The village of Alert Bay lies along a southwest-facing beach on Cormorant Island in Johnston Strait. The bay was named after a British corvette H.M.S Alert surveying the BC coast in the 1850s. The first industrial salmon cannery in Alert Bay was constructed in 1870, the first lumber mill, in 1887. The Kwakwaka’wakw name of the place is Ya’Lis meaning “spreading-leg beach”. There are fewer than two hundred people today who speak Kwak’wala and would use that name.
Telegraph Cove turned its memories into a small industry. In 1912, it hosted a one-room northern terminus of a telegraph line originating in Campbell River. A small village sprang up around a sawmill and salmon cannery that were built in the 1920s. When logging and fishing come to an end in the 70’s, the village was not abandoned to a fate of slow decay like so many settlements. Old wooden cabins were restored and the old cannery transformed into part restaurant, part museum. It’s now a popular tourist destination. Jim Borrowman operates two charter boats there.
After some thirty years in Vancouver, Flora Rufus moved back to Alert Bay Village, where she was born. When Vancouver Sun writer Stephen Hume asked her what is permanent in this community, she responded: “Me, I plan to die here. It doesn’t get more permanent than that.” When her picture was taken at the edge of the old burial grounds at Alert Bay, she put on her mother’s bright red ceremonial dress and stood motionless in contemplation, looking into the setting sun.
Sointula is a small fishing village on Malcolm Island located off the northeast shore of Vancouver Island. It’s not far from Cormorant Island and is served by the same local ferry. The village is home for Istvan Marton, a refugee from Hungary who settled on the B.C. coast in the early 1960s. He reflected on the awe he felt on first experiencing the rich abundance of the huge, easily accessible trees, and the amount of money he made felling them. “We thought it would last forever”, he said with nostalgia.
A decaying totem pole stands in front of the former St. Michael’s Residential School at Alert Bay. Built in 1929, the school was operated by the Anglican church. The curriculum included academic subjects, carpentry, boat building, and farming. First Nations’ children as young as six were forced into St. Michael’s. One of them, as an adult, described his forced conversion to Anglo-Saxon beliefs and values as a severely damaging experience. He did not know any English and was beaten repeatedly for trying to speak his native language. The building was eventually turned over to the ‘Namgis First Nation in 1973.
The U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay is home to the famous Potlatch Collection of masks and other ceremonial objects. Its curator, Andrea Sandborn, a devoted guardian of the Kwakwaka’wakw cultural heritage, arrived at the photo session on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle. She seemed perfectly comfortable simultaneously occupying two worlds founded of seemingly incompatible principles.
Gordon is a third generation Japanese-Canadian fisherman. His white troller boat has not been to sea for a couple of years. He finds employment by clearing salmon spawning streams of log jams caused by indiscriminate logging.
At the mouth of the Salmon River, Kelsey Bay, a storm embedded a tree trunk into a rusting hull of a decommissioned World War II convoy escort ship. It was used as a wave breaker to create a harbour for the logging operation at nearby Sayward. The settlement was named after William Sayward, a carpenter who moved to Vancouver Island from California in 1858 and became a successful lumberman. There was a small First Nations village at Kelsey Bay when the first settlers arrived. The village emptied by 1917 and today the reserve is unoccupied.
Some of the most ancient memories of the coast are preserved at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island, and in the stories of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.
In the once thriving fishing center, Winter Harbour, at the northern end of Vancouver Island, an abandoned cannery and docks remain quiet. A few tourists and sport fishermen appear in summer but in winter the permanent population is fewer than 10. Ron Lust works during the summer at the Grant Sales general store in Winter Harbour. He said he did not believe in the depletion of fish stocks and vehemently disagreed with the government’s restrictions on fisheries, which he blamed for the decline of his community.