The Strait of Georgia, located on British Columbia’s South Coast, is a precious, contested and vulnerable place. Earlier called the Gulf of Georgia and now also known as the North Salish Sea, it is among the most biologically productive marine ecosystems in the world and the focal point of a region that is home to two-thirds of the province’s population. This tremendously rich region also lies at the centre of modern British Columbian history, and knowing its stories is essential for dealing with the Strait’s contemporary resource and environmental management challenges. To address these issues effectively, we need to understand them. And we can’t begin to understand them until we have a handle on the complex history and geography that underlie them.

The histories in this book begin at the onset of Eurasian resettlement of the region in the mid-nineteenth century and examine processes set in motion by British colonisation of Indigenous space. The colonial dispossession, industrialisation and globalisation that took place on and around the Strait of Georgia were not unique to this region, though they were exaggerated by the nature of the place. This sea and the land around it once supported one of the densest Indigenous populations in North America. Its resource wealth—abundant minerals, teeming fisheries and vast forests of giant conifers—surpassed that of most other places on the continent and certainly in the territory that became Canada. In this isolated corner of the world, processes of change that occurred over four or five centuries elsewhere unfolded much more quickly and affected people and natural and recreational resources that were exceptional. Many writers have looked at the links between this colonial dispossession, on the one hand, and settler activities like fishing, logging or the creation of parks, on the other. But none of this work has been situated in the overall context of a critically important coastal region such as the Strait of Georgia, or considered the breadth of the interwoven issues addressed here.

In Halkomelem, a language of the Coast Salish people, who have long lived by the Strait, it is said that high-status people “know their history,” whereas people of low status have become separated from theirs.1 At this point in my life I suspect that writing this book will have little effect upon my status, but “knowing my history” is still important to me. For decades, I have bounced in and out of some seventy countries on behalf of the United Nations, the Canadian government, various non-governmental organisations—even the dreaded World Bank sometimes—to work for a few weeks, a few months or a few years. “Knowing my history” has meant understanding British Columbia, this place my people came to from various corners of the world a little after the onset of colonisation. But getting to know the history of the North Salish Sea has also helped me make sense of the colonial occupation, unbridled resource harvesting and dubious governance that have taken place not just here but in so many places throughout the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Bloc. I hope this book will help readers to better know their own history and the human geography of this special place.

This book began as a doctoral dissertation in environmental historical geography. My late return to academia gave me the perfect opportunity to read about the evolving environmental history of our planet, in which I had played a very small role, and then do my own research on the corner of it that matters the most to me. The more I read environmentalists’ suggestions that the Strait of Georgia was rapidly degrading, that it might even be close to some sort of ecological “collapse,” the more I wanted to know if they were right. And if they were, then how had this remarkable little sea gotten to this point? Coastal ecosystems, more than most, are remarkably complex, multi-dimensional places where human effects on our environment are at their most intense and where marine resources are at their richest and most accessible. I wanted to understand how our practices in and around the North Salish Sea—activities as diverse as fishing and aquaculture, dam building, logging, dumping waste and creating parks—have combined to affect this vulnerable coastal zone both directly and via the streams that feed it.

Finally, I wanted to better understand the ways in which the southern coastal region of BC has been defined by its relationship with the North Salish Sea, ties that I believe are as important as our links to the continent behind the mountains or to the Pacific world. Many historians view bodies of water as settings for history rather than as players in it, but my work and studies have led me to believe that seas exert considerable influence in human affairs. Bodies of water as different as the North Salish Sea and the Aral Sea affect people in many diverse and shifting ways, while they in turn are affected by humans.

This book presents five distinct, interwoven historical geographies of the Strait that end in the 1980s, when the rapid rise of neo-liberalism marked a convenient boundary, as sharply etched on the Strait as elsewhere. Government budgets were reduced, while budding commitments to enhanced government leadership on resource and environmental management that had emerged in the 1970s began to be replaced by “self-regulatory” approaches, to be led by industry and overseen by understaffed government watchdogs. Many archives had also grown thin by the 1980s, while other kinds of primary material virtually exploded. I have avoided both of these challenges, except in the overview of contemporary issues that concludes this book.


1. K.T. Carlson, ed., A Stó:lo Coast Salish Historical Atlas (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2001), 27.