6 min read

On Victoria, BC (incomplete)

I'm experimenting with simply "writing in public" on my personal website. This essay is not complete, but I'll publish it anyway. When I finish it, I'll remove the 'incomplete' signifier.

In the mist-laden air of Canada's far west, just south of the latitudinal 49th parallel that separates Canada from the United States, the scent of saltwater mingles with the aroma of Douglas firs. This is the city where I was born. It's a place perched on the edge of Western civilization, where the echoes of history do more than merely reverberate—they intertwine, overlap, and sometimes clash like tectonic plates beneath the surface.

The downtown core presents itself in the aesthetic of Victorian England, a colonial outpost born from the 19th-century fervor of gold rushes and fur trading, its umbilical cord once tethered to empire. To focus only on the British explorers, colonial administrators, gold-rush cowboys, and fin-de-siècle hoteliers would be akin to reading the last page of a sprawling epic and claiming to understand the entire tale.

As is customary in official speeches, politicians often remind us that the Edwardian architecture, tearooms, and the post-war 20th-century suburbs— which actually make up the majority of "Greater Victoria's" land usage—are built atop a complex tapestry of voices. These voices, both living and departed, speak the languages of the Kwakwaka'wakw, Coast Salish, and other First Nations peoples. They are the original custodians of this land, who shaped their legends and philosophies from the cedar and the sea long before any sails appeared on the horizon. The world's largest totem pole stands as a sentinel in Beacon Hill Park, a testament to this legacy.

The echoes of the British colonials themselves are undeniable, their ambitions as palpable in the neo-baroque facades of the Legislative Buildings—the provincial seat of British Columbia's Westminster-style parliament—as they are in the historical debates that once animated those chamber halls.

We also hear the varied languages of immigrants who laid the bricks and contributed to the culture: the Cantonese tones of early Chinese settlers, the clipped Indian English of post-Partition newcomers, and the lyrical cadence of French fur traders. Each community has left its watermark on the city's identity, some impressions more lasting than others (there is still a historic Chinatown, but very little francophonie), yet none completely erased.

The past decade witnessed an architectural metamorphosis in Victoria as glass and steel condos sprouted alongside modern office complexes. This growth signaled a pivot toward the future, yet as the 2020s unfold, that future is increasingly uncertain.

The advent of remote work has hollowed out urban centers across the globe, and Victoria is not immune. The architectural enthusiasm that marked the previous decade is under scrutiny, as city planners, developers, and residents grapple with the complexities of a changing work landscape and its impact on the built environment. We may not see another decade of quite so enthusiastic 21st-century gentrification transforming Victoria's skyline.

Yet the heartbeat of a city is not solely reflected in its skyline or its commercial centers; there's an undercurrent that runs deeper. Anyone native to a place understands this: a locale is so much more than its postcard landmarks.

Consider Victoria's Inner Harbour. Cruise ships dock amidst a setting that seems designed for Instagram—a marina flanked by the majestic Fairmont Empress Hotel on one side and the stately Legislative Buildings on the other. They sit perpendicular to each other, composing a picturesque frame that captures the imagination of most every visitor. Yet, just as a traveler to New York might never venture far beyond Midtown, or a Mediterranean cruise-ship tourist on shore leave might walk only a carefully curated tourist circuit of Dubrovnik's walled city, or a Southern California visitor might experience little beyond their hotel and Disneyland—so, too, do many visitors to Victoria barely scratch the surface of its identity.

Victoria, from a tourist's point of view, is a cute tourist trap, Queen Victoria's England superimposed on Seattle's lush biosphere, ten-by-ten blocks, navigable in one fun afternoon before sailing on.

The real Victoria—and indeed, the real Vancouver Island on which it sits—is a sprawling, verdant expanse that defies easy categorization. To truly know this place is to drive through it, to lose oneself in the temperate landscapes that stretch beyond the horizon. Vancouver Island itself is an underappreciated giant, larger than Jamaica, larger than Hawaii's Big Island, larger than Crete and even Sicily. It's a landmass so surprisingly expansive you could spend an entire day driving and still not cover its full breadth.

The island offers a natural playground that contrasts sharply with Victoria's carefully curated tourist hubs. This duality—between the presented and the actual, between the built and the natural, between the historic and the evolving—completes the city's complex portrait. So, whether we're talking about the architectural shifts that mark each passing decade or the deeper, more ancient layers that constitute its spirit, Victoria exists in a state of perpetual conversation with itself. It's a dialogue that enriches both locals and visitors alike, provided they take the time to listen.

Vancouver Island has often played the chameleon in the world of film, its lush landscapes and versatile terrain standing in for various locations in the magic of Hollywood storytelling. Its ability to adapt and represent different geographies has made it a favored location for filmmakers, showcasing the island's unique but malleable personality.

Take Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia," for example. The psychological thriller, set in the fictional town of Nightmute, Alaska, heavily relied on the island's atmospheric landscapes to evoke a sense of eerie isolation and ceaseless daylight. The viewer is led to believe they are in the Alaskan wilderness, but in reality, they are staring at British Columbia's own coastal beauty. The moody skies, misty waterfronts, and coniferous forests create an ambiance so convincing that the line between setting and story blurs, making Vancouver Island an uncredited but essential character in the narrative.

But it's not just the thrillers that find a home here; the island is a chameleon that can put on different skins for different genres. It has stood in for the rugged Scottish Highlands in fantasy films and for the idyllic American small town in Hallmark Channel's Christmas movies. Even the sci-fi series "Stargate SG-1" utilized its scenery, as did various episodes of "The X-Files," transforming the island's forests into mysterious realms where the paranormal becomes almost believable.

Like nearby Vancouver (not, incidentally, located on Vancouver Island) the Island is often captured on film but rarely "plays itself".

Because the whims of linguistics and etymology often dance to their own unpredictable tune, the term "downisland" is conspicuously missing from the island's vernacular. As if guided by some hidden magnetism, the shorthand navigational guidance on Vancouver Island flows solely in one direction—up(island).

This direction takes you toward various smaller communities, provincial parks, and natural landmarks. Places like Nanaimo, Courtenay, and Campbell River fall into this "upisland" category. The term is handy because it lumps together a variety of destinations that might otherwise require a more cumbersome description. It captures everything from taking a short forty-minute trip to the neighboring town of Duncan to embarking on a longer multi-hour journey to the furthest, remotest reaches of the island, half-a-day away.

This larger, wilder landscape is the landscape I was born into.

In the early 1990s, Victoria was a city in a state of flux, grappling with a rapidly changing world while holding onto the roots that made it unique. Known as the "Garden City," it had its reputation for being the quaint and charming British colonial outpost with a distinct laid-back atmosphere. Tourists flocked to the famed Butchart Gardens, the Royal BC Museum, and the Empress Hotel, seeking a slice of old-world British charm that the city cultivated with pride.

However, underneath the prim gardens and cobblestone streets, Victoria was wrestling with social and economic changes. The end of the Cold War and the restructuring of military bases in nearby Esquimalt led to shifts in the local job market. The city was also grappling with a drug crisis and the social issues that came along with it, which were starting to become visible on the streets of downtown Victoria.

The '90s also marked an era of increasing environmental consciousness in Victoria. Spurred by a growing awareness of ecological issues and the Earth Summit in 1992, local groups became more active in pushing for sustainable practices. This period saw the beginnings of what would become a robust cycling culture, with bike lanes slowly starting to weave their way into the city's transportation fabric.

At the same time, the First Nations communities in and around Victoria were becoming more vocal in their demands for land rights and cultural recognition. Landmark cases like the Calder decision in the '70s had set the stage, but the '90s saw increasing activism and public awareness about the historical injustices faced by the Indigenous peoples of the area. Though tension existed, there was also a sense that dialogues were opening that could not be closed again, signaling the start of long and complex conversations about reconciliation.

Victoria's tech scene was in its infancy, but the groundwork was being laid for what would become a significant industry in the city. As the Internet started to gain public traction, small software companies and tech start-ups began to sprout up, benefiting from the city's quality of life and educated workforce, even if they had to grapple with the island's relative isolation and the logistical challenges that came with it.

In essence, the Victoria of the early '90s was a community on the cusp—between its colonial past and a future that promised to be both challenging and exciting. It was a place where contradictions lived side by side, where the beauty of the old and the promise of the new were in a delicate, ongoing dance, shaping the unique character of this island city.