The North Vancouver mountains have always been a destination for urbanites in search of wilderness recreation. This group of hikers poses near the top of Grouse Mountain in 1906. NVMA 55

Communities such as North Vancouver have been called “wilderburbs,”1 places where suburban development borders abruptly on wilderness areas. Located at the interface between urban, suburban and not urban at all, “wilderburbs” combine the density, and intensity, of city living with the wide open spaces of the back of beyond. There are not many communities like North Vancouver where nature intrudes so insistently into daily life, where going “back to nature” is as easy as walking out the back door and seeing black bears amble nonchalantly through the garden gate. For many residents, wilderburbs combine the best of two worlds: the creature comforts of urban living with the rougher attractions of wild nature.

North Vancouver is unique for its location. Spread across the south-facing mountain slopes overlooking one of the busiest harbours in the world, the community is within an easy commute of the urban centre of Vancouver, regularly chosen as one of the world’s most liveable cities. Yet most North Vancouverites identify the natural environment—the mountains, the forests, the creeks and the wilderness areas—as the defining elements of their community, the reason why they appreciate living here. The iconic images of the North Shore—the twin peaks of the Lions, the brightly lit ski slopes of Grouse Mountain—speak to the community’s pride in its closeness to the outdoors and outdoor activity. From the beginning, the North Shore was valued for its wilderness resources: the fresh, clean water that gushes from taps all over the Lower Mainland and the tall timber that produced the wood that built so many homes. North Vancouver has also contributed to the collection of images that residents of the Lower Mainland use to describe themselves. Famously we are the place where two worlds coexist, where people ski in the morning and sail in the afternoon, where the hinterland is never more than a few minutes away.

Yet these images of a wilderness playground cannot obscure the destructive side of the community’s history. It is a paradox that while North Vancouver has been valued as a place to commune with nature, it has also been a place where the natural environment has been exploited and destroyed. The Squamish and the Tsleil-Waututh lived for generations at their camps and settlements along the shores of Burrard Inlet without degrading the complex ecology of the region. With the arrival of outsiders, however, the balance shifted. Forests were denuded to provide wood products for local building and for export, leading to excess runoff, flooding and water contamination. Creeks became uninhabitable for their stocks of salmon and trout. Meanwhile, on the waterfront, industrial activity connected to the port completely transformed the shoreline. Many kilometres of pristine wetlands were filled in and dredged up to make way for mills, cargo terminals, railway tracks, grain silos and chemical plants. The shoreline that exists today in no way resembles the natural shoreline once used by the First Nations to harvest shellfish and hunt waterfowl.

The history of North Vancouver during its first 125 years resembles the swing of a pendulum. Relations with the First Nations people are a case in point. Once settlement began in earnest, the dominant majority forced the original inhabitants to the margins. The needs of the First Nations were ignored. Their lands were expropriated, their culture demeaned. The people were forced onto reserves and into the residential schools in an attempt to acculturate them to the mainstream. But in the past few decades the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Today there is a growing realization in the non-Aboriginal community that it is time to reconcile with the First Nations and work with them as partners, not in order to forget the past but in order to begin the long process of developing a more respectful relationship.

Similarly, the attitude to the natural environment has gone through a profound change. When the District was created in 1891, its land base was viewed as a vast cornucopia overflowing with a wealth of natural resources: timber, minerals, seafood and wildlife. Very little restraint was shown in plundering these resources and landscapes in the name of economic development. More recently, residents of the North Shore have recognized that they are custodians of a unique natural environment and have committed to protecting it by taking a more sustainable approach to economic development. There is no going back. The port-related industries that so transformed the waterfront are the economic lifeblood of the community; they are here to stay. But successful efforts to reinvigorate some of the shoreline, preserve significant amounts of parkland and reclaim the rivers and creeks all speak to a future for North Vancouver that seeks to be very different from its past.

The North Vancouver waterfront is part of the Port of Vancouver, the busiest harbour in Canada. Lisa Wilson photo


1 The term “wilderburb” is borrowed from Lincoln Bramwell, Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).


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