Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative


Vancouver's First Historian

July 22, 2021

When I was a kid growing up on Vancouver’s west side the book shelves in the living room of my family’s home contained the usual middle-brow reading of the 1950s – Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic nuclear novel On the Beach; the odd Thomas Costain and Pearl Buck title; some volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. But the only book of my parents that I ever took down from the shelf was a copy of Alan Morley’s history of Vancouver, From Milltown to Metropolis. (That’s the very same volume above, now in my own library.) Published in 1961, MtoM was the first book about the city that I read. And now I’ve written my own (Becoming Vancouver, due out in September).

Certainly Morley’s book had its failings. It tended to be a chronicle more than a narrative. (This year such and such happened; the next year such and such happened.) The prose was antique, even for its time. (“No story of Vancouver would be complete without culling a few flowers from the quiet meadow of these years,” he begins his account of the 1870s.) He tended to gloss over the injustices and inequalities of the past. But MtoM was impressive in its own way, not least because it was proof that Vancouver deserved a book, which to a teenager like myself growing up there would not have been self-evident.

Morley might be called the city’s first popular historian. When I went back to take a look at his book I discovered that it was based on a long series of newspaper articles that he had written 20 years earlier. Published as “The Romance of Vancouver”, the series ran in the Vancouver Sun every day for four months between April and September 1940.

Morley had a long career writing for newspapers across Canada and the US. When “Romance” appeared, he was enjoying his first stint at the Sun. The series was based largely on colourful anecdotes collected by the city archivist, the legendary Major James Matthews. Morley did not apologize for writing “romance”, not history. In his series, anecdote always trumps research and the heroic always takes precedence over the mundane. “The epic of the city’s birth is a tale that rivals Homer,” he assures his readers. The series was so well received that station CKWX turned it into a radio play and the Sun re-published it as a book.

Morley died of cancer in North Vancouver on Oct. 6, 1982, age 77. By then other, better histories of the city had found their way into print. But it is worth recalling him as the pioneer.

July 19, 2021

To its credit the Vancouver Sun has signed up Steven Hume to write a series of historical articles to commemorate BC's sesquicentennial of Confederation.

Hume, who is one of BC's finest writers, began his account of the province's history last Saturday and it contines for the rest of the week. 

"And so in 1871, the fire bells rang — as much in...

July 16, 2021

On July 20 British Columbia commemorates 150 years since it joined the rest of Canada. There will doubtless be many celebrations but a new history of the province written by a group of academics and social justice progressives is not one of them.

Challenging Racist "British Columbia": 150 Years and Counting is a warts and all account -- check that, it is an only-the-...

July 1, 2021

Canada's historians, through their professional association, the Canadian Historical Association, have chosen to mark Canada Day this year by releasing a statement about the role of genocide in the country's past.

You can read the statement here.


June 23, 2021

My friend Gil Hewlett passed away the other day. He was 80.

Gil was a respected marine scientist who grew up in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island. He told the story of walking past the Vancouver Aquarium one day when he was a young man arguing with himself about what to do with the rest of his life. This was 1964 when the Aquarium was just getting into orca research. Gil went inside to...

June 4, 2021

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has served notice he wants to change the name of Trutch Street, a Kitsilano neighbourhood thoroughfare. The street is named for a nineteenth century colonial official in British Columbia.

There is a lot of debate these days about removing statues and renaming buildings, but this one is a no-brainer.

Several years ago Canada's History magazine compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of "worst Canadians" and invited me to make a contribution....