Island Hopping in Canada
By Justin Carreno
Junto Staff Writer
In a month-long stay in the northernmost city in the contiguous United
States, Bellingham, Washington, I couldn't resist, on several
occasions, to make the easy 20-mile drive to the border and head here into
The border crossing seemed to be a mere formality. One time I interrupted the border guard during her
questioning to ask if she would mind stamping my passport. She cut her questioning short, stamped it, and let me on my way. Stamping passports, obviously, is not the norm.
As Americans call their bit of this area in the US the 'Pacific Northwest,' I thought I might have entered the Canadian 'Pacific Southwest.' I asked. Canadians, too, refer to it as the Pacific Northwest. Go figure.
I drove north to Vancouver through farmland and smaller outlying suburbia where the Canadian flag was
flown outside businesses and homes alike. Could it be these folks are even more into flag-waving than Americans? Say it ain't so!
Actually, I had noticed in northern Washington that the American and Canadian flags were frequently flown alongside each other in front of businesses and the like. A mark of friendship? Nah, just trying to generate more C-based business. (Oddly, this dual-flag fanfare wasn't case in southern British Columbia -- despite the American dollar having more purchasing power in Canada).
When I first arrived here, the biggest city in western Canada
and the third largest in the country with approximately 600,000
residents, I thought, "Welcome to … China … India?" Where were
Vancouver is a diverse, international city with more than
50 percent of its residents having a first language other than English. But
they're Canadians, and their accent is distinct and immediately evident.
Accent, international flavor (make that 'flavour'), currency, and metric
signage aren't the only differences. Take a deep breath and smell the
fresh mountain air….
Oh, and the scent of cannabis. Marijuana is legal
for medicinal purposes in Canada, and you'll pass by several medicinal
cannabis pharmacies while walking downtown. Aside from medicinal use,
it is (allegedly) illegal, but it is widely accepted and not enforced.
And take a stroll down newly-designed Granville Street in the heart of
what is now referred to as the Entertainment District and see topless
beauties going in, yes, going in the clubs. No law against women being
topless in public in Vancouver.
Other 'liberal' laws exist. There's no minimum drinking age, if the imbibing is under, ahem, parental supervision. There's no minimum age for gun purchases if the weapon is intended for sustenance. Same-sex marriage has been legal nationwide since 2005 and the minimum age to join the military is 16. On a more edgy note, the legal age of consent is 16, and 12, if consensual sex is practiced with someone two years older or less. I may have just left the home of the brave, land of the free, but I just arrived at the home of brave women and land of the free to do pretty much anything you want to. So what is freedom really about?
Vancouver is undergoing construction and cleanup efforts in preparation for the 2010 Olympics. But, actually, how do you cleanup a city that is already clean? Very clean.
And despite lenient laws and liberal social attitudes, for years Vancouver has had a reputation for being a quiet city with a subdued nightlife, and it has been sarcastically dubbed as 'No Fun City.' Attempting to change this image from boring, where one safely tucked in by 10 pm, has devolved into a pro-active approach placing banners on light posts announcing, 'FUN CITY.' Get that? 'We're FUN CITY.' The Chamber of Commerce actually paid money for that?
The most significant initiative of the Granville Street Entertainment District 'experiment' seems to be combating evening sluggishness. The city is telling Vancouverites to take a break from their coffee drinking, their running, climbing, cycling, and kayaking -– take a break from recycling and pot smoking, and go out and have what is otherwise known as fun.
Vancouver, and British Columbia as a whole, are known as being easy going
and having a laid-back culture where lounging at coffee shops and the
outdoors is part of life -- and a life markedly different than the
eastern provinces. As part of the Pacific Northwest, coffee-shop
culture has permeated British Columbia just as much as Washington and
Oregon with the popular Canadian coffee/doughnut shop chain, Tim
Horton's, flanking one side of building and Starbuck's on the other
just to make sure you won't go without your hourly dose of caffeine. ('Tim's,' as it's known, now has outposts in New York City).
But this laid-back lifestyle is no match for those living on Vancouver
Island where the provincial capital, Victoria, is located. I took the
one-and-a-half hour BC ferry ride from Tsawwassen in metro Vancouver.
Tsawwassen is pronounced with the first "T," and the first "s" is
silent. In the native Coast Salish language it means, "Facing the
(Tsawwassen, on Tswwassen peninsula, also provides the only road access to Point Roberts,
a geopolitical oddity belonging to Washington State. It is a true enclave located at the tip of the peninsula and can only be accessed from the rest of the United States by traveling through Canada or
crossing Boundary Bay).
The ferry crossed the Strait of Georgia, through the Gulf Islands, into Swartz Bay on the Saanich Peninsula, finally landing in Sydney, a well-kept port town of about 10,000 people that has a the feel of Newport, Rhode Island, with antique shops, bookshops, restaurants with ocean-front outdoor-seating, and the obligatory cafés.
I drove off the ferry to the main strip of Sydney, parked, and walked along the beach boardwalk with the sun illuminating the blue-green waters of this island that has no less than a Mediterranean climate. In fact, I was confused when I saw palm trees growing on this northerly island. They're not native, but they flourish and do well under cultivation.
Driving east along the coast for about 30 minutes brings you to
Victoria. You'd think that you just arrived in a British city. With 'castles,' red double-decker buses, and with everything prefixed with 'Royal,' this city puts the British in British Columbia. It's a lonely city on a bay with about 300,000 residents.
Why is this provincial capital isolated on this island? It's all about territory of course. It secured the island as part of Canada.
As for the city of Victoria, my first impression was, "I've never seen so many people over the age of 65 riding bikes." It happens that the unofficial slogan this town goes by is, "Newly Wed, Nearly Dead." It's a haven forVictoria is dominated by its 19th-century fairyland-like Provincial Legislative building, a rigidly symmetric, neo-Baroque pile with wedding cake turrets, and a grand entrance stairway. (All that's missing are some toy-like soldiers 'guarding' the place). At night, the building, which faces the waterfront, is lit up like a Christmas tree. Atop the building's dome is a statue of Captain George Vancouver.
honeymooners and retirees, which is transferred to the entire island.
The island economy is based on the logging, tourism, service industry,
and to a lesser extent fishing. It is also home of the Royal Canadian
Navy's Forces Pacific Command in the southern coast city of
The building also holds one the city's best-kept secrets, the Legislative Dining Room. It's casual dining, open to the public, and reasonably-priced because of a government-subsidised menu. When the legislature is in session, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), ministers, and other assorted VIPs are also in evidence.
As I was photographing the legislative building, an elderly man offered to take a picture of me in front of it. He snapped the photo and then advised me not to walk into the building. In a
French-Canadian accent, he mentioned how years ago when he first moved
from "Back East" (yes, they say 'Back East' here too) he had walked in the legislative building one day,
climbed the stairs, and went into the rotunda. Suddenly guards
approached him asking how he got in and what he was doing there. He
said the doors were open. Unforgiving law enforcement locked him up
that evening. He found the whole situation humorous and laughed while
telling me the story.
The Gothic Christ Church Cathedral, part of the Anglican Diocese of
British Columbia whose see city is Victoria, was another attraction
I visited. It was a Sunday, I'm Episcopalian (Anglican here), and I was in a
pseudo-British city, after all, and so where better to go to church?
After the service, I explored the island's southern coast, winding my way through the contrasting mountains and sea. I drove through inland and coastal towns -– some quaint and some that could have been any
town, USA, with strip malls with standard international chain stores, like Staples, Home Depot, McDonald's.
Navigating the island can be slow going. It's about 300 miles long and 50 miles wide, taking about
six to eight hours to transit because of the mountainous terrain and lack of major roads.
On the transit back on the ferry after wandering around the ship for
awhile I sat on the outside deck next to a girl who was singing and
making adjustments to a song she was writing. I thought it was
interesting and began to chat with her. We talked about island life. She mentioned its extremely easy going. In fact, she left the island for a few years to go to Calgary
and found the city life to be too intense, and said she will never
move off the island again. She had a five-year old son who was
visiting his father on the mainland, and she was picking him up.
She said the common perception of an American by Canadians is
someone who is uptight, works alot, and doesn't make time for fun.
She said she was waitressing, going to community college part time,
but eventually wanted to go to "UVIC" (University of Victoria). I
asked about state sponsored programs. She said she has health care,
school is partly funded, and the government helps. I played devil's
advocate asking what gives her incentive to work hard if she's being
supported by the government. Well, the hope for a better life of
In the short term, she said, you can always improve your quality of life by using marijuana. Vancouver Island, she noted, along with the Gulf Islands, are notorious for their cannabis grow-ups, abetted by near-perfect growing conditions. This sentiment is shared widely by Victorians and other island residents.
Cannabis production in BC, particularly on the Gulf Islands, is a C$6 billion-a-year industry. It's tolerated by the Canadian government, but the US is trying to prevent cross-border entry of the weed, a contentious point between the two nations. For those involved in marijuana 'industry,' there's fierce commercial competition to maintain high quality -- in an equally fierce illegal market that drives costs up. One often hears the now standard observation, and probably accurate one, as well, that legalizing weed in both countries would stop crime associated with the industry and that taxing it would result in a public gain.
On another foray, I strayed to the eastern outposts of Abbotsford and
Chilliwack with populations of about 100,000 and 80,000 people,
respectively. They are nestled in the Fraser River Valley with
spectacular views of the Cascade Range and Mt. Baker. The drive itself
is worth the time, crossing the Fraser River which snakes along the
valley of steep mountain ranges. Abbotsford is an industrial centre
and Chilliwack is an agricultural community. They are best accessed on
the US side by the Lynden or Sumas border crossings further to the
On my way there, I took the Lynden crossing and on my return I
attempted the Sumas crossing for a longer, but more scenic route, but
encountered a sign saying it closed at 5 pm. It was 5:15.
I stopped in Abbotsford at a Petro-Canada to get a coffee and fill up
my tank. I spoke to guy while waiting in line who I assumed was
Canadian, but was American. He lived in Lynden, Washington. He said he
was just up there with his wife running errands. I asked if that was
common. He said its closer to Bellingham, so it's typical
for people from Lynden to go over the border for dinner or to run
I ate lunch in Chilliwack, a backwoods town, but quaint nonetheless,
surrounded on all sides by mountains. When I pulled in the sky was
blue and sunny –- always odd to see snow-capped peaks when I, myself,
was nearly sweating in shorts and short-sleeved shirt. I had lunch
downtown on the patio of the Wild Oats Café. I struck up a
conversation with another customer and asked my typical questions,
"What's this place all about?" and continued with my survey regarding
health care. I continued, "So, I have to ask what do you think about
socialized health care?" The person was miffed why the US didn't have
it 50 years ago. "Too little to late, possibly…," the customer