City of perpetual displacement: 100 years since the destruction of the Kitsilano Reserve

EDITORIAL. This year marks 100 years since the dispossession of the Kitsilano Reserve. Today also marks the renewed displacement and dislocation of diverse communities in East Vancouver, with the intensification of  land struggles in Grandview-Woodlands and the Downtown Eastside, two areas of the city with diverse indigenous communities. This article argues that the 1913 destruction of the Kitsilano reserve is connected to the present through a past that has, in fact, never been resolved.

False Creek Indian Reserve, Granville and C.P.R. Kitsilano bridges, the McCreery and Johnston residences and a cannery ca. 1880 [1]

In 1971, the Downtown Eastside was officially designated a “historic area” in the City of Vancouver. In addition to neighborhoods like Shaughnessy — which for decades received special status for planners and politicians — Gastown was singled out as a founding neighborhood of the city. Today Gastown is the epicentre of city-backed revitalization, pushing into neighbouring areas DTES and Grandview Woodlands,  with a concerted attempt by planners to make the old into the new. The attempt to repackage the past, however, makes the real stakes of history more relevant than ever.

Despite attempts, it is impossible to understand the past and present of the city without foregrounding colonialism. Today the area between Victoria and Cambie, roughly encompassing the DTES and Grandview-Woodlands, has the highest proportion of indigenous people in the city, home to Musqueam, Tsleil-waututh, and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) people as well as others from across Canada: Mohawk, Blackfoot, Cree, Nisga’a, Kwakwaka’wakw people and beyond. With the most recent round of rezonings and local area plans handed down by a pro-developer city hall,  these communities face a renewed experience of dislocation with intimate links to the past.

Yet, in a city that only acknowledges its history through symbols and marketable gimmicks — the Gastown Steam Clock remains a model for popular history — the founding injustice is poised to be repeated. Is it possible for a colonial government to promise healing and reconciliation while the processes of displacement and settlement continue or even worsen? The City of Vancouver has declared 2013 as the Year of Reconciliation, but the present only continues to weigh down on an unfinished past. One small part of this past is the forced displacement of the Kitsilano Reserve 100 years ago, in 1913, a time that is startlingly similar to our own.

A Brief History of the displacement of the Kitsilano Reserve

For the first decades of Vancouver’s colonial history, from roughly 1870 – 1900, Indigenous people lived on and off reserves throughout the city. One urban reserve was the Kitsilano Reserve (Sen̓áḵw) located under the south side of present day Burrard bridge. By 1903 it was estimated that twenty-some families lived on the reserve. In the previous decades the colonial state had forced Indigenous people from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories onto small reserves throughout the Lower Mainland. But by the early 20th century the colonial powers wanted to expropriate even those small bases of land — including the Kitsilano Reserve.

Motivating the dispossession of native territory in Vancouver was the view that First Nations did not attain the “highest and best use” of the land. That self-benefiting assumption was present in all colonial discourse and planning, and was implemented across British Columbia. The future was foretold when the first settlers, led by Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, arrived in 1860 at Alberni Inlet. There they claimed that the Nuu-Chah-Nulth people “did not occupy the land in any civilized sense, and it lay in waste for want of labour. If labour could not be brought to such land, then the worldwide progress of colonialism, which was ‘changing the whole surface of the earth,’ would be arrested.”[3]

Group near Jericho Charlie’s home on Kitsilano Indian Reserve (Snauq) 1891 [4]

On these terms, several attempts were made by white settlers to appropriate the lands of the Kitsilano Reserve. At a public meeting about the Reserve as early as 1903, white settlers agreed that “the reserve as at present is of no use to anyone, and is moreover an eyesore to the city and an easy resort for criminals.”[5] In an article appearing in the Province, with the heading “Reservation may be ours,” the newspaper echoed the call for displacement. “So far as they are concerned,” the newspaper wrote, “a better provision could easily be made for them at some other place, just as convenient.”[6] The reserve, in the heart of the city, was seen as waste of valuable land that could be used for better and more “practical” uses.

The small population of the Kitsilano reserve unanimously opposed all efforts to displace them. However, within a decade the population was forcibly removed in 1913 by the provincial government. Khelsilem Rivers had a great grandfather who was 21 years old when he was displaced from Sen̓áḵw. Today Rivers is a local Squamish community organizer who focuses on decolonization and Indigenous language revitalization, and he tells the story of displacement vividly: “We had a community that had been for generations living over in the Kitsilano area, over there close to the planetarium and present day Vanier Park. And in 1911 there were eleven families living there, government authorities came in and they told those eleven families: ‘We’re going to give you some cash. You have to get on this barge and we’re going to ship you out and we’re buying the land from you. And if you don’t leave, we’re going to forcibly move you, or kill you.’”[7]

The dispossession of the Kitsilano Reserve, 1913

In 1913 — exactly one hundred years ago from this year — the heads of the families living on the reserve were pressured to sign their own displacement contract in return for petty compensation under threats and intimidation from the provincial government and Attorney General W.J Bowser. Within days the families had to leave their ancestral land for an unknown future. As Rivers put it, “they got put on the barge, and the barge was pushed out into the ocean.”[8]  With the eviction of Kitsilano reserve, Bowser proclaimed that the “eyesore to the citizens of Vancouver for many years and hindrance to the development of the city” was finally gone. Significantly, he added that the dispossession marked “one of the best real estate transactions ever carried out in the province.”[9]

Myth of the pioneer hero: from Gassy Jack to Pidgin Restaurant

The Granville townsite, which later became Vancouver, started with an entrepreneurial restaurant run by Jack Deighton (“Gassy Jack”). The Squamish called the area Luck Luck ee (Grove of Beautiful Trees), but by the late 1880s the site was overrun with development, even while the Squamish still camped there. In 1886-7 the Canadian Pacific Railway followed Deighton’s choice of location, extending its line from Port Moody to the Granville Townsite. The CPR line established Vancouver as the core port city on the colonial mainland. A statue of Gassy Jack in the centre of Gastown commemorates his legacy as a colonial pioneer. Despite his lesser-known legacy as a pedophile, having married a 12-year old indigenous girl named Qua-hail-ya, Gassy Jack remains a civic hero to this day.

Cordova Street, July 1886 — names of businesses being rebuilt after the great fire [10]

It is safe to say that when most Vancouverites hear about Gastown and the Downtown Eastside today, it is in the context of gentrification and the struggles raging between existing residents and the owners of high-end restaurants and condo developments. On both sides of the battle, new and old residents draw on their connections — both spoken and unconscious — to the history of their neighbourhood. Citizens who rally behind gentrifying businesses in the Historic Area sense deeply that they are representing the interests of the city, often tied to the spirit of the pioneers who first built Vancouver. As Simon Kaulback, general manager of Boneta restaurant, puts it in an interview with the Gastown Gazette: “This area was the beginning. The people that have inhabited and opened business here are pioneers.”

New citizens in Gastown are materially connected not only to a neighborhood with new shops and expensive restaurants, but to a historic identity of Vancouver with its heritage, culture and values. They are, as Kaulback says, “on the forefront of pioneering a neighbourhood.” In his book The New urban Frontier, Neil Smith has rightly argued that the notion of the urban pioneer is as “arrogant as the original notion of [national] “pioneers” in that it suggests a city not yet socially inhabited; like Native Americans, the urban working class is seen as less than social, a part of the physical environment. [Frederick Jackson] Turner was explicit about this when he called the frontier ‘the meeting point between savagery and civilization,’ and although the 1970s and 1980s frontier vocabulary of gentrification is rarely as explicit, it treats the inner-city population in much the same way.”[11]

When today’s self-styled pioneers tap into the myth of the entrepreneurial frontiersman who paves the way for colonization, they are building on a legacy of dispossession, on the one hand covering up the violence of the past while on the other hand glorifying it. Restaurant owners like Kaulback, Brandon Grosutti or Mark Brand are cultural and ideological icons in today’s food renaissance. But in the context of this history, they are also archetypal figures who embody the meaning and mythology of colonial Vancouver itself.

It is important to remember that the role of the pioneer is ideological.  “Much like a [national]  frontier,” Neil Smith continues, “the gentrification frontier is advanced not so much through the actions of intrepid pioneers as through the actions of collective owners of capital. Where such urban pioneers go bravely forth, banks, real estate developers, small-scale and large-scale lenders, retail corporations, the state, have generally gone before.” Pioneer ideology gives credit to chosen individuals for a process that is in fact systematic and deeply social. By the same token, the larger goals of profit-making would not function without the pioneers who are willing to dispossess and displace.

The Displacement of the Displaced: From Kitsilano to the DTES

The best thing that could happen to the Downtown Eastside is already happening — it’s being cleaned up. As some of the most expensive real estate in Canada, it’s inevitable. Council needs to ignore all voices, no matter how strident or angry, that defend the DTES’s abominable status quo. –The Province Editorial, “The sooner the Downtown Eastside is cleaned up the better,” April 18th, 2012

As Natalie Knight has pointed out recently, each single justification given today for displacement in the Downtown Eastside has already been rehearsed and re-played throughout Vancouver’s history.[12] The dispossession of the Kitsilano Reserve marks a process of double displacement. By removing those who had already been once-displaced onto the urban reserves, this displacement of the displaced initiated a cycle of dispossession and inequality that continues into the present. For the several decades following the eradication of the Kitsilano Reserve, the appropriation of reserve and non-reserve land continued and indigenous people in Vancouver and across British Columbia were forced into prisons, residential schools and foster care.

Today many of the survivors of displacement, racism and multi-generational oppression have found a strong community in the DTES, home to strong Indigenous communities of resistance. Nowhere in Vancouver is displacement more contested than in the DTES, where eviction and incarceration are a part of daily life. Repeated displacement has caused the dislocation of communities, but it has also created strong communities. It is not surprising that the DTES has become a refuge for displaced people throughout Canada and globally, becoming a center of migrant justice.

“Aboriginal and low-income people in the Downtown Eastside understand what forced displacement means,” the DTES Not for Developers Coalition writes on its website. “Many of us have been pushed out of our home communities and into the DTES fleeing high rents and poverty, racial and colonial discrimination, domestic and family abuse, and grappling with addictions and other health struggles…Now, after we have struggled to create safe spaces in a violent world, and belonging out of alienation, we are facing the threat of displacement again.”[13]

Peter Deranger at the Olympic Tent City, 2010

The story of Peter Deranger is one of many displacement stories in the DTES. Peter is a traditional Dene elder who grew up in the 1940s within the land of Treaty 8, spanning Northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. As a youth, Peter was displaced by the uranium mines used to supply the atomic bombs that would destroy Nagasaki in 1945. Since then, he’s been displaced from his lands continually – once by the tar sands of Fort McMurray, once in the 1970s by the uranium industry of Northern Saskatchewan, and once again by the wildlife extinction caused by the development of the W.A.C. Bennett hydroelectric dam in Northern British Columbia.

“I can’t go back to the paradise of my traditional hunting ground,” says Peter. “If I want a decent house and a decent living [there], I have to be a corporate slave and work for the people who destroy my own land. So I’ve decided to become a refugee, to come to the Downtown Eastside, to live with my people.” Peter’s life is humbling, and his struggles are empowering. They are an active reflection on Natalie Knight’s question: what does it mean to make a subjective decision from within colonial history, “struggling to remain agents in histories and conditions not of our own choosing.”

By gathering as a community in resistance against condo development, displacement, and evictions, the people of the DTES are asking when the cycles of colonization and re-settlement finally come to a halt. By standing in the way of upscale condominium projects and expensive restaurants like Pidgin and Cuchillo, they are posing a simple question: When will the displacement end?

Thank you to Khelsilem Rivers for contributing his knowledge and stories to this article, and thank you to Natalie Knight.


[1] City of Vancouver Archives photograph collection, Reference code: AM54-S4-: Dist P81
[2] City of Vancouver Archives photograph collection, Reference code AM1376-: CVA 1376-203
[3] Cole Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002), p. xvi
[4] Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: In P1.1, Photographer: Matthews, James Skitt, Major
[5] Jean Barman, “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity in Vancouver,” BC Studies 155 (Autumn 2007): 3-30, 167
[6] The Province/Daily Province, 7 October, 1903
[7] Transcript from “Doin’ it Together: A documentary about the Purple Thistle” by Carla Bergman and Corin Browne: Social Spaces Summit, Purple Thistle, Nov. 2012.
[8] Transcript from “Doin’ it Together: A documentary about the Purple Thistle” by Carla Bergman and Corin Browne: Social Spaces Summit, Purple Thistle, Nov. 2012.
[9] Jean Barman, “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity in Vancouver” (Ibid.)
[10] City of Vancouver Archives photograph collection, Reference code: AM54-S4-: Str P7
[11] Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996)
[12] “The systems of thought and ideology that result in developers and municipal leaders’ campaigns to continue to displace low-income and homeless people are the same systems of thought and ideologies used to justify colonization and the displacement of North America’s indigenous.” Natalie Knight, “Decolonizing Gentrification: Putting the land back in our class war” (May 2013), presented at the Rent Assembly, Vancouver
[13] This text was part of an invitation to a town hall called “Ending Cycles of Displacement,” hosted in the DTES in November 2012