Conversations with Susan Millar - The MultiCultural City

New Westminster may be much more multicultural than you imagine, but the reality is that the city has been a hub of people from far-flung places right from its beginnings and still is. In this episode of “Conversations with Susan Millar”, Historian and City Councillor, Jaimie McEvoy, tells a fascinating tale of the many waves of immigrants that have come to live in New Westminster since it's establishment by the British Royal Engineers, also known the Sappers, in 1858.

Of course, before the settlers, were the many First Nations, who established permanent and temporary settlements along the mighty Fraser River as Jaimie explains. There were also people from places such as the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), who worked in the fur trade.

But the British, who had claimed the area as a British Colony without regard to the indigenous people, had the Sappers lay out, hack down woods and build the roads for the entire city stretching from 20th Street through to Sapperton East. New Westminster was to be the Capital of the colony, strategically located for defence against the Americans. The Governor of the colony, James Douglas, sought to bring in disaffected American blacks, who had felt betrayed by a recent Act that had restricted their rights as free blacks. There was fear that the Americans would take over the colony.

The gold rush brought the first wave of immigrants, largely from the United States, mostly California. The first city directory covered San Francisco-New Westminster! The city was bustling port and gateway to the interior. Tens of thousands of people came, and the City became the provisioning place for the gold seekers. But the gold rush soon waned and the capital of New Westminster was moved to Victoria. The city went into decline. Most Americans went home, including the African Americans.

But there were waves of immigrants who came here over the years. Chinese people came to New Westminster early on and fishing was their main occupation. New Westminster had more than one “China Town”. The Japanese, who came later in the 19th century, were also fishers. During the Highland Clearances in Scotland in the late 1800s, when people were pushed off the farm land in favour of sheep, some of those people migrated here. According to Jaimie, the Scottish brogue was widely heard on the streets, as,at one time, 20% of the population was Scottish. In the early 20th century, Sikhs came from the Punjab and were largely employed in the lumber industry. All of the non-white immigrants were subjected to systemic and government sanctioned prejudice that made their lives very difficult.

Jaimie tells in detail some of these unpleasant stories of our history. He also puts the stories in the context of the wider global events.

Among the stories he tells is that of the ship named 'Komagatamaru', that was turned back to India despite the fact that India was part of the British Empire, and the Indian people were entitled to enter and be citizens of this country. He tells stories of the life of the Chinese people of New Westminster. Among the prejudicial actions they suffered: They were not allowed to lease heavy equipment from the City to do work, as all other local businesses could. The City also refused to provide services such as sidewalks and street lamps to the Chinese areas. Then there was the Japanese internment during the Second World War. Their homes in Queensborough and their fishing boats were seized and sold quickly. He has a core of stories.

He also speaks to the waves of other immigrants in later years. For example, many people came from the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s. And there were waves of refugees from countries in conflict in recent times, for example, from the Sudan and from Somalia. He says that up until the 1950s, New Westminster was very attractive to newcomers in comparison to Vancouver, as the place was relatively benign and rents were low.

So if you don't think New Westminster is a multicultural city, think again. Watch the program; it is enlightening.

by: Susan Millar

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