Part 2: The First Nations and Mount Pleasant

Lee Building in Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, Vancouver, BC | Treensbert Churchmouse, 2020

A Dip Into the Past

Welcome to part two. You are a brave soul, and a gentleman and a scholar. We will transition from the Chinese Immigrants’ story and Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital towards the neighbourhood they found themselves in, which was Mount Pleasant, and to some of the people who had lived there.

It seems that the Sisters of Immaculate Conception had picked a good location for a hospital back then, or, much more possibly, the only sensible location for it. Metro Vancouver truly began in the municipality of New Westminster (settlers did come from the east, where they ended up at a river in New West, and we all know settlers have a thing for rivers), however, European civilization shoved its way over to today’s Gastown (in downtown Vancouver), before building southwards. The southwards portion became what is today the neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant, where Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital is located, and it turned out to become Vancouver’s first suburban area.

Mount Pleasant is a place worth visiting nowadays, though I feel that most people pass it by when they visit, at any rate. It has many murals, interesting cafes, pubs and restaurants, and some old buildings – like the Lee Building, which I had passed by a million times. It turns out it’s from the era of way back when. When I was younger, a good portion of it was still industrial, but with the coming of the 2010 Olympic games a good chunk of the area has been transformed.

Murals seen around Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, BC | Treensbert Churchmouse, 2020

Mount Pleasant started becoming a neighbourhood for the European settlers because of the landscape at the time. At the time, there was nothing but trees there. There was forest, a beaver dam which allowed for a swamp-like area as well, and a creek. The Coast Salish First Nations people lived here back then, fishing salmon and trout from the creek, and I think I read somewhere, hunting elk from the forest. There was vegetation for other forms of sustenance growing in the area, and they shared their land between one another. Even if there were any conflicts, it still sounded nice and peaceful. But then the European settlers came, saw the creek and the water and the beautiful landscape, and thought, “breweries”.

It was in 1869 that Valentine Edmonds bought district lot 200A (so, the wilderness north of where Broadway is today), along with a co-owner, Dr. Israel Powell. The doctor, incidentally, was involved in negotiations to add British Columbia to the rest of Canada, which did end up happening (surprise!) on July 20th, 1871. These two men saw where Gastown had started to grow, they realized the location of the Hastings Sawmill (an old shop related to it is left for viewing nowadays as a museum, in Kitsilano), and knew where the settlers had all settled by the Fraser River in today’s New Westminster – and saw that eventually a railway would connect all these things.

That meant that business would grow, that the land would be worth something, and that the creek, of course, would amply help water (and by water, I mean, with beer) working men, who would eventually be drawn over for said work. The creek, after a time, was named Brewery Creek. The creek, I suspect (but can’t confirm yet) is long gone now, and I have a feeling it used to be where there is a strange dip in the land, one you can see when you take the SkyTrain from Broadway station to Main Street Station…but again, I don’t know for sure. If it is though, then I wonder how or when it had dried up (I suspect it was the pile of breweries that had extinguished it).

A lot of firsts started happening from around the 1860’s in what is now Mount Pleasant (this is what the history websites say, but I debate that the term first is slightly skewed). The first street in the area was built, so to speak, in 1860. It was a wagon road that was built over an old indigenous trail that had been used by the First Nations for ages. You’ll know it, if you’ve ever been in Vancouver, because you’ve likely been stuck in traffic on it: it’s what we today know as Kingsway.

Beneath Kingsway’s hard, cement-like expanse is the old trail the First Nations people used to use, before the Europeans had so surely strutted into this part of the country. If you’ve ever wondered why Kingsway does not match the perfectly-aligned block system of streets and avenues the rest of Metro Vancouver entertains, it’s because the block system does not match Kingsway – or rather, the old trail that had, at that time, likely have been quite useful to the First Nations as it cut through the forest itself.

Then, the history websites say (I’m not so excited as to walk into a library quite yet, but it’s amazing what kind of archives one can find online), the first child was born. The history websites seem to forget that this first child was certainly not the first, as there had been many children preceding it, so let’s call it rightfully the first European child. But we now know he was George Grauer and was born in 1886 in a cabin on the bank of the then creek, which is today’s corner of 10th Avenue and Main Street. By the time George was one year old and being adorable, the railway arrived! (Thanks to the Chinese immigrants from part one of this post.)

In 1888 the first European house was built (I’m confused here, as a cabin is also a house, isn’t it? If the first house was built after George was born, then there is some discrepancy, but let’s say it was around the same time frame). And then the century turned, bringing more houses (interactive heritage house map for you!), bringing the block system we know and love today – especially if you lose sense of direction every five minutes – and bringing some very familiar street names, thought up by Dr. Israel Powell. He had thought to name certain streets around Mount Pleasant after Canada’s provinces, but not all provinces and territories were part of Canada yet at the time (BC was the sixth province to join). Street names for other provinces were added later on, I understand. The 1910’s brought a boom to the area, and it was a very happening place to be, Mount Pleasant. However, the industrial expansion hit around the 1930’s, which deterred that growth a little, and ended up forcing the area into less of a splendor by the 1950’s.

Dr. Powell’s Map of Mount Pleasant Streets | From https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/mount-pleasant-historic-context-statement.pdf, Obtained from Online Arhives PDF, 2008

This booming and non-booming was all down to European history, and the European view of things. The Chinese, of course, had their own perspective of how things were going, and so did the First Nations people. Before the European settlers had come, the Coast Salish people had lived here, comprised of three different Nations: the Musqueam Nation, the Squamish Nation, and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. They, as I have mentioned, lived in villages here, hunted in the forest and fished in the creek or on the coast, and shared the land between their territories. And then, the Europeans happened.

The Squamish Nation were the first to make contact with the Europeans. Theirs, if you have ever seen it, is the Thunderbird symbol (watching over the people). The Musqueam Nation had been in the area longest (I read, four thousand years before), and today’s Marpole area used to be an old Musqueam village and burial site. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation had lived around the Burrard Inlet for thousands of years and were known as the Children of the Takaya (Wolf). They each had their own histories, cultures, and governments when the Europeans came. The Europeans did not see it that way.

What followed is such a thick history of injustice that I can’t possibly fit it into this single post, but I will cover the main details of it. Let us first not forget that BC became a part of Canada in 1871. Only five years later, in 1876, the Canadian government tried to put these separate First Nations people under one umbrella. In other words, they tried to categorize them into something that made sense to them, so by assimilating them.

They created the Indian Act, which is still existent today. It was basically a piece of legal legislation that allowed the government to control the First Nations people by two main things. One was their categorized “Indian” status. (Because this act was created a million years ago, the word Indian is still legally used in regards to the First Nations, which is insane. I had no idea it was still literally used in legal terms. I had thought that that bizarre term had been extinguished years and years ago. Apparently not.) They also put the different Nations into “bands”, into what I would term another cookie cutter category (I have the feeling a lot of what the settlers did was trying to categorize things. They should have built more libraries).

The second thing mentioned in the Indian Act that was of bigger impact was about the First Nations people belonging to the reserves. The First Nations had a much bigger, traditional and ancestral ground that they had lived on before the settlers had come – due to the Indian Act, they were pushed back to live on reserves: small patches of land which were nor nearly enough for them to live off of. Not wanting to cut corners or anything, the settlers also banned Potlachs (formal ceremonies the First Nations in this area held for a variety of different events such as weddings, deaths, settlements, etc), and they took away their drums, blankets, and masks for good measure (this lasted from 1884 to 1951).

I literally took a step back after getting to this point. I imagined a government employee coming to my door and taking my morning coffee and blanket away from me (is cold in the mornings where I live, so the blanket is used as a toga while the coffee is being drunk), and telling me I can’t celebrate my birthday, and that I will have to find sustenance from living in my apartment alone. I would, I’m pretty sure, smack that employee upside down. Though the coffee is crucial here (bad idea to remove it in the mornings), none of these things are truly important to me. I can live without celebrating a birthday, or a blanket, or whatever. I would still be thinking, however, what right has he to remove all these things. I can only imagine that the people from whom all these things were simply removed by some outsider, were outraged on various levels, especially since they were important things. They were a part of their culture and a part of their life.

Things only went further downhill for the First Nations. In 1870, Residential Schools came to be, which was a way for the government to “take the Indian out of the child” (it’s possible some of the adults did employ some slapping, I assume, so they aimed for the children). Aboriginal children were taken to distant schools, run by the government or the church, where they were essentially assimilated into the European way of living. Their living conditions weren’t good ones (unsurprisingly). The children weren’t allowed to speak their own language or perform anything from their own culture, they were forced to wear European clothes and have European haircuts (why the haircut component was important is beyond me), they were hungry often (some of these schools did not have proper funding, I believe, as they were through the church), and were not allowed to return home for months or years at a time. Many children were abused in various ways, and many more died.

In 1920, this horror became mandatory. Parents who tried to keep their kids at home were fined or sent to prison. The most insane thing from all this (to me), was that the last federally funded Residential School closed in the year 1996. I was eleven in 1996. I thought things were more civilized in 1996. Today there are people my age walking around who were forced to go these schools. I can’t believe it took them that long to close them! It’s estimated that about 150,000 children were forced to go to these Residential Schools, and that approximately 40% of them had died (though most apparently died in the beginning).

If there is anything that is a part of Canadian history that makes you want to slap the leading bodies out of existence, this would be it. This was a part of history they didn’t touch when I was in high school. Instead, they bored us to death about dates of Canada’s birth (and really, not much happened for a good, long time). I dearly hope it’s different for today’s education system. The Germans are teaching their children about their part in World War II – are we teaching ours about what the settlers did?

There were other atrocities that added pressure to the First Nations (though I still think taking their children was the worst of it). From 1911, the Canadian government was allowed to take the reserve land without the First Nations’ consent (and they had already stripped them of their land in general); from 1914, it was illegal for First Nations people to wear their own traditional or ceremonial clothing; from 1927, it was illegal to hire legal help or to fight for their rights. Aboriginal women, too, if they married anyone not of “Indian” status (so someone who might be Métis, Inuit, or essentially anyone not First Nations from the area), would lose this status. Their children, too, would lose it, from the little I’ve learned.

It put these people in a position where to live on the reserve (and life was difficult, apparently) would leave them with their identities, but to leave it for a possibly easier life (more work or food options for one, as I understand it), they would be forced to assimilate and become someone else. Many people stayed on the reserves. It wasn’t until 1951, when political changes and cultural activities became legal for the First Nations, that several things changed. However, there was still a long way to go and there were still many people who were affected.

The First Nations were able to at least defend themselves now, and fight for their own rights. Some got some of their land back in the form of treaties, something that is still happening today. The Squamish Nation had signed an Amalgamation document in 1923, stating that their traditional lands were still theirs (so they did not give it away to the settlers), which I think helped things. Every once in a while, when you attend events around Vancouver, you will hear a speaker come to the front to acknowledge the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people, now. Today there is far more effort in acknowledging this than I remember as a child. I hope that is a good sign.

All that the First Nations had gone through in the time of the settlers’ arrivals had leaked down through the generations. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Residential School Syndrome (yes, it’s called that), and survivor’s guilt are a few issues that have sprouted down throughout the First Nations descendants, passed on from generation to generation from all they had suffered. I found, for example, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society that is active even today to help those who are still suffering from the side-effects, so to speak. I found articles and papers written about this subject alone, some scientific, some not. One can only imagine the level of oppression that the First Nations had experienced at the time, at the turn of the last century. And it’s likely not even half of it.

I’m pretty sure I can keep going at this point, because I made enough notes for a book. However, that would be me doing an excellent job of going off on a tangent, so I’ll try to stay focused. This is supposed to be about Vancouver, its history, its life today. All the same, the First Nations’ stories are a big part of it. A horrible part of it, but a part all the same, and shouldn’t be forgotten. The only consolation here is that there is more First Nations art, more culture, more of the First Nations language classes today, to hopefully, in time, reverse some of what had been done. I hope it’s working.

I’m still slightly irritated from writing this, so hopefully this will end more peppy and less murderous. We were supposed to be back in around the 1920’s, before I delved into three different sets of histories. We were in a hospital at one point. We were trying to show what life was like around Mount Pleasant at one point.

It was between the 1920’s and the 1950’s that the four Sisters of Immaculate Conception made their way to Mount Pleasant from Montreal to open Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital. At this time the Mount Pleasant area was beginning to, and later on was, suffering from industrial expansion. In 1921 came the street cars and easier commute. The Chinese immigrants were settling in the area, their children going to segregated schools, the parents running shops and not owning their houses (until the 1930’s, that is); European settlers were taking business opportunities to expand their businesses in this (to them) untouched territory, the church was sending Sisters of various sorts to help build hospitals and do charity work; and First Nations people were still living there, trying to survive on the small bits of reserves they had been given, were not allowed to have rights, and were having their children taken away for assimilation.

There was a mix of people living in this area: European, First Nations, Chinese (and other immigrants), and all striving in their own way to make do however they could in a harsh place (I think the Europeans did less than that in making do, but I’m ridiculously biased by now). BC had just become a part of Canada, trade was increasing (those wily railways), and everything was going great. Great, but with a multitude of problems. This was the world back then. The photos I’ve found of this time all looked poor, but somehow thriving, but it wasn’t. So much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. This, all the same, was how Mount Pleasant came to be, this first and oldest suburb of Vancouver.

Today, much of Mount Pleasant is residential and there are a whole lot of heritage houses in the neighbourhood that people are trying to protect. Most of these heritage houses are houses built by the settlers. It’s still interesting to see a very old dwelling as a part of history, but what about the old ancestral grounds? What about the old parts of town where the Chinese used to live? What about the dregs of society that are forgotten in lieu of the gold rush, or the railway, or the breweries? Remains and reminders of these places are still there, though off the beaten path. If you want to see old Vancouver, you’ll have to look deeper.

First, to get to Mount Pleasant by transit, you need only go to Main Street SkyTrain station and take bus number 3 (Main), which is generally somewhat shabby on its own (so it’s like transporting you back in time). You will see the Lee Building on the corner of Broadway and Main (still there!), you will see a variety of murals all over the place (it’s enough to walk around and see the murals peeking out from the unlikeliest of places). The murals are all different and bring life to the place, something that I feel the neighbourhood has been trying to achieve to bring it up again, and perhaps help keep those old houses and bits of history. Still, some are works of art, those murals.

Lee Building, Vancouver, BC | From Archives, 1940

From here, you need only zig-zag through the streets, towards 900 East 7th (exercise is good for you, stretch those wobbly, little legs), across which there is China Creek North Park (where Charles Maddams once bought a 5-acre farm on which Chinese farmers used to work, and later on where some of the Chinese population settled). Then you might zig-zag back to west 12th Avenue and stroll down it (this is a block system, so you really shouldn’t get lost), and wonder where the house might have been where Percy Williams lived. He won two gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter races in the 1928 Olympics, and used to practice in his front yard. You might as well also hop over (hop might be stretching it) to Lorne Street, where the only Chinese architect at the time, W. H. Chow, had built his own house.

By now you might be exhausted and can wander over to where there are now again pubs and breweries near False Creek, or, if you’re really falling apart, get a taxi and visit Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital (if you actually need it by now that would suck, but at least you know its background!) – and maybe, if you notice the streets you’re passing by during the taxi ride, you’ll notice a diagonal street with multiple lanes; once it was an old trail (that would be Kingsway now).

Kingsway and Main, Vancouver, BC in 1908 and 2014 | From Daily Hive Article, (1) Philip Timms, Vancouver Public Library, #6780; (2) Robert Willis

If you’ve recuperated from the hospital (or are more of a walker and haven’t nearly died), you might wander your way to Broadway SkyTrain Station (that’s a walk, certainly), but from there, by the black, metal fence that’s between the Broadway and Commercial Stations you might see the dip in the landscape. This dip leads directly to False Creek, to where False Creek is (north of Mount Pleasant). This was where I thought that creek, dubbed Brewery Creek, used to be…but I can’t for the life of me determine if that’s true. Everything I search comes up with brewery tours (I don’t not recommend those).

Maybe you’ll pass by 10th Avenue and Main Street and give a mental high five to the place George was born. Maybe you’ll end up in Chinatown to 23 East Pender Street or 43-47 East Pender Street, and see the buildings Mr. Chow had designed. Maybe you’ll walk over to Yaletown Roundhouse and see the first train that had entered Vancouver in 1887 (locomotive 374). Maybe you’ll finish this tour by reaching False Creek again and see the expanse of water that leads to where Mount Pleasant lies; and wonder what it was like on the other side, before the walkways were made, when there were no condos, no boats or yachts, no settlers, but only forest. No bridge, and no breweries. Only trees.

History is a confusing, snaky sort of thing; sometimes you can’t tell when it starts and when it ends. It was a confusing mess of conflicting cultures that had formed the area as it is today, and all coming from their own directions. Today you go to Mount Pleasant for a variety of businesses, or if you live nearby (or if you don’t), to eat at a fun restaurant (lots of these). Once, however, it was far more alive than today. It was alive, but in the harshest form of the term. People were happy, successful, afraid, and suffering…every form of living screamed its way throughout the struggle of this time period. I hope at least for some, that today’s decisions and choices make a positive effect for those who had lived so thoroughly in the past.


Sources & Links:

Barkerville, BC – First Chinese community | Canadian Pacific Railway – history about the CPR | Chinese Canadians – history on Chinese Canadians | Chinese History (First Opium War) | Chinese History (Taiping Rebellion) | China Creek North Park || Coast Salish Nations: Musqueam Nation | Squamish Nation | Tsleil-Waututh Nation || First Nations Guide – great for Newcomers | Hastings Mill Museum – old shop left from the old Hastings Mill | Indian Act – Overview of the past and present Indian Act | IRSS – Indian Residential School Survivors Society | Lee Building (Vancouver Heritage Foundation) – History about the Lee Building || Mt. St. Joseph’s Hospital: Providence Healthcare History | Mt. St. Joseph’s 1971 Pamphlet History || Vancouver Municipalities of: New Westminster || Vancouver Neighbourhoods of: Gastown | Marpole | Mount Pleasant | Mount Pleasant History || W.H. Chow’s Houses: Ming Wo | Yue Shan Society || Vancouver Heritage Foundation Interactive Map – map of heritage houses and other information | Vancouver – history of Vancouver before it was



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Published by Treensbert Churchmouse

I'm a European-born individual, raised on the west coast of Canada in beautiful BC, and a Vancouverite at heart. I love the world of city, sea, and mountain we are lucky to have, thanks to many years of some proper tectonic plate action. Vancouver is a vast, thriving west coast city, balanced perfectly with the peace of the wild surrounding it. That said, I love to explore, but also to escape! I'm a writing and travel enthusiast and have a good foot wedged into the tourism industry (it only follows, if one is a travel junkie). I hope to share what I see and learn about my experiences with those who might like to try the same.

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