The War of 1812 was 200 Years Ago – Should we Care?

Posters and dioramas at Vancouver’s Canada Place, replica villages in Gananoque, Ontario, battle re-enactments at Toronto’s Fort York – these are all part and parcel of the Harper government’s bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812 taking place this summer. I have to wonder if it’s really worth the  expense to memorialize what for so many of us is an obscure, inconsequential conflict. Perhaps it is the perceived ignorance of our own history which inspired Ottawa to educate us about the war this summer using tax dollars. We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by how keen the current government is for this sort of thing – it’s in the same vein as the amount of wasteful spending which went into re-branding our army as the “Royal Canadian Forces”. We can’t forget where we came from – after all.

The historical narrative being trotted out by Canadian Heritage is that we were born as a nation through defending our borders from repeated attempts at invasion by American forces and that this deserves recognition. No doubt true: the Americans torched Fort York (Toronto) at the beginning of the war, and we (mostly settlers from America originally) set fire to the White House in retaliation. Yay us! We felt better. Avenged even – and ultimately bonded through the experience, becoming a little more “Canadian” in the process and a little less “American.” An important evolution towards nationhood, no doubt, but does it really merit celebrating what was essentially a brutal, prolonged, nasty little war with no clear victor and little gained on either side?

Canadian Heritage thinks so. As part of its campaign of memory, it has spent close to $900,000 dollars in Vancouver alone (not even on the map in 1812) to make sure that West Coasters know the war happened. To that end – there’s a fake ship’s wheel and cannon sitting at the Canada Place promenade, among some other odds and ends.

When neighboring Coast Guard stations are being shuttered due to Tory budget cuts, could this money have been put to better use? You decide.

CP Rail Was on Strike Last Week – Did Anyone Notice?

On May 31st, 4,500 CP Rail brakemen, engineers, and conductors walked off the job and freight operations at Canada’s second largest railway ground to a halt. For businesses dependent on trains to get their goods to market, this was an instant catastrophe.

Deprived of rail, their goods piled up in warehouses and port terminals, or or in bottle necks across the country and they started to rapidly lose money. The stance on Parliament Hill was that if the strike wasn’t resolved soon, it could start costing the Canadian economy up to 500 million dollars a month.

No small wonder then, that by the time the strike hit day three, a panicked chorus of business leaders across the country were demanding action from Lisa Raitt, Labour Minister. And it didn’t take her more than 48 hours to get back-to-work legislation moving through the House of Commons and to the Senate for approval. After all, she’s had practice of late in forcing workers back to their jobs. (All she probably had to do this time was use existing legislation, simply substituing “Air Canada” and “Canada Post” for “CP Rail”!) Surprise, surprise – Lisa Raitt’s bill passed, and by the middle of last week the strike was over. CP workers were back in action, the issue of deep cuts to their pensions proposed by CP management unresolved.

Working for Port Metro Vancouver, it was amazing to me to see how utterly dependent both the Port, but also our national economy, remains on rail to keep business moving. CP opened up a newly minted Canada to Asian markets almost 50 years ago and its importance has only grown even with the advent of alternate modes such as air cargo or long-haul trucking. CP alone handles close to 50% of the over 120 million tonnes of cargo which passes through Vancouver’s port every year. This shows no signs of diminishing with container cargo projected to triple by 2030.

Next time you’re stuck at a rusty rail crossing impatiently waiting for that endless string of rickety freight cars to trundle past, remember that, without rail, we’d be sunk.

Masthead photo courtesy of ahockley’s photostream on Flickr

Vancouver Port Boat Tours Part #1.

I recently started a new job working with Port Metro Vancouver. For anyone who knows me, they’d know that working for a Port is pretty much my dream. And so far, that wouldn’t be far off. Other than a cool working environment, interesting people and snazzy offices, there’s the added perk of getting up close and personal to port operations. In the last three weeks I’ve been invited out on the Port’s patrol vessels for tours of both Burrard Inlet and operations on the Fraser River. Seeing the Port in action from the water is really impressive. Here are some pics from my most recent adventure today on the Fraser River, showing a more humble side of the port (Massive Auto carrier aside.)


This is a view back toward New Westminster from earlier today. Port operations along the Fraser River are some of the biggest in terms of surface area on the North American West Coast. Log volumes along the river are booming recently with pine beetle lumber being snapped up in Asia like it’s out of style. In the background here are several mid-sized gantry cranes used for moving anything from steel, lumber, heavy machinery and pallets of lumber on and off of ships.


The Fraser River is the main terminus for all Asian import vehicles into Canada. This Vessel is docked at WWL Vehicle Services Ltd. Which handles on average over 250,000 new cars a year. This weird Roll on Roll off vessell or “RoRo” can carry up to 6,500 cars. Today it was unloading mostly Mazdas and Nissans.


These little guys make it all happen. Whether in Burrrard inlet flanking super tankers or in the Fraser hauling barge after barge of dredged sand, Tugboats are the workhorses keeping the Port chugging along.  We were lucky to get up close to this one.

Stay tuned for my next post with pics from Burrard Inlet. Massive conatiner ships galore!

Vancouver’s Very Own Viking Ship

For several years now, ever since I’ve lived near English Bay, I’ve been noticing this odd sight out on the water.  Once in a while, there’s this Viking ship out there. That’s right, with that characteristic striped orange sail, oars and what even what look like shields lining the gunnels. On really windy days it never appears, but periodically, when there’s a ruffle of a breeze you can see it bobbing about amongst modern yachts and freighters. The sail seems to hang limp most of the time, but the oars are busy enough.

Turns out that the ship, named the Murin, was launched over a decade ago as part of the BC Viking Ship project. Basically a group of gung-ho folks got together to create a 40 foot replica of the Norwegian Viking Ship Gokstad, which was built around 890 A.D. and unearthed in 1880 near Oslo. The “Gokstad Ship” was amazingly well preserved in an old Viking grave. It is currently on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Pretty hardcore! No maritime city is complete with a couple of full scale replicas bobbing about, I say, and this one does us proud.

But what I really like about the Murin - and I just found this out – is that it’s open to the public. With a donation, anyone is welcome to experience working a real Viking longship. Although this isn’t like doing the Gondola thing in Venice. Apparently one’s expected to show up ready to row! Organizers estimate that up to 5,000 people have the chance to try their hand at sailing the Murin every year.

According to the Viking Project website: “This 40 foot boat can accommodate 12 people and the 2 hour rides are by donation. As a passenger you will be rowing (when there isn’t wind to propel the boat) so be sure to bring gloves to protect your hands…”

Amazing. What a great way to build on our nautical community!

Details on how to embark on the Murin. 

  • Departure Point: Heritage Harbour dock in Vanier Park, Vancouver (map)
  • Cost: By donation (please give generously)
  • How to Book: Email to reserve

Header photo courtesy of stevecadman

CLJ Reviews Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian


“Desolation Island”, the fourth book in Irish writer Patrick O’Brian’s naval series, set in the age of Lord Nelson. O’Brian chronicles the adventures of eccentric ship surgeon/spy Stephen Maturin and his buddy, Captain Jack Aubrey – brilliant at sea and hopeless on land. O’Brian’s writing has been compared to that of Jane Austen’s in terms of narrative style while his portrayal of life at sea and daily life in the wooden world of a man of war has been praised as the best there is or ever was. I picked this book because I was keen to expose the rest of the group to literature about the sea – something I’m passionate about, but also because “Desolation Island” is simply a rolicking good read with international espionage, chases on the high seas, maroonings and lots of funny bits as well.


Appropriately the day to discuss the book dawned with gale force winds coming off English Bay. Due to the weather we were not able to meet, as originally planned, at the Maritime museum, execute feats of nautical expertise such as knot tying, and then embark in an Aquaferry across False Creek. The storm would have capsized us and that would have meant no more Book Club. Instead, we played it safe and met at the aptly named “Pirate Pub” to discuss the book. There, each reader was asked to deliver his own diary entry about life on a two-decker from the perspective of one of the book’s characters. And of course there was a trivia contest based on ship terminology. (None of my book clubs are complete without a trivia contest). No one did particularly well at the trivia. Not at all well, actually, which made me realize that Patrick O’Brian could have sold more books had he just toned it down a little bit with all the rich sailor speak which make his novels so very authentic.


Given that this book, takes place in an entirely male world of a 19th Century Man of War, I was surprised that the most praise came from female members of CLJ. They each praised the author’s masterful language and his keen sense of character relationships and dialogue. Most of the group struggled with ‘entering’ the world that Patrick O’Brian creates, namely pre-industrial Britain, a wooden ship and customs completely divorced from those existing on land. It was nonetheless good to see that everyone appreciated being exposed to something new. That’s what makes CLJ so great after all: we often read the books we would otherwise not pick ourselves.

Prince Rupert – BC’s ‘Little Port that Could’

It’s been a while since I waxed poetic about ports. Last year I went on at some length about Port Metro Vancouver, how it’s this engine of Canadian economic growth, moving monumental quantities of trade in an understated, almost hum drum way.   An even more unsuspecting area of port activity is, of all places, up in Prince Rupert. In recent years, this ‘little port that could’ has become an engine for growth in Northern BC, posting record cargo volumes and attracting considerable investment from all levels of government. And no wonder – with the shortest sailing time to Asia and uninterrupted CN lines servicing far flung hubs such as Winnipeg, and Chicago, Rupert Port is making everyone sit up and take notice, as North America’s fastest growing container faciilty. Not bad for such a remote community.

Prince Rupert's Container Terminal

There is no signs of a slow down either with 2011 marking yet another record breaking year for the port. A few killer numbers:

  • 19.3 million tonnes of cargo moved through the port altogether, an increase of 18 per cent over 2010.
  • Total coal tonnage shipped from Ridley Terminals Inc. (RTI) to Korea, China and Japan was up 16 per cent over 2010. (9.64 million tonnes of product compared to 8.30 million tones).
  • The number of loaded containers shipped out through Prince Rupert was up 59 per cent from 2010, with much of the growth attributed to strong exports of B.C. forest products to the expanding Chinese market.
  • Grain exports, principally to China, increased 17 per cent, from 4.29 million tonnes in 2010 to five million tonnes in 2011.

This brings me to a question to which I don’t know the answer: Is all this growth even good? After all, we’re selling millions of tonnes of dirty coal to China, aren’t we? Heck, the rail lines to Prince Rupert are so good, even major coal mines in Washington don’t think twice about carting their product up to Prince Rupert to benefit from quick transit times to China. People in Northern BC would stare when asked if they support the Prince Rupert boom. Trade demand from China will completely transform the economy and labour market of BC’s North in the coming years – standards of living, incomes, education opportunities and services will all benefit as a result.

As long as we have the goods and China wants them the ‘good times’ will keep on rolling. In my opinion Endbridge is not a question of ‘if’, but really just a question of ‘when’…

Sea Planes: #Awesome Community Builders

Seaplanes are boats that fly. How cool is that?! On that basis alone I’m going to make it a goal for 2012 to fly in one. Heck, I might even get behind the controls, or at least get to sit in the cockpit. Or maybe I missed out on that one after turning ten…

Everyday on my bike ride to work along Coal Harbour on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet, I stop briefly and watch a small fleet (‘squadron’?) of planes sputter to life and motor out to their watery ‘runway’ (is that what you would call it?).

Not only are sea planes technologically awesome, they are also vital to our coastal province and to Canada as a whole. Vancouver’s squadron of planes is one of the biggest in the country made up of over fifty planes, including Single Otters, Twin Otters and DHC-2 Beavers – all servicing the Gulf Islands and the Interior. Over 250,000 business people and tourists use them every year. Across Canada, so-called bush pilots busily buzz between far flung lakes and rivers keeping communities connected by delivering their mail, workers, supplies, medical services and the odd canoer.

The winter can’t stop them either. Check out this video of a Twin Otter Seaplane landing on a frozen lake in Saskatchewan.

I might write about Hovercrafts next time…they’re also boats that fly. Sort of….

Will Vancouver’s Ferries Ever Make a Comeback?

It’s been over 60 years since the last crossing between West Van’s Dundarave pier and the Vancouver Wharf, yet its memory and talk of its resurrection live on. In fact, it’s always been a bit of a surprise and disappointment to me that there aren’t more boat transportation options in a city with so many waterways. Is the demand just not there? Would operating costs be too high?

1920s, West Vancouver Ferry crossing the Burrard Inlet, Archives Item#: SGN 1123

Before the Lion’s Gate Bridge there was a ferry linking Vancouver’s Downtown with West Vancouver’s Ambleside neighbourhood. And at one time  ferries bound for Vancouver Island serviced both false creek and the downtown core. The rise of the car and the parallel construction of the city’s major inner-city bridges spelled the end of these busy, working ferries. Check out this great post by Miss 604 describing the evolution of West Vancouver’s storied ferry service which ended with the Lions Gate ribbon cutting in 1947.

As recently as 2010, West Van did a 6 month trial run of the old service to downtown which it then abruptly cancelled. I can’t seem to find out why, but it wasn’t due to lack of demand from Vancouverites as far as I can tell. I wonder how West Enders and Yaletowners would respond to a ferry service between their neighbourhoods and the North Shore. Pretty well, I would think, particularly when these are communities with below average per capita car ownership.

Am I just dreaming that inner city ferries could even survive given our dependence on four-wheeled traffic and  bridges? What would it take to bring some of these old ferry services back on line?

Masthead photo courtesy of rollanb

Lessons in Culinary Community Building

Picture a long festive table decked with candles and lined with  a dozen smiling faces. Surely, all the ingredients for sharing of food, laughter and good conversation? Well, not so much.

As I sat down excited to spend the evening catching up with everyone, I realized a good third of the long table was out of earshot and I was confined to chatting only with my immediate neighbour. Others dishes were also out of tasting/sharing range. By the end of the evening, I left for home feeling unfulfilled -  increasingly convinced  that other cultures, particularly in Asia, but, oddly, as close as Switzerland, know where it’s at when it comes to shared dining. Here’s why:

Circle Sitting:

Rectangular tables are recipes for isolation and are basically retrograde – some sort of throwback to medieval banqueting. They’re also hierarchical when you think about it. Why do we need a “Head of the table”, for example? Sitting in a circle does away with all that and facilitates a shared social and culinary experience. Chinese Dim-sum restaurants have got it right.

Cooking (!) the food at the table:

Last year’s Christmas highlight was having endless Swiss Raclette with my family. A stack of cheese and a two little propane fired pans set up around our coffee table was all it took to have an interactive, collaborative and leisurely meal.

Japanese 'Hot Potting'


This year, the highlight was my first Japanese Hot Pot experience with six friends. Again, we relaxed around two bubbling cookers, working together to keep the pots full of pre-prepared seafood, mushrooms, kim-chi and other delicacies.

Admittedly my international experience is limited and hence my examples are too. But I feel it’s safe to say the West has a lot to learn. Sure – we’re good around a campfire with wieners and marshmallows, but it’d be great to bring that communal experience more regularly into our homes. Chopping the corners off all tables square is good start!




Russian Warship Visits Port Metro Vancouver

Last month, in the week leading up to Remembrance Day, Vancouverites were treated to the odd sight of two warships tied up at Canada Place: the Canadian destroyer, The Algonquin and, much more bizarrely,  the missile cruiser Varyag, the flagship of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. The sight was so outlandish not only because it was the maiden visit of warship to the port, but also because the Varyag bristled on all sides with huge missile tubes.

As I stood gawking over the rail one lunch hour, busily snapping pics along with dozens of other tourists, I couldn’t help marvelling how totally out of place this menancing Cold War relic looked next to the white sails of Canada Place and in the relatively peaceful confines of Vancouver’s harbour. “Does Varyag’s Captain know Vancouver is ‘Nuclear Free Zone,’?” I wondered.

After a bit of Google-ing, I quickly learned that the ship’s days of packing nukes  are long over. Fair enough. Apparently, its chief duty is now to toodle around the North Pacific and create closer ties with other navies, including Canada’s. Also all fine and well, but I also can’t help wondering if Russia also relished a little show of strength on Varyag’s visit. After all, Russian’s Arctic ambitions are as well known as those of any nation, including our own. (See my last post, Harper Makes Shipbuilding History, for more on that).

I have to say I felt relieved when  Varyag pull up anchored. Once it and its plume of amazingly noxious exhast faded on the horizon (sorry, but apparently the Russians have zero environmental standards for their navy), I felt relieved. Port Metro, Victoria, Gregor Robertson can we maybe think twice before allowing warships on useless missions darken our harbour?



The detachment of Pacific Fleet vessels took course for Vancouver on October 15 after the Russian-US military exercises “Pacific Eagle-2011.”