Killarney Secondary and Community History

April 3, 2017

In the beginning…..the Squamish, Tsleil-waututh and Musqueam people 

The Squamish, Tsleil-waututh and Musqueam people lived on the land around Killarney Secondary school in south Vancouver for generations. They were in the Fraser canyon region for 8000 years and in the area of Vancouver for about 3000 years, living in temporary villages along the Fraser River and ocean inlets.

The aboriginal people hunted bear, deer and cougars in the thick forests and fished for salmon in the sea, river and streams. They traveled by large dugout canoes and walked on forest trails. Each Nation had its own culture and language and had complex economies, which included trade and potlatches with other First Nation groups.

The aboriginal people encountered Spanish explorers for the first time in 1791 and the English in 1792. The mainland of what is now British Columbia became a colony of Britain in 1866 and joined Canada five years later. In 1886 the city of Vancouver was incorporated and a year later, the first train from eastern Canada arrived, bringing even more immigrants to the city.

The forest trail used for generations by the Coast Salish people (ancestors of the Musqueam) stretches through New Westminster to 7th and Main Streets in Vancouver. This ancient route became a major road known as “Kingsway” in 1913.

Today, there are more than 70 Killarney students who identify as having First Nations ancestry. The school also has a First Nations enhancement counsellor on staff.

At the entrance to the Killarney Community Centre (next door to the school) is a glass and metal sculpture called “Bright Futures.” It was created by Brent Sparrow, an artist from the Musqueam band, and installed when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics. The symbolic images engraved on the glass are of a large “face” in the shape of the sun, surrounded by eight small “faces.” The sculpture is intended to welcome visitors and athletes “with warmth and open arms” now—and in the future, according to the artist’s statement. It is also a reminder that the First Nations people lived here for thousands of years. The artist acknowledges his ancestral ties to this part of British Columbia and writes: “I hope that the people’s hard work pay off and the bright futures goes on.”

This is a collective research and writing project by my Killarney Secondary social studies students, 2016-2017. Teachers and students–past and present–are invited to build on the histories we have written. The permanent site will be available soon through a link on the school home page. The Facebook link is at

Book reviews – Ootsa Lake pioneers & Mazie Baker

March 2, 2017

by Janet Nicol

Ootsa Lake Odyssey: George and Else Seel—A Pioneer Life on the Headwaters of the Nechako Watershed, by Jay Sherwood. Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, 2016.

This biographical account of the Seels, a German-Canadian family who lived in BC’s central interior, offers fascinating details about pioneer life, settlers’ interactions with First Nations people and resource-based development. Maps, photographs and most remarkably, the poetry and diary entries of Else Seel, compliment the narrative.

The full review is available in the spring, 2017 issue of BC History.


The Amazing Mazie Baker: The Squamish Nation’s Warrior Elder,
by Kay Johnston. Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, BC, 2016.

Moses and Sarah Antone named their daughter “Velma Doreen” when she was born in 1931 at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, but everyone called her ‘Mazie.’ A strong advocate for First Nations people, Mazie spent her early childhood on the Capilano Reserve in North Vancouver. Her family was part of the Squamish Nation and their shoreline home was on land where the Lion’s Gate Bridge and Park Royal Shopping Mall stand today. Mazie was an elder when she agreed to share her remarkable life story to author Kay Johnston. The result is an important and revealing biography of an aboriginal woman’s life and fight for justice—made more powerful and intimate by several paragraphs throughout the account in Mazie’s own words.

The full review is available in the spring, 2017 issue of BC History.


BC teachers’ Supreme Court win

March 2, 2017

by Janet Nicol

After more than a decade of arguments in three different courts and thousands of dollars in legal costs, the determination of 41,000 unionized teachers in British Columbia finally paid off when Canada’s highest court ruled in November that the provincial government’s contract stripping in 2002 was unconstitutional.

So begins one of several global news stories loyal New Internationalist readers can feel good about, as the magazine celebrates its 500th issue this March, 2017. I interview BC Teachers’ Federation President Glen Hansman about the impact the win has on teachers, education and all working people.


Historic Photos of the North

February 28, 2017

When Geraldine Moodie created a 1906 portrait of several Inuit mothers with their offspring, including two naked babies, her camera captured an atmosphere of maternal ease and warmth. “Inuit women and children at summer camp, Fullerton Harbour, Nunavut,” like many of her other images, reflects her affinity for northern women.

Like her subjects, Moodie, who lived from 1854 to 1945, raised a family in isolated communities. Once her six children were grown, she and her husband, Douglas, a senior officer in the North-West Mounted Police, travelled to the Far North in 1903, where they documented the way of life in settler and Inuit communities for the following seven years.

Now, the work of this talented and adventurous couple is the subject of an exhibition, Historic Photographs of the Canadian North, on view at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum from Feb. 18 to Sept. 10.

See my full review in Galleries West digital at –


Measuring Peace in a Dangerous World

December 31, 2016

by Janet Nicol

Is the world becoming more dangerous? The answer is ‘yes’—a qualified ‘yes’, according to research results of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), a non-profit think tank based in Australia.

“The world is getting less peaceful,” explains IEP Director Michelle Breslauer in a Skype interview from a New York office, “but that’s based on the time period we have been measuring. Since 2008 we have seen a decline in peace—not throughout history. That’s an important qualification to make.”

The Institute established an annual Global Peace Index (GPI) ten years ago, measuring negative peace in countries around the world using 23 indicators related to levels of militarization, societal safety and security and on-going conflicts. “Those 23 indicators are really looking at fear or direct violence,” Breslauer says.

According to the 2016 report, Iceland is ranked as the most peaceful country among 163 independent states and territories and Syria, the least. Canada is in eighth place.

More of my interview with Breslauer is available in Peace magazine, January-March 2017 issue, available on news stands and at


Lost Neighbourhood Walking Tour – Jan. 16

December 30, 2016


Until 1942, the vibrant Japanese-Canadian neighbourhood some called Kawamuko revolved around a Methodist church and school, now gone, at 6th and Columbia in Vancouver. The Uno family’s nearby confectionary store at 4th and Alberta had long served local residents with basic needs. On the night of January 16, 1942 a tragic crime with racist undertones shattered Kawamuko forever. In the months that followed, families were broken apart and the entire neighbourhood came to be erased. Now, for the first time, on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, rediscover the sad lost story of Kawamuko on this walking tour led by historians Stewart Muir and myself.

The tour is on Monday, January 16 at 6pm.
We are meeting at 4th and Alberta Streets.

Learn more at the event Facebook page.

Also check out “After Pearl Harbor,” an article I wrote about the crime in BC History magazine, Winter 2014, from the point of view of two mothers.

The article begins:

“Jessie Hughes and Oiyo Uno lived in separate worlds during the war years, though their homes were in the same Vancouver neighbourhood. In the tense winter days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, these two women became known to each other through circumstances neither would have predicted or desired.”

Won Alexander Cumyow

December 30, 2016


Canadian First: The Life of Won Alexander Cumyow (1861-1955)

by Janet Mary Nicol

Canada’s west coast accommodated “two solitudes”—people of the dominant English-speaking community and those of Asian heritage. One man who tried to bridge these separate, often hostile worlds was Vancouver pioneer, Won Alexander Cumyow. He was the first Chinese born in Canada in 1861, and despite limitations imposed on people of Asian background, found opportunities as a successful merchant, police court interpreter, legal advisor and advocate. Cumyow was a father when the vote was taken away from Chinese-Canadians and a grandfather when the vote was given back. His life-time efforts at reconciliation between “east and west” tell a larger story.

So begins this biography of a Vancouver pioneer, first published
in the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC newsletter and
now available on-line at the Ormsby Review. (December 2016) at –

The Life and Art of Mary Filer – a book review

December 1, 2016

by Janet Mary Nicol

A pioneer in glass art, Mary Filer was born in Edmonton in 1920 and passed away earlier this year in Vancouver, aged 95. The subject of the ninth book in Mother Tongue’s invaluable “Unheralded Artists of British Columbia” series, Christina Johnson-Dean reveals Filer as a remarkable Canadian artist
whose glass sculptures were original, bold, and inspirational.

Johnson-Dean was given full access to Filer’s personal papers by the artist’s nephew, providing a crucial source for this rich visual and biographical account.


The full review is published on line in BC Booklook/The Orbsby Review at –

#54 Breaking the glass ceiling

#Welcomerefugees campaign one year later: Syrian refugees settling in as Canadians

November 26, 2016

by Janet Nicol

Canada made history one year ago, offering 25,000 Syrian refugees hope and peace in a new country. The first group of refugees landed in December 2015, with the remainder arriving over the following few months in cities across Canada. Among them was the Al Shanabani family, government-assisted refugees (GARS), who landed in Vancouver. They quickly found a home, signed up for English language lessons and found daycare facilities for their two daughters.

Lending them a helping hand in their journey has been another Syrian refugee — Mohammed Alsaleh.

“I have been living on the front line for the last two years,” Alsaleh says, “first as a refugee and then helping refugees.”

Alsaleh was among the first wave of 200 Syrians who came to Canada two years ago. Since last December, he has been employed as a settlement worker at ISSofBC Welcome Centre in Vancouver.

“I am so lucky to be in a position in which I can help people resettle in this country,” Alsaleh says. “However, it is very challenging.”


Mohammed Alsaleh has turned his own Syrian refugee journey into a career helping other refugees. Photo by Elton Hubner

The settlement journey

When Alsaleh first welcomed Nedal and Taghreed Al Shanabani in his office, he showed them a chart with a curved line. You will experience four stages, he told them — a honeymoon period, culture shock, adjustment and adaption.

“I make sure every family I work with knows about the curve,” Alsaleh says. “It’s normal. You need to make some adjustments to reach settlement. When people know this has been scientifically proven and everyone goes through this, they feel more comfortable. This gives motivation to adjust to settlement.”

For the Al Shanabanis, learning English has been the main goal. “The day-to-day language barrier is a challenge,” Nedal says. “I feel deaf as I hear words around me but don’t comprehend.”

Still, Canadians have made his family feel at home in many ways. “We have received an amazing welcome, by the government and at the public level.”

He is also grateful to his Canadian landlords, Sheldon and Eileen, and says Sheldon is assisting him with driving lessons.

When Al Shanabani lived in Syria, he was a farmer and a driver. “In time I would like to drive a truck or bus here,” he says.

Taghreed says she will also search for employment once she is more fluent in English. “I would love to work with children,” she says. She wants to make sure her daughters, Rimas, 3, and Reetaj, 1, have educational opportunities.


The Al Shanabani family came to Canada as government-assisted refugees from Syria last year. Photo by Elton Hubner

Hoping for Canada

Originally from Daraa, Syria, the family endured President al-Assad’s military attacks when soldiers began employing tanks, ground artillery and fighter jets against civilians. They escaped to Jordan six months later, along with extended family members. “The [refugee] camps were horrible,” Nedal says. “We had some savings and were able to rent a house.” They registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency along with millions of other displaced Syrians. Unable to seek employment because of refugee status, the Al Shanabanis became dependent on others for financial assistance.

Two years later, they received a call from the United Nations. “We felt so happy,” Nedal says about the offer to immigrate to Canada. “There was hope for a future for us and our children.”

Alsaleh understands his clients’ feeling of hope. He was in his fourth year of studies to become a doctor at a university in Homs, Syria, when his education was interrupted by the civil war.

“I had been doing my best to be vocal against human rights violations in Syria and I was documenting what was happening, taking videos and putting them online,” he says. “This resulted in my imprisonment and my torture by the Syrian dictatorship of Assad. After being released, I fled the country.”

Alsaleh adds: “I lost all hope. I was out of Syria, losing everything, starting without my family who were left behind, my education and my friends.”

Then he got his own phone call from the United Nations with an offer to immigrate to Canada.

“That single phone call made a difference in my life,” Alsaleh says. “It gave me hope again.”

On Nov. 25, 2014, he left Lebanon.

“I entered the airport as a refugee, but walked out of the terminal in Vancouver as a permanent resident of Canada,” Alsaleh says.

“The first conversation I had in English was at the Starbucks near the Welcome Centre.” He started working more on his English and looked into volunteering opportunities.

He volunteered at the free clinic run by ISSofBC to assist people with income taxes. “I was helping greet clients, showing them around and making sure their income tax was done,” he says. Alsaleh had only been in Canada for three months and it felt good to “give back” so soon.

“By volunteering I was able to make friends, to build my own network, and overcome so many barriers, such as culture shock and loneliness,” he says.

“When I came in 2014, there wasn’t a lot of awareness [about the Syrian crisis],” he says. “When people knew more about the plight of the Syrian people — when the picture of little Alan Kurdi appeared in September of 2015 — this changed everything. This small sad moment, which is a shame that humanity will carry forever — a three-year-old who drowned in the sea — it is really amazing how this has changed everything.”

Supporting refugees

Alsaleh’s advocacy for refugees is unrelenting. This September he helped organize a conference for 60 Syrian youth, aged 15 to 25, at the Welcome Centre to “amplify their voices.”

“We wanted to have an open free space for youth to come and connect with each other, share experiences and share the good things about their transition here to Canada,” he explains.

“They brainstormed together to get their recommendations out there and to make sure the next wave of young refugees have a better experience coming to Canada.”

Alsaleh says their main concerns are housing, education and English language training. “Also they had concerns about their financial situation because the government-assisted refugees are provided with allowances equivalent to the welfare rate, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. There is a struggle on that front.”

He said he has only just paid back his own government loan for transportation to Canada and medical test costs. This debt is another concern voiced by participants.

Alsaleh understands firsthand the emotional trauma refugees have experienced.

“This is something that should be highlighted,” he says, “the mental aspect of the settlement movement and the fact that we are dealing with a population that is so vulnerable and who have exceptional experiences with war, with violence, with so many unimaginably bad things. It is a key component of our work in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) support for our clients. We provide one-on-one counselling for refugees within the first week of their arrival.”

Because it is a sensitive issue, ISSofBC calls the counselling a “wellbeing” meeting. “We make sure that refugees know in their first week here, there is support. Someone is there to listen to their needs and anxiety when they are ready.”

The war has been going on for five years with no end in sight, a painful realization for Syrians now living in Canada.

“Prince William was here in the Welcome Centre,” Alsaleh says, recalling the British royal couple’s visit to British Columbia this past September. “He met with a Syrian family, and I had the honour of being the interpreter. He asked the Syrian family about what was happening (in Syria) and the scale of destruction. They shared with him that it doesn’t look promising.” The Prince asked Alsaleh for his opinion, too. “I shared with him the same sentiment. That it is very complicated and getting worse.”

More hope offered

Looking forward, about 1,500 government-assisted refugees, including Syrians, are expected to arrive in B.C. by the end of this December, most settling in Metro Vancouver. The federal government is also in the process of accepting Yazidi refugees living in Iraq who have been targeted by ISIL militants. The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking religious minority who used to live mainly in northern Iraq.

“Canada has a tradition in helping refugees,” Alsaleh says. “This is something we have witnessed in the 1970s with the Ismailis and in the 1980s with the Vietnamese. It is happening now with the Syrians. It is history in the making. It is Canadians practising their amazing tradition of offering hope.”

When Alsaleh was younger, he dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I wanted to become an oncologist because I lost two cousins to cancer in high school,” he says. “Now I am doing something as rewarding — helping people start over in Canada. This balances everything for me.”

Re-published from Canadian Immigrant magazine, December 2016 issue and available on line at

“Not to be bought, Nor for sale,” The Trials of J.E. Bird

November 17, 2016

by Janet Mary Nicol

Joseph Edward Bird (1868-1948) gained a reputation as a radical lawyer after he established a law practice in Vancouver in 1902. Very few other city lawyers of his generation maintained a 36 year practise involving significant labour, civil libertarian and criminal cases. Bird is best known for his legal defence of 376 passengers from India aboard the Komagata Maru, blocked from landing in Canada on 23 May, 1914, a case few other lawyers would handle because of public hostility toward Asian immigration. Bird took the unpopular stand at the time because he was “a committed socialist and attacker of injustice,” his grandson Richard Bird told the Vancouver Sun newspaper many decades later.(1)

Bird also represented several trade unions, including organized coal miners in the 1913 Vancouver Island dispute and leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike. He exposed government corruption during a trial connected to the Janet Smith murder case and in another instance, freed a First Nations man from state execution after a successful appeal and re-trial. Yet Bird’s contributions in early BC have yet to be fully appreciated.(2) This article presents a wider perspective of Bird’s work as a progressive Vancouver lawyer by examining court cases which impacted on social class and racial issues in early British Columbia.

So begins a research article appearing in the Fall 2016 academic journal, Labour/Le Travail, available to read on line by subscription at –

Also note – I will be giving a presentation about J.E. Bird, one of several workshops organized by Pacific Northwest Labour History, on Saturday, May 27, 2017  at University of British Columbia.  More detailed information will be available soon at the PNLHC website.

J. Edward Bird (1868-1948) was a Vancouver lawyer who represent the passengers on the Komagata Maru in 1914. Bird fought against the threat of his clients' eventual deportation, challenged Canada's highly-restrictive immigration laws and was a defender of civil rights. Credit: The Bird family

J. Edward Bird (1868-1948) was a Vancouver lawyer who represent the passengers on the Komagata Maru in 1914. Bird fought against the threat of his clients’ eventual deportation, challenged Canada’s highly-restrictive immigration laws and was a defender of civil rights. Credit: The Bird family