III. Vancouver’s Economic and Commercial Development

Generating capital and growth

“Few of us came here for our health. We came here to make money, to better our conditions.”
R. G. McKay, March 4, 1890, (News Advert.)

“…don’t forget that Vancouver, B.C. the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, is the base of supplies and controls all the routes to the Klondike and British Columbia gold fields.
William Ogilvie, 1897

“The past year has been one of the most prosperous in the history of the city, almost every line of business showing a large increase over any previous year.”
editorial, March 6, 1912, (Van. Sun)

“Even if the attempt by the I.W.W. to create trouble has failed, the very fact that they are agitating and that they have a large number of foreigners under their influence constitutes a menace to progress in this province which the government cannot afford to overlook.
editorial, July 26, 1912, (Van. Sun)


View of Hastings Sawmill
View of Hastings Sawmill.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [AM54-S4-: Mi P60 ]

Every city needs a source of capital to survive. For Vancouver it was outside capital and big companies rather than a surrounding agriculture that jump-started the city’s economy. By 1891, nine sawmill companies supported by British and American capital had emerged along the city’s waterfront.[1] By its sheer size and ownership of so much acreage within the city the Montreal-based CPR influenced the City of Vancouver with, for example, streets and neighbourhoods such as Marpole and Cambie being named after its executives and senior employees.[2] While an oversized hotel and opulent opera house served primarily to advertise the CPR, social clubs such as the Terminal City Club further differentiated the CPR from the general populace.[3]

David Oppenheimer, 1887
David Oppenheimer, 1887, developer and 2nd mayor of Vancouver, 1888-1891.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [Port P1790]

Land speculation by David Oppenheimer’s Vancouver Improvement Company (VIC), a syndicate formed in 1886 by Victoria residents, generated its own capital but was nonetheless dwarfed by the CPR. City streets that bore the names of sixteen developers testified to the influence of land promoters in the city’s early years. Ironically, a street named after Oppenheimer was changed after street names were rationalized.[4]

Within the first decade, secondary support industries grew in Vancouver and the nearby city of New Westminster. Industries filled in along the waterfront on both the Coal Harbour and False Creek sides, alienating Vancouverites from their connections with the water and even the precious view of the mountains.

J.Hanbury and Co. Mill and view of False Creek
J. Hanbury and Co. Mill and view of False Creek. (Click image to enlarge)
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [PAN 107]

Being at a distance from capital markets, Vancouver in 1906 created its own, the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Junior and venture companies trading on the VSE often focused on mining but over the years because of ineffectual regulation it became a haven for stock market predators. In 1999 it merged with the Alberta Stock Exchange and Bourse de Montréal to produce the Canadian Venture Exchange.

Organized labour, boom and bust cycles and social reactions

I had a contract to clear the land at $300 an acre in [1887], and John McDougall came in and offered to do it for $150 [using Chinese labourers].”
City administrator, Mr. H. P. McCraney, 1931

“Where the Fraser River flows, each fellow worker knows
They bullied and oppressed us, but still our Union grows
And we’re going to find a way, boys, for shorter hours and better pay, boys!
And we’re going to win the day, boys, where the Fraser River flows.”
IWW activist and songwriter, Joe Hill, 1912

To the Public
We the Striking Relief Camp workers have taken over the City Museum.
No Damage to the building or contents is intended.
We appeal to the Citizens to support us.
Now phone McGeer Demanding immediate relief.
Strikers Committee (May 20, 1935)
(CVA Add Mss No. 336, vol 19, file 104)

“Here we have in our midst some 1500 men asking for a right to work and a right to live, and our leaders disclaiming all responsibility.”
H. Pearson, Rural Dean of Vancouver East, W. J. Minto-Swan, Rural Dean of Vancouver West, May 1938 (Van. Sun)


Hook and Ladder Company of the Vancouver Volunteer Fire Department.
Hook and Ladder Company of the Vancouver Volunteer Fire Department.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [PAN P95]

Within Vancouver, workers had to find ways, amongst the market boom and bust cycles, to establish fair wages and working conditions. For example, in 1886, to change the common practice of 12 hour working days to 10 hours, the white Burrard Inlet mill workers went on strike. Unsuccessful, they managed to defeat mill manager R. H. Alexander in his bid to be elected Vancouver’s first mayor. The following year, however, the labourers closed three mills and managed to win a 10 hour day.[5] Various strikes followed in the next few years, whittling down the number of hours worked.

Early Workmen’s Hall, Labour Temple, and Finnish hall.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [P864]

In 1890 workers organized The Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC) which initially limited membership to skilled craftsmen.[6] One VTLC initiative to raise the level of wages was to stop the hiring of Chinese workers who sold their labour at one-half to two-thirds the value of white labour.[7] This was part of a wider series of reactions in such places as California and Australia and New Zealand to what was perceived by white workers as unfair competition from cheaper Chinese and other Asian labour.[8]

Chinese workers at Imperial Cannery in Steveston
Chinese workers at Imperial Cannery in Steveston, 1913.
Image: Vancouver Public Library [VPL2012]

Fear of unfair Asian labour competition[9] drew punitive actions from several levels. The Federal government exacted progressively greater Head Taxes from 1885 to 1903 when the tax on Chinese immigrants to Canada reached $500. In May 1893 the city’s Health Committee had segregated Chinese laundries/wash houses to an area which became “Chinatown[10] and in 1897, at the end of an economic recession, the Provincial Alien Labour Act established fines for employers operating under a provincial charter if they employed Chinese or Japanese workers.[11] Continuing fear of cheap labour and another economic bust resulted in anti-Asian riots in 1907. [12]Similarly, a post-1912 downturn and opposition to recent South Asian immigration triggered the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which most of a boatload of South Asians was returned to India.

At the end of the Great War (the First World War), returning soldiers,[13] high unemployment, a generalized fear of Bolshevism – spurred by the revolution in Russia – and a radicalized VTLC caused disillusioned veterans to revolt against organized labour. These events as well as the shooting death on Vancouver Island of labour organizer and conscription resister Ginger Goodwin[14], led to a general strike, Canada’s first, and three hundred returned soldiers trashed the VTLC offices in the Labour Temple, at 411 Dunsmuir St., and beat up the manager and a female employee in response. After the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, a backlash against radical unions caused the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada to revoke the VTLC’s charter for a year.

A Labour Day parade travelling east on Cordova Street at Cambie Street
A Labour Day parade travelling east on Cordova Street at Cambie Street.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [Str P337]

Labour benefited from the city’s economic growth in the 1920s, a period when industrial job sites ringed the city with sawmills, beehive sawdust burners, and smokestacks that blackened False Creek and Coal Harbour.

Rev. Andrew Roddan and others distributing food to unemployed men at City dump, Sept. 1931.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives [CVA ReN4.1]

The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, brought unemployment, suffering, shanty towns and considerable sympathy from the citizens of Vancouver for the unemployed men. [15]In 1935, a thousand of the unemployed men boarded freight cars as part of the “On to Ottawa Trek.” Three years later, the unemployed occupied the Vancouver Post Office for a month and were finally evicted.

Vancouver Post Office
Vancouver Post Office circa 1937.
Image: Wikipedia

Between 1939-45,a wartime economy saw Vancouverites fully employed. From the 1950s through the 1970s workers prospered but the city had more than its share of strikes as workers sought better wages and working conditions. However, when Vancouver began to de-industrialize from the 1970s, workers had to develop new skill sets to thrive. As well, even though from the 1980s unions in Vancouver and across North America began to decline due to global competition, they continue to remain an important part of the social fabric of the city.

Next Chapter »



Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. R. A. J. McDonald, Making Vancouver, 46; Those associated with sawmills began to show up in street names such as Alexander St. after a manager of Hastings sawmill.
  2. The strength of the company presence was reflected in the naming of 20 neighbourhoods and streets after those associated with the company. Neighbourhoods such as Shaughnessy, Strathcona and Marpole and streets, avenues and drives such as Beatty, Hamilton, Cambie and Keefer Abbot, Angus, Creelman, McMullen, McBain, Marpole, Matthews, Nanton, Neal, Ogden, Osler, and Thornton reflect this. Elizabeth Walker, Street Names
  3. R. A. J.. McDonald, Making Vancouver, 39; The 2000 seat opera house served its “sophisticated” Vancouver purpose well, staging its first opera, Wagner’s Lohengrin, in February 1891 with such singers as Emma Juch (who bought several CPR lots) and Dame Nellie Melba. Ray Chatelin’s “Opera,” as in Davis, 688; Around the same time, Rudyard Kipling also bought property in Vancouver, likely for much the same reason. It wasn’t until April, 1960, however, that Vancouver was ready to establish its own opera company.
  4. Developer-related names were Alexander, Barnard, Campbell, Carl, Dunley, Dupont, Gore, Harris, Hawks, Heatley, Jackson, Keefer, Oppenheimer, Powell, Prior and Raymur. Oppenheimer Street was lost in 1897 to an eastward extension of Cordova St.By contrast the Asian presence was recognized by three streets with an Asian connection, Walker,Street Names,28, 105, 112.
  5. R. A. J. McDonald, Making Vancouver, 51-52.
  6. Printers, carpenters, plasterers, painters, and members of the Knights of Labor, R. A. J. McDonald, Making Vancouver, 55.
  7. Chinese segregated – by-law of May 1893 “that made illegal the erection of laundries or wash houses anywhere except in the vicinity of Dupont (renamed Pender) Street reinforced a process already underway, the segregation of Chinese residents into a distinct area of Vancouver that, as City Health Committee minutes reveal, became officially designated in the mid-1890s as ‘Chinatown.”, Anderson, 82-84, in McDonald, Making Vancouver, 103.
  8. The Asiatic Exclusion League formed in San Francisco in 1905 and the Chinese riots of 1907 were part of a movement northward from the US. Roy, White Man’s Province, 190-91; This built on the Provincial Alien Labour Act of 1897, when BC was similarly coming out of a recession. Roy, White Man’s Province, 124; Lee,” Hemispheric Orientalism,” 19-39.
  9. The Chinese community also engaged in small business enterprises to sustain itself, R. A. J. McDonald, Making Vancouver, 103.
  10. R. A. J. McDonald, Making Vancouver, 87.
  11. Roy, White Man’s Province, 124.
  12. Irrational fear fed by Social Darwinism in the light of a dying corrupt overseas Qing dynasty, a complete lack of understanding of the cyclical nature of Chinese Dynasties, the threat of cheap labour which exhibited cultural preferences to Asia rather than Europe, the unwillingness of the Europeans to share the larger bounty and the importation of opium which was spreading to the Anglo community, were also underlying factors for the Head Tax of 1903 and the Chinatown riots of 1907.
  13. Returning Canadian soldiers were indeed traumatized and angry. Canada as a self-governing Dominion had automatically entered WWI on August 4, 1914, as part of the British Empire and fought to its end with the ceasefire or armistice of November 11, 1918. An initial naivete changed to anger during the four years of the conflict since, of the 620,000 Canadians mobilized first as volunteers and then under conscription, 67,000 were killed and 173,000 wounded in particularly bloody and brutal battles.
  14. Albert “Ginger” Goodwin was an English miner, labour organizer and socialist. During WWI in Trail, BC, Goodwin was rejected for conscription because of black lung and bad teeth. However, when the Conscription Board reversed its decision and deemed Goodwin acceptable, he fled to Cumberland, BC where he hid out with the miners. A Dominion Police Special Constable tracked Goodwin down in the hills behind Cumberland, shot and killed him. The Constable claimed self-defence but the labour movement didn’t buy the story.
  15. Many had come out from the Canadian prairies, which was also suffering from an extended drought, to Vancouver with its much kinder climate.