Land's End


In 1999, Christopher Grabowski, a documentary writer and photographer, read an article in the Globe and Mail, reporting that “the Department of Fisheries and Oceans withheld a major study of economically devastated West Coast fishing communities and then released a sanitized version, omitting the criticism contained in the original report.” He packed his notebook and camera and set out for the west coast of Canada, north of Vancouver, a vast, rugged mosaic of islands, peninsulas and waterways at the edge of the continent. There he travelled from place to place—usually by water, because no roads can be built there—and talked to people in towns and villages whose world had changed profoundly, almost overnight. That trip turned out to be the first of many over the next ten years.

The west coast of Canada, which extends 965 kilometres northwest of Victoria by air (about 27,000 kilometres of coastline), once supported scores of resource towns and other single-industry communities. Fish, forests and minerals were rich, abundant and conveniently located near myriad waterways for easy shipping to destinations near and far. These resources have been extracted in huge quantities for some two hundred years, faster and faster as each decade has brought new technology and new demand for the products.

Along the west coast, as in other Canadian hinterlands, most of this bounty has been obtained in resource-dependent towns: small, remote settlements built around mines, mills, fisheries, railways, smelters, etc., to accommodate the workers who extract and process the resources. Workers and their families moved long distances to settle in these small, isolated towns, which had access to the outside world only by steamship (and, by the 1950s, small aircraft), because the wages were good. But resource towns are precarious by nature: the raw materials can simply run out, and world markets (most products are exported) are unpredictable. Even when exports are healthy, businesses and governments are vulnerable to the pressures of globalization and outsourcing, and residents have little or no control over the local economy.

The post-war boom in B.C.’s resource-dependent economy could not last forever. In the early 1980s the economy stalled and then plummeted. In only two centuries, a priceless trove of natural resources that had been maintained by indigenous people for thousands of years had been plundered; much of it could never be restored. Over the next decade, many small centres along the Pacific coast were devastated. Some towns managed to sustain themselves with other activities; some limped along in a smaller, slower economy; some were abandoned.

The story of these places that emerged for Grabowski years later, at the turn of the millennium, is about “land’s end” in the geographic sense. It is also about the end of an economy based on the assumption of infinite natural resources, and about the frontier communities that made the resource boom possible. It is a story about missed opportunities, but also the many opportunities that are yet to be explored, particularly the chance for all of us to look at British Columbia’s resource and single-industry towns—those that have survived and those that haven’t—from a fresh perspective.

Ucluelet, Winter Harbour, Sointula, Zeballos, Telegraph Cove—even the names of the places Grabowski visited point to a long, miscellaneous, rich history of settlement and livelihood. The two towns described here, Ocean Falls and Alert Bay, represent two very different perspectives on land’s end—as a place, as an idea, as a possibility.

Ocean Falls

The best way to get to Ocean Falls, a very small community 480 kilometres north of Vancouver and accessible only by air or sea, is to travel to the northern tip of Vancouver Island and then proceed north by ferry, following inlets and channels of unsurpassable beauty. The ferry stops at isolated communities to unload cargo and to let a few passengers disembark. After about a day and a half of sailing, it arrives at Ocean Falls—or what’s left of it—in the middle of the night.

Ocean Falls, known as one of the the rainiest inhabited places in Canada, was occupied by the Heiltsuk people for thousands of years. In 1906 a group of American and British businessmen chose this place as the site of a sawmill, mainly because of the power that could be generated by the waterfall there. The seasonal Heiltsuk village at the base of the waterfall was moved, and the mill was up and running by 1909. Three years later the Ocean Falls Company built a pulp and paper mill, and the town grew rapidly. A hotel was built, as well as tennis courts, two churches, a dancehall and, in 1928, an indoor swimming pool. At its peak in the 1950s and ’60s, Ocean Falls was home to more than four thousand people.

In 1972, Crown Zellerbach Canada Ltd., which now owned the paper mill and the town, decided not to upgrade the mill at Ocean Falls despite record sales exceeding $200 million. The company had begun to develop a more modern plant at Elk Falls, near Campbell River on Vancouver Island, and the provincial Social Credit government agreed to transfer the timber rights from the Ocean Falls operation to the new mill.

Crown Zellerbach began shutting down the mill and Ocean Falls in 1973. That was an election year, and the new NDP government bought Ocean Falls for $1 million and restarted the mill. But having lost the timber rights, the operation had to buy more expensive timber on the open market; in 1980 the mill was shut down permanently by the Social Credit government, which had returned to power. Five years later the government began to remove Ocean Falls—that is, to destroy houses, commercial buildings, gardens and everything else by bulldozing them and burning them down. Residents tried to stop the demolition, going so far as to place themselves in front of huge backhoes, but they were forced to give way. “On August 23,” wrote Peter Offerman in a report for the Ocean Falls Improvement District, “dejected residents stayed away from the town site while half a century of history was flattened in just a few hours.”

Today Ocean Falls is home to about thirty-five people year-round and about a hundred in summer. It is administered by the Ocean Falls Improvement District, a designation that the provincial government made in 1986 in response to residents’ vigorous protests. The town’s largest employer is the Central Coast Power Corporation (CCPC), and there is a volunteer fire department, a post office, a yacht club and a library association, among other services. Both the CCPC and concerned residents have tried to encourage silviculture, tourism and other enterprises; but the future of ferry service is uncertain, and the old mill site is contaminated with asbestos and other materials. In fact, according to the Central Coast Regional District, the site is “an unsightly mess”; there is disagreement as to who is responsible for cleanup.

Alert Bay

Cormorant Island, a few miles off the northeast corner of Vancouver Island, and Alert Bay, the snug harbour inset into its coastline, were named for British warships in 1846 and 1858. The bay had been a seasonal gathering place for the ’Namgis (Nimpkish), a Kwakwaka’wakw nation, and by 1890 had became a permanent settlement for them with a residential school, salmon cannery and church, and in the early twentieth century a sawmill and hospital. The town of Alert Bay that emerged consisted of a “White End” and a “Village” made up of two Indian Reserves. The island is now home to a diverse population of about fifteen thousand people, divided fairly evenly between the Village of Alert Bay, the ’Namgis First Nation and Whe-la-la-u Area Council.

During the period of first contact, European trading methods were congenial to traditional Aboriginal practices; but as the Europeans developed resource-extraction industries, Aboriginal culture was displaced by the economic culture of company towns and other single-resource towns (based on commercial fishing, logging, mining, etc.), and the Aboriginal workers formed the bulk of the labour force. The gold rush of the 1850s brought thousands of new immigrants into the hinterland, and the diseases of Europe took an enormous toll among Aboriginal people. Measles, influenza, tuberculosis and smallpox killed thousands of Native people in just a few decades. By 1920 the original population of nineteen thousand Kwak’wala speakers on the west coast had been reduced to one thousand, a decline of 95 percent. Many villages and food sites were abandoned.

As the settler population surpassed the Aboriginal population, and western industrial practices proliferated, the role and status of Aboriginal people as stewards of a hunter-gatherer economy were reduced to those of day labourers. In 1884 the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch ceremonies with which the Kwakwaka’wakw and other First Nations marked important occasions such as marriage, naming, house building and honouring the dead. Potlatches could go on for days of feasting, dancing and bestowing gifts.

In December 1921, Chief Dan Cranmer organized a potlatch at Village Island near Alert Bay and invited about three hundred guests. The occasion was Cranmer’s marriage, and the ceremony would also mark the transfer of certain rights. On the first day, Cranmer received gifts from his wife’s family, all of which, along with his own fortune, he gave away in the course of the celebration. Police charged forty-nine people with violating the potlatch law, and twenty-six people were imprisoned in the penitentiary in New Westminster. Ceremonial items were seized; some were sent to North American and European museums.

St. Michael’s Indian Residential School for boys and girls was established at Alert Bay by the Anglican Church in 1882. Residential schools were funded by the federal government and run by churches; their purpose was to assimilate Native children into the dominant society. Children were taken from their families to live for most of the year in the schools, where they learned some skills but also were punished harshly for speaking their own languages and engaging in Native cultural practices. Outbreaks of disease killed large numbers of children. Physical, sexual and psychological abuse were rampant throughout the ninety years or so that the schools operated.

The ban on the potlatch was never repealed; instead it evaporated in 1951 when a new Indian Act was drafted by the federal government. Aboriginal Canadians were given the right to vote in 1960. Most of the residential schools in Canada were closed in the late 1960s and early ’70s. St. Michael’s School at Alert Bay was acquired by the ’Namgis First Nation in 1975 and eventually renamed ’Namgis House. For three generations, Aboriginal communites in Canada suffered the accumulating effects of cultural suppression and are today emerging from the resulting nexus of poverty, substance abuse, mental illness and poor education. Languages and traditions are being recovered; populations are regenerating.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology to Aboriginal people who had suffered in residential schools. “This policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language,” Harper said. He cited “tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.”

Beginning in 1979, some of the Kwakwaka’wakw property confiscated at Dan Cranmer’s potlatch in 1921 was returned to the community. Some of the items can be seen at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay.

"Lands End" is part of the Geist Memory Project and is made possible by assistance from Arts Partners in Creative Development. To support projects like this one, please donate to the Geist Writers and Artists Fund.

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Christopher Grabowski’s award-winning photographs have been exhibited in Canada, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany. His photos and articles have been published in many periodicals and anthologies in North America and Europe. Visit him at




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Land's End

The resource towns along the west coast of Canada— those that have survived, and those that haven't— tell a story of land's end, as a place and as a possibility.