Charles Demers: Vancouver’s fiery history has a habit of repeating itself

In the age of climate change, two of the biggest fears are cities underwater and cities up in smoke

July 28, 2016

By Charles Demers

One year ago, Vancouver was a valley of smoke. Surrounded by a province crisping under the flames of perfectly normal, nothing-to-see-here, unprecedented forest fires, North America’s most picturesque big city felt like a snow globe filled with barbecue dry-rub spices. Social media wits pointed out that the heavy haze looked like 4/20—which it did, minus the joie de vivre but still with the panic attacks. Perhaps appropriately, the crunch of dry, brown grass underfoot during the drought and the water restrictions that followed felt intimately related to the infernal July skies that seemed straight out of Blade Runner.

In imagining the maybe-already-started apocalypse wrought by our carbon corpulence, two of the biggest fears are cities underwater and cities up in smoke. In Vancouver, a city that has always defined itself primarily by its relationship to water—an identification far predating the arrival of most of its current inhabitants, or the decision to name huge swaths of unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land after a British sea captain—we’ve tended not to worry too much about the flames (except during the playoffs…remember those?).

If there’s a primary anxiety, it’s that, after the arrival of the sea levels we’ve been promised, we’ll end up below our beloved sea. That’s why Jeffrey Linn’s speculative map of the “Vancouver Archipelago” went viral on Facebook when he posted it in 2014. The terror of the image, which showed what the region could come to look like over the next millennium or 10, was just barely muted by the whimsy of what The Tyee called “more appropriate names [for] his altered landscape”: the “islets of Brentwood” off the coast of “Coquitlam Island” were just a few minutes from “Condo Reef,” as the fish swims.

But the city was, in fact, born burning. The Great Fire of 1886 nearly swallowed up the nascent civic/colonial-settler project of Vancouver—the flames didn’t lick, they slurped, giving us the inciting incident in the story of our town, retold dozens of ways since (but most perfectly in Lee Henderson’s terrific novel The Man Game). Famously, many Squamish paddled over from the other side of the water to help the fleeing settlers. That’s why Vancouverites have always been so humble and decent with the Squamish since—you know, gratitude.

Some of the descendants of those brave souls, along with their neighbours and allies, have been leading the charge in this corner of the world against expanding the carbon economy. This has primarily taken the form of defending the water and their sovereignty over it—objecting to new and bigger pipelines, which would draw more tankers to their shores just as surely as more bridge lanes bring extra minivans. Like their great-grandparents, they’re doing their part to save the rest of the world from the pyre. I’m grateful for it—happy that somebody’s got their eyes on the horizon through all that smoke.

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