A town crier delivered a proclamation and birthday cake was served last week to mark the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the city of Victoria.
On this august occasion, citizens took to the streets and squares on the weekend to wish the City of Gardens many happy returns.
Two free anniversary celebrations held simultaneously on Saturday offered contrasting images of the city. One harkened to the past, the other to a dynamic present.
On the south lawn of Craigdarroch Castle, a mansion built from the riches extracted from Vancouver Island coal mines at the cost of many lives, celebrants dressed in period costume while playing croquet, sipping tea and enjoying the 14-piece Raven Baroque orchestra.
Less than two kilometres down the hill, in a grittier downtown setting, two blocks of Amelia Street were closed to vehicles for a block party celebrating local food, music and visual arts. Kathryn Calder and Acres of Lions performed, as did a troupe from Theatre SKAM, who dressed as conquistadors while engaging in a shootout with waterguns shaped like flintlock pistols.
A power-ballad singalong petered out, though a karaoke session featuring a live band was more successful.
Volunteers at the block party collected a suggested $5 donation with the proceeds going to the nearby Our Place, which provides food and rooms to the homeless. Amelia Street, which boasts rows of renovated heritage buildings, many of them home to businesses such as law offices, has also been known as a gathering place for crack addicts and others among the city’s raggedy army of lost souls.
The Craigdarroch event mirrored much of the traditional boosterism of the city, the kind which can be found in glossy brochures. You had a castle, Victorian-era costumes, and a hot beverage and a genteel lawn sport that swept Britain at the peak of empire.
Named after a ruling monarch, Victoria has long promoted itself as a surviving far-flung corner of the empire at the edge of the world, a pitch that still lures tourists to this day – afternoon tea, red double-decker buses, a touch of Merry Olde England.
It’s all a bit of a con. The city’s history is more prosaic.
On Aug. 2, 1862, the townsite of Fort Victoria incorporated as a city, a highfalutin designation for a raggedy settlement of saloons and wood shacks with a population of 3,200. That figure would almost double by year’s end.
Founded on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples, Victoria became a city in the same year as another smallpox epidemic swept through a vulnerable native population.
A modest fort established by a fur-trading company boomed as a supply centre and entrepôt serving prospectors heading off to the gold fields of the Fraser River, then the Cariboo, and, finally, the Klondike.
Big things were planned for the city that grew around a marvellous natural harbour. The colony of which it was named the capital was enticed into Confederation as the sixth province with the promise of the building of a rail link.
Victoria was to be the British empire’s grand terminus of the Pacific, only to be usurped when a railway terminus was built to an upstart village of sharpies and charlatans on the other side of Georgia Strait.
Our little capital punches above its weight, sending out into the world the likes of Nelly Furtado and David Foster, Steve Nash and Silken Laumann, Simon Whitfield and Ryder Hesjedal, Atom Egoyan and Cory Monteith, former Yahoo executive Jeff Mallett and Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield.
The city’s reputation as home to the “newlywed and nearly dead” is as tired as the “wee corner of the empire” schtick.
As quaint and pleasant as was the Craigdarroch lawn celebration, my Victoria is a downtown block party.
My Victoria is music from the likes of Adonis Puentes and Jets Overhead.
My Victoria is locavore restaurants like Mo:lé and Cabin 12.
My Victoria is the Galloping Goose trail and parking stalls converted into bike lockups.
Happy birthday, you sesquicentennial beauty. Don’t let anyone tell you to act your age.