What exactly is stolen land, and how can one live and travel in Canada responsibly?
On the west coast of Canada sits an enviable city where glass towers bathe in sunlight during the summer and shower in rain during the rest of the year. Surrounded by mountains and the rippling ocean, Vancouver is Gaia in city form. In Vancouver’s province, British Columbia, the landscape is one of rugged beauty. Such is the desirability of the area that immigrants like me flocked to this west coast for a chance at a new life, reminiscent of European ”settlers” over 170 years ago.
What sets Vancouver apart from other cities is how it thrives with nature on its doorstep: from the beach to mountain skiing in less than an hour. It’s a land that realtors are getting rich selling and a land that many want to be returned to its rightful inhabitants.
The city was named for George Vancouver, a British man of the Royal Navy who had previously surveyed the Pacific Northwest coast in 1792. In the early 19th century, William Van Horne, the Vice-President of Canadian Pacific Railway, decided that the company would extend its line westward from Port Moody to Vancouver. The provincial government declared that the land belonged to the crown, something that hadn’t been negotiated or agreed upon with the Indigenous communities but allowed the Canadian Pacific Railway to extend.
When I first arrived in Vancouver from England, one of the first things I encountered was the term “stolen land” via TikTok, which served me coverage of protests that happen regularly in Vancouver’s downtown. It became apparent to me that this is a land with a story to tell. As a British man now living in Vancouver, I decided it was time for me to learn what really happened when the first Europeans arrived in this utopia of natural beauty.
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The British educational system mostly overlooks its history of colonization. I took the General Certificate of Secondary Education history in high school, and not once in three years was I taught about the British Empire. Instead, we focussed on the World Wars, America in the 1950s, and the six wives of Henry VIII. I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but the plight of Native Americans was not on my radar until my twenties.
Moving 4,000 miles across the world isn’t done on a whim, and I consumed many a guidebook to prepare me for my move. However, during my research, I didn’t come across any Indigenous stories, and instead only came across the names of the Europeans who came to Vancouver. The guidebooks, however, did highlight some of Vancouver’s most visited locations and tourist hotspots, from Gastown to Stanley Park. In my excitement to experience the new place I was living in, I made these two places top of my list to go and explore.
Amongst the tourists and the trendy boutiques walks a figure in a black coat, a bowler hat atop their head, and a lantern clutched in their hand. Behind them, excited and fashionable people seem to follow this figure who could be from the 1800s. This isn’t a ghost sighting, though ghost stories are a favorite around this part of Vancouver. This is Emmett Hanly, who leads a tour for Forbidden Vancouver, telling the true, full history of the city.
Hanly is a member of the Métis Nation of British Columbia and identifies as non-binary. They graduated from university with a BFA in acting in 2020, and being able to be a tour guide for Forbidden Vancouver allows them to flex those skills. Forbidden Vancouver brings history alive, focusing on the people who lived on this land long before those Europeans first arrived.
We are touring Vancouver’s first “modern” neighborhood, Gastown. Cobblestone pavements and red-bricked buildings add a rustic charm to an otherwise always-changing, modern city. Gastown is named for a Yorkshire seaman known as Jack Deighton, who talked so much he was nicknamed “Gassy Jack.” Upon arriving in Gastown, you will smell tantalizing food from the many restaurants, sample Vancouver’s own beer from Steamworks Brewery, and hear the unmistakable sound of the Gastown steam clock, where many people gather on the hour to film the steam billowing from the top.
“A smallpox epidemic devastated the Coast Salish people in the 1700s, long before Gastown was ever built,” Hanly says to the group. Later, they indicate a spot in the cobbled pavement where a statue of Gassy Jack once stood proudly. “Gassy Jack married a 12-year-old girl from the Squamish nation.” The modern tourists grimace. Vancouver has history, and part of that history is ugly: when the British and Spanish colonizers arrived and assumed control of the area. And this is a history that continues to haunt and harass: In February of 2022, the statue was torn down by protestors who don’t want a shrine to a man who violated an Indigenous child on display.
“Many people know that Vancouver is a city that stands on unceded territory,” Hanly says once they have finished their tour. “No land treaties of any kind were ever signed between settlers and the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh Nations. With this theft of land came the erasure of culture and history.”
“I think that the tourism that takes place on this land should always involve some sort of Indigenous perspective. Engaging with others and walking with them on this very land and teaching its history is one step towards a larger cultural repatriation of identity,” Hanly says.
It’s this identity that Vancouver seems to be slowly coming back to, with a lot more open and educational conversations taking place, as well as steps being made for reconciliation. Hanly believes that by visiting Vancouver and seeing it from an Indigenous perspective, travelers are helping to support the Indigenous people living in Vancouver. “You are walking away with a greater understanding of the importance of the history of this place and, ideally, a will to help correct the wrongs of the past.”
On the other end of town, luscious green fir trees still stand from a time when Indigenous people had control of this land. Stanley Park, on the West End of Vancouver’s downtown core, gives way to the 10-kilometer seawall. A little while away from this part of the seawall are the Stanley Park totem poles. It’s here that Patrick Canning, who identifies as Hooyisgum Ganaaw from the Ganada clan and the house of Ksim Xsann, adopted by the Haida into the Slinglanaas clan, represents Talaysay Tours, which focuses on Indigenous history and storytelling. Stanley Park is a massive tourist attraction. It is often referred to as “the crown jewel” of Vancouver (the irony of the idiom is not lost on me) and is named after Lord Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby. Along the coastline of Stanley Park lived many First Nation peoples. One of these settlements was the X̱wáýx̱way, which housed hundreds of people who lived on the land, surviving off the forest resources and the marine environment to create homes and families over generations. It was in 1887 when city employees destroyed the homes in this settlement and evicted the residents so that they could build a road.
“I don’t hold back when stating the fact this is stolen land,” Patrick says about his tours. “Tours from an Indigenous perspective [matter] so that people will remember that this is stolen land and will also have a better understanding of the spiritual significance of whose land we are on.”
This spiritual significance can be felt by many when they first arrive in Vancouver, even if they aren’t necessarily believers in spirituality. On a basic level, there is an undisputed understanding that Vancouver is special.
“There are many sacred places in Stanley Park,” Patrick explains. “Several have been destroyed by tourists.” This is in reference to the Cathedral Trees, which were chopped down because of a fear they were endangering tourists. “There are lakes [in the area] that are in danger of drying up because of colonial activity. But this place is comparable to a church, temple, or mosque. Unfortunately, the land has yet to be recognized in that way.”
“There is a statue of Lord Stanley with his arms outstretched and a quote welcoming all people of all creeds, and at face value, that is all well and good,” Patrick says. “Lord Stanley gave that speech when colonial officials decided the land should become a park. During the construction of the road, the remains of Coast Salish people were exhumed.”
Nearby is what is now known as Deadman’s Island, a land not open to the general public. John Morton, a settler, from Huddersfield in England, visited the island in 1862, where he discovered hundreds of red cedar boxes hanging from the upper boughs of trees. He then discovered a box that had fallen and contained black hair and bones inside. The Squamish people had used this land as a tree-burial ground. The island, once a sacred place to the Indigenous people who lived along the coast, now boasts Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship, Discovery, Vancouver’s Naval Reserve Division. This is yet another site that the Musqueam First Nation wants back. These are the stories from history that often go omitted or unacknowledged. It’s why Patrick sees tourism from an Indigenous perspective as vital to the responsible tourism movement.
“Many of the tours are colonial in nature, so you will only get one side of the story,” Patrick explains. “It would be good to have the full picture. By learning history from the other perspective, an Indigenous perspective, people may get a better idea of the world they live in.”
“Stanley Park, or as politician and Squamish Chief Ian Campbell calls it, X̱wáýx̱way Park, and wishes to rename it, to me is a sacred space,” Patrick continues. “I was recently reading an article that discussed the returning of parklands to the Nations whose territories the parks reside in. I would like to see the lands returned to the Nations for stewardship and for ceremonial use.”
There are other reasons why Patrick would like to see the land returned, one of which is to help fight climate change. “Indigenous people globally are the only thing that is standing in the way of climate catastrophe, and the Indigenous communities are frequently on the frontlines defending the land and water. With the land being under the jurisdiction of the various [First] Nations, it would give those Nations the ability to steward that area in whichever way they decide is best within their communities.”
As a tourist on a tour, a new resident of the city, I wasn’t sure what I should do with this information. Acknowledging the true history of the area is only the first step toward reconciliation. But what next?
“We always appreciate it when our traditional territory is acknowledged and respected, with authentic Indigenous stories showcased throughout the destination,” Keith Henry, President, and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, tells me. “Indigenous peoples have called these lands home for thousands of years. We strongly encourage people to take the time to learn about the local Indigenous culture and learn about the Indigenous history of what is now called Vancouver.”
There are best practices for that as a traveler. Visiting and traveling responsibly won’t solely fix such a complex and fraught history. But non-Indigenous people can begin to challenge our own undereducated perspectives by seeking out and listening to those who are fighting for their right to be heard.
“Seek out an Indigenous operator and Indigenous experiences as an important part of your visit,” advises Henry. One way you might want to do that is to visit the Destination Indigenous website, which was created to assist visitors in planning their trips.
To fix the injustices of the present and make way for a more equitable and just future begins with understanding the past. We non-Indigenous residents and travelers may need to face what we may have been unwittingly (or willfully) ignoring. As you plan your visit to Vancouver, consider how you might be able to play a part in righting the wrongs of the past and how you can travel consciously. Acknowledging the origins of the land we live on, travel on, and experience is the start of the process. There is more work for non-Indigenous people to do.