subsidized housing, education and culture, is not the only one leaving. A 2016 Angus Reid poll suggests that a “generation” of more than 150,000 families are considering leaving Metro Vancouver because they are being priced out of the region’s real estate market.

All over the city, longstanding businesses and shops—from the storied 102-year-old Ingledew’s Shoes to the beloved West End neighbourhood pub the Dover Arms are closing down, and whole streets on the city’s West side stand like ghost towns, the houses empty. These were the images in my head as I took in the orchestra’s Death of Melisande from the mezzanine of the Orpheum Theatre, a civic icon built in 1927 that was the biggest theatre in Canada and a popular vaudeville venue at the time, and then only narrowly saved from demolition in 1974 via a fundraising campaign fronted by the likes of Jack Benny.

In miniature, the Orpheum is a reminder that our province and our city have survived crises before, from boom-and-bust economics to timber industry downfalls. But somehow, it feels like now, more than ever, our very soul is at stake.

B.C. is enduring Canada’s second-highest poverty rate, a massive and growing gap between rich and poor, the under-funding of our schools and the arts, and Vancouver’s current status as the world’s third-least affordable city. It has a child poverty rate that’s higher than the national average. Our resources are being slated for brutal extraction. Our unceded land is being sold to the highest bidder, leaving no room for families or elders or young people or artists.

Just how did we go from Amor de Cosmos, the self-named second premier of B.C. who passionately advocated for public education and an end to economic and political privileges, to Vancouver becoming this hedge city, a resort town for the wealthy that eats its young? How did we get here? Where are we going? How did it come to this?

The authors great-grandparents and their relatives in Winnipeg in 1906.

The author’s great-grandparents, Massadi and Najib Mussallem (front middle and front right), are pictured in this photograph taken in Winnipeg en route to B.C. in 1908. The author’s great-great grandmother Sara Mussallem stands at the back, wearing a headscarf, while her son Solomon Mussallem stands to her left.

As citizens leave, as heritage is disappeared, and as a whole generation becomes disinherited, I contemplate the bones of my ancestors, scattered all over this province—from Prince Rupert to Kelowna to Maple Ridge to Nanaimo—and what brought them here.

There was my great-great grandfather T.J. Shenton, a miner and Methodist preacher from the Midlands who came to organize the unions in “Coalville”—Nanaimo’s former name—and who was an agitator in the 1913 strike, partly sparked by lower-paid “Asian labour.”

There were my great-grandparents from what is now Lebanon, Christians fleeing Ottoman oppression in what was then part of Greater Syria. They found refuge on these shores over a century before the latest round of refugees, but barely made it in before pan-continental anti-Asian exclusion laws would have made it rather difficult; their papers, after all, were stamped “Asiatic” upon their arrival here. They always said they came for the country’s “rule of law,” and yet their son was adopted by a Haida chief in the 1940s—clandestinely, as the ceremony was still illegal then—in the back of the family store.

The bonds with First Nations families developed as my great-grandparents, who had escaped the excesses of the Ottoman Empire, did not share the racism of the far-flung corner of the British Empire they had chosen to settle in. Nisga elder Rod Robinson told me that they were apparently the only local merchants that treated First Nations people with respect, extending groceries on credit and declining to employ store detectives to follow them. Robinson said they kept much of the Nass Valley from going hungry during the Depression.

And there was my great-great grandfather Jeremiah Vanderbilt Ditmars, a sea captain of New York United Empire Loyalist stock, who came to B.C. at the end of the 19th century from St. Catharines. His son, W.C. Ditmars, who was a key player in the assembly of the Lions Gate Bridge project, constructed a home in the exclusive railway-baron enclave of Shaughnessy (a Dutch Colonial-style mansion on Pine Crescent now occupied by the CEO of Telus), and left his entire fortune to his second wife.

What would my ancestors make of this place now?

It is a place still in colonial denial where whole islands were simply acquired—and now managed by—“island trusts,” descendants of missionaries and settlers on lands cleared by Asian labourers, making rules about “development.” A place where fentanyl kills the young, predominantly First Nations people. A place where families can’t afford to live. A place where people are leaving, from our young to our artists, like the Germany-bound Barnes. Our best and our brightest are fleeing Lotusland for more affordable climes, and for a future from resort-town, resource-driven realities.

B.C. wants to be all things to all people—but how can it be? Wild west and multicultural idyll, settler nation and hedge city, backwater and gateway. The B.C. election produced a near-tie between the two major parties, and in terms of provincial identity, it feels like we are as undecided and deadlocked as our politics.

But now, as everyone is moving away from what was once a land of opportunity for our ancestors, perhaps the deadlocked elections are an opportunity to face our ghosts and transform our history.

A friend once likened Vancouver to a slow-motion carousel, where the same people and situations go round and round in surreal montage. And B.C.’s intractable polarized politics and ongoing neo-colonial realities often have the feel of a suspended animation nightmare. Perhaps the time has come for lucid dreaming, the kind where we can take control again—a lucid dream that would go beyond the ones cast in music.

MORE ABOUT B.C. ELECTION 2017:


 

What has become of my British Columbia?

  1. BC has been bought wholesale by and turned into china, enjoy your chinese future

    • Sometimes what goes around comes around: Vancouver started life as a booze-can near the water and only sprung to life on the backs of Chinese laborers who lived and died for the transcontinental railroad and the lumber and mining industries. Chinese formed a large portion of the population even before Vancouver came into existence. In spite of frequent attempts by white bigots to put them down and put them out, to their credit they’re still there. As much as and at times more than any other group, they built the city and the province.

  2. Could never understand why every Maclean’s piece prerambles tediously away for 3-4 paragraphs before getting to the actual meat of the topic and saying something.

    When stuck in a medical/dental waiting room, will read 5-year old copies of The New Yorker first before any issue of Maclean’s.

  3. A thought provoking piece, well done.

  4. Firstly, it took 1/2 the article to find some substance. Secondly, talk about hyperbole, acting like the city is some ghost town? Are you kidding me?. Anybody who knows anything about “Vancouver Real Estate” understands that the term “unaffordability” of real-estate is stemmed from “Houses” which because of the very restricted land mass means there aren’t any more left, thus a supply and demand. Vancouver is becoming more European in the way people live, people need to embrace that, or move out. As long as the city keeps providing lots of green space for young families and has sufficient amount of schools that people will continue to stay there. There’s a waiting list for kids living in and around downtown, waiting for the 2 new elementary schools to open. I don’t think people are leaving. This article is garbage, to be honest.

    • The only garbage I can find is that every one of your assertions is demonstrably false.

  5. There’s more to BC than just Vancouver. One city, as large as it may be, does not control the whole province and does not speak for those who live outside of the downtown city limits.

  6. What has become of BC? That’s easy – the Liberal government sold it to the highest bidder.

  7. I get a kick out of the Vancouver is “becoming more European” comment.

    Does this mean that Vancouver is going to price all its working class labour out of the inner cities and create expansive, sprawling suburbs like the Paris banlieues or Madrid’s horrible, treeless burbs, or London’s garden suburbs where the prices have skyrocketed 700% while real wages adjusted for inflation are down 4%? And don’t get me going about the inherent class systems of Copenhagen and Stockholm where the working class have more horrific commuted than they do in Atlanta.

    Europe is amongst the worst examples of cities built along the lines of social and economic class stratifications.

    • All of the problems described by the author are endemic to cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, etc., as they began their spectacular declines. Not coincidentally, those cities also suffered decades of leftist leadership, like Vancouver.
      Enjoy the decline.

  8. Vancouver was a great place in the ’70s full of youth’s vigour and energy. People drove VW vans. West 4th had it all, restaurants, bars and Zulu records. The beach teemed with activity. The city had soul. 40 years later it is a city with a crumbling infrastructure, crowded with peopling hurrying from place to place in their BMW’s, intent on flipping the next real estate deal, It is a completely mismanaged beautiful city (when it is not raining). And it is losing pace with the world’s other great cities. Prague, Berlin, Singapore, Tokyo, Dubai ….. they are all well managed cities with a vision, a reason, a purpose. RIP Vancouver.

  9. When you stop all industry based on its potential eff cuts on the environment there will no longer be any blue collar jobs and they will all move somewhere else.

    All that you will be left with is rich immigrants from China and rich retired people who made their money from the exploitation of our natural resources but now that they are rich want to deny it to future generations.

  10. Something’s never change,when I would go to Vancouver in the 1960 S I would tell people where I was from,the comment,”somewhere beyond Hope”. Vancouverites still think B.C. Ends at Hope. We are the best Province in Canada and still Surrey,Burnaby,Coquitlam want everything without paying for it. The interior is the engine for the province ,don’t shut it down. Ditmars is wrong to compare what is going wrong in Vancouver with the rest of the province.when was the last time he was in the Nass River?

    • This article is just another chapter in “The Agony of Saint Kultureds as Depicted by Themselves”. You appear to be taking it seriously!

  11. That was without question the most pretentious article I have read in a long time. All in the name of a terrible metaphor. Just brutal writing. I can guarantee you lost half of the readers after the first 4 paragraphs.

  12. Many thanks for this article, Hadani. As a fellow lifelong Vancouverite, I’m also saddened by what’s happening to our city.

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