Vancouver is located in the traditional territory of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, members of the Coast Salish linguistic group. The ancestors of these groups settled in the Vancouver area more than 8,000 years ago. For the Coast Salish people, like other Indigenous groups on Canada’s northwest coast, salmon was the primary food source. They also relied on other fish, shellfish, sea and land mammals, plants and berries. The abundance of salmon, which could be preserved through drying or smoking, created a stable food source and allowed for the Coast Salish to live in larger, more socially stratified groups than was typical among Indigenous peoples in Canada. Their great wealth and complex social organization produced elaborate cultural institutions as exemplified by the potlatch ceremony.
José Maria Narváez, a Spanish explorer, was the first European to see the site of what is now Vancouver in 1791. A year later, English sailor Captain George Vancouver and Spaniards Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano and Cayetano Valdés were also in the area (see Sutil and Mexicana). During these initial explorations, both the Spanish and the English made contact with Indigenous populations. This contact, however, was initially fleeting as the area was peripheral in the maritime fur trade.
The first permanent European settlement in the region was Fort Langley in 1827 and the first urban centre was New Westminster in 1859. Unlike the rest of Canada’s west, Aboriginal title to the majority of the land in British Columbia, including present-day Vancouver, was not extinguished through treaty. Instead, in 1859, the land was proclaimed to belong to the Crown, without any negotiation with the Indigenous communities involved.
Vancouver got its start when Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Vice-President William Van Horne announced that the company would extend its line 20 km westward from the statutory terminus, Port Moody, in order to take advantage of a better harbour and terminal site. The provincial government gave the CPR more than 2,500 ha of Crown land at the new terminus and private owners donated land. On 6 April 1886 the provincial legislature incorporated the City of Vancouver, a name that Van Horne had suggested in honour of the English explorer. Ratepayers elected Malcolm A. MacLean, a real-estate dealer, as the first mayor.
Then, on 13 June, a clearing fire blew out of control, claimed at least 11 lives, destroyed ramshackle buildings and drew invaluable publicity when residents rebuilt immediately. The CPR, the largest single landowner, recognized the value of orderly growth and promoted development accordingly. Private real-estate developers (e.g., David Oppenheimer, mayor 1888–91) advertised the city and, through cash bonuses and tax concessions, attracted industries such as BC Sugar Refinery. Several neighbourhoods and streets in Vancouver bear the name of CPR executives, testifying to the company’s influence in the city’s growth and development.
The continent-wide depression of the mid-1890s temporarily checked growth, but during the 1897–98 Klondike Gold Rush, excitement and prosperity returned to Vancouver. By the turn of the century it had displaced Victoria, the provincial capital, as the leading commercial centre on Canada's West Coast, not only in its own right, but also as the site of Pacific Coast branches of Eastern Canadian businesses.
Early 20th Century
The prewar economic boom expanded markets for such BC products as fish, minerals and lumber. Most lumber was sold on the prairies. The beginning of a worldwide economic depression in 1913, and the First World War in 1914, severely reduced trade, slowed railway development and, coupled with declining resources, ended much of the mining boom in the Kootenay and Boundary districts.
During the 1920s growth resumed and Vancouver replaced Winnipeg as the leading city in Western Canada. The export grain trade held up remarkably well during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the city suffered extensive unemployment, especially since the unemployed of Western Canada regarded Vancouver, with its mild climate, as a "mecca." Unrest among the unemployed caused several incidents, including the reading of the Riot Act by Mayor G.G. (Gerry) McGeer in 1935 (see also On to Ottawa Trek).
The outbreak of the Second World War and the development of war industries, particularly shipbuilding, ended unemployment, but sharply reduced the grain trade. Trade grew once shipping became available again after the war, especially after Canada began selling large quantities of wheat to China in 1961.
During the war, Ian Mackenzie, MP for Vancouver Centre, was a leading figure promoting the removal of Japanese people from the coast. As the first stage of internment, many of the Japanese from coastal communities outside the city were temporarily housed at Vancouver’s Hastings Park Exhibition Grounds before being moved inland. The province’s Japanese residents, including roughly 8,600 from Vancouver, had their property confiscated by the federal government and sold at rates well below their assessed value (See Japanese Canadians). Meanwhile, the general population grew as wartime industries, especially shipbuilding, drew people to the city.
Like the Japanese, Vancouver’s Chinese population also faced racial discrimination in the early days of the city’s development. Owing in large part to the gold rushes in the area and the role Chinese labourers played in building the Canadian Pacific Railway, Vancouver has always had a prominent Chinese community, including a Chinatown which, from its earliest days, served as a residential, social and commercial hub. While in part a natural gathering place, Chinatown also developed due to restrictions preventing Chinese people from buying property outside the area until the 1930s. Today, Chinatown exists mainly as a social and commercial district as the descendants of the pioneer Chinese tend to live throughout the city while newer immigrants have moved primarily to the suburban city of Richmond.
Mid-20th Century – Present
Following the war, Vancouver expanded its role as the head office centre for such provincial corporations as BC Forest Products, Cominco (now Teck Resources Limited) and MacMillan Bloedel, a variety of smaller firms, the major provincial labour unions, and the regional offices for national enterprises such as the chartered banks.
In 1967, as part of a controversial project of urban renewal, the City of Vancouver began the levelling of the Hogan’s Alley neighbourhood as well as parts of Chinatown. For several decades Hogan’s Alley had been the centre of Vancouver’s Black community. The neighbourhood and nearby Strathcona were also home to several other immigrant groups who, like African Canadians, were unable to live elsewhere in the city due to housing discrimination. In recent years, there have been efforts to commemorate the neighbourhood, through community and government initiatives such as a stamp issued by Canada Post in February 2014 as part of Black History Month.
Vancouver was in the spotlight when it hosted Expo 86, an international exposition devoted to transportation. The Expo was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales, and had over 20 million visitors. It is credited with having been a catalyst for change. Several luxury hotels, Canada Place and the geodesic dome, housing Science World, are among its legacies.
Despite declines in the forest industry and the disappearance of major firms such as MacMillan Bloedel and BC Forest Products, the city remains a regional business and financial centre.
In 2014, Vancouver city council voted unanimously to acknowledge that the city was located on unceded Indigenous lands. The decision calls for greater involvement of Indigenous representatives in developing policies and practices, which respect Indigenous traditions, although it will have no legal impact on treaty negotiations conducted with the provincial and federal governments.
The city’s natural beauty is underscored by a backdrop of mountains, its proximity to the sea and the presence, within the city limits, of wilderness areas like Stanley Park. The original surveyors, many of them Canadian Pacific Railway employees, generally laid out streets according to a grid pattern that made few allowances for such natural features as steep slopes.
Apart from establishing fire limits and attempting to keep noisome industries on the outskirts, the city made few official efforts to direct land-use until the late 1920s, when it commissioned the American firm Harland Bartholomew and Associates to draw up a town plan. The city adopted some of its suggestions, such as a comprehensive zoning regulation, but did not enforce these rules until after the Second World War. Nevertheless, clear land-use patterns emerged. More affluent residents, for example, tended to live west of Cambie Street, where developers subdivided land into large lots; the less affluent lived to the east, where lots had sometimes as little as 7.5 m frontages. A real estate boom that began in the early 1990s has resulted is some of the highest residential home prices in Canada.
Since the 1960s the city's older core has undergone a considerable transformation. City planners studied land-use proposals; civic politicians debated and redesigned some of them; and private developers financed much of the new building. Downtown, a forest of 20- to 40-storey office and hotel towers, including the Bentall, Royal, Pacific and Vancouver centres, has replaced the two and three-storey retail blocks of the pre-First World War era.
The University of British Columbia (established in 1908) is located at Point Grey, which is the southern entryway to English Bay and Burrard Inlet. In the 1980s, Simon Fraser University (established in 1965) opened a satellite campus in the downtown core (its main campus is on Burnaby Mountain). Other post-secondary institutions include: the Langara and Vancouver Community Colleges; the Emily Carr University of Art and Design; and in the Greater Vancouver Area, Douglas College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
Architecturally, among the most interesting newer buildings are the Provincial Court House, the Robson Square Conference Centre and Canada Place. As a landmark, Canada Place includes the 500-room Pan Pacific Hotel (1983–86), built for Expo 86, now a trade and convention facility and cruise ship terminal. The city is a popular terminus for cruise ships going to Alaska.
A dramatic indication of the city's post-industrial status are False Creek, off English Bay, and Granville Island within it. From the city's earliest days this area, with its easy access to trackage and water transport, was the site of rail yards, sawmills, machine shops and related industries. By the 1950s, changing technology in the lumber industry and the obsolescence of old plants turned False Creek into a decaying industrial centre. After much study and controversy, the city decided in 1976 that townhouses and apartments should be built on the southeast side of False Creek. The 2010 Vancouver Olympics also constructed the Athletes’ Village on this site. The Village is now a mixed-use residential community with approximately 1,100 residential units.
The east shore of False Creek was created as an industrial site in 1915 for the terminus and yards of the Canadian Northern Railway (now CN) and the Great Northern Railway. It continues to provide space for rail yards and various commercial enterprises.
On the north side of the creek, on land formerly occupied by the CPR yards, the provincial government opened a 60,000-seat sports stadium in 1983, the first stage in the BC Place development. The main occupant of the former site of Expo 86 is Concord Pacific Place, a complex of office towers, recreational space and high-rise luxury apartment buildings.
Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, east-end Strathcona, was originally where loggers and mill labourers settled. Eventually, it became a community of individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds, the majority of whom were drawn from the working classes. Several distinct areas, including Chinatown, Japantown and Gastown, are collectively known as Downtown Eastside (DTES). Local businesses were adversely affected by the termination of streetcar service (1958) as well as the North Shore Ferry Service (1959). Also in the late 1950s, the city initiated an expansive urban renewal project, demolishing some of the poorest dwellings and replacing them with public housing projects. As mentioned earlier, Hogan’s Alley was among those levelled sites. The Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association vigorously opposed further urban renewal fearing that it would destroy their community. In 1967 the city announced plans to construct a freeway that would bifurcate Chinatown. The resulting protest not only from Strathcona residents and Chinatown merchants, but also from community planners, heritage advocates and interested citizens led the city to cancel the freeway plan. Shortly thereafter, the federal government’s decision to withdraw funding for urban renewal saved the remaining parts of Strathcona.
In the 1980s, the neighbourhood witnessed an influx of vulnerable individuals (many of whom struggled with mental illness and/or drug addiction) who settled in the area because of low-income housing options. DTES is one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, and is notorious for high rates of crime, violence, homelessness, HIV, illicit drug use and a prevalent sex industry. Open since 2003, the DTES is also home to North America’s first safe injection site. Today, local residences and business owners along with all three levels of government are working hard to revitalize the area and showcase its dynamism, diversity and heritage. The core of Strathcona, which lies on the eastern section of the DTES, is becoming gentrified.
In the West End, private developers, encouraged by new zoning regulations, began in the 1960s to build high-rise apartment blocks in place of the apartment and rooming houses that had been carved out of the large homes of the city's early well-to-do residents. By 1971 the West End was noted for the density of its population. Paradoxically, Vancouver had once prided itself as a city of owner-occupied, single-family detached homes. Most homes (and this is still true of most neighbourhoods outside the West End) were of wood-frame construction, often influenced by California architectural styles.
Vancouver’s most significant growth spurts occurred during its first five years and in the decade before the First World War, resulting primarily from immigration from the British Isles and migration from Ontario. The expansion of the 1920s is explained by the annexation of the adjacent bedroom municipalities of Point Grey and South Vancouver in 1929, natural increase, renewed immigration from Britain and the beginning of significant migration from the Prairies.
After a brief wartime and postwar spurt, the rate of population growth tapered off. The 1976 census recorded an absolute decline in the city proper, while the population of Greater Vancouver passed the 1 million mark for the first time. High real estate values in the city have led young families to live in suburban municipalities, especially Burnaby, Coquitlam, Delta, the city and district of North Vancouver, Richmond and Surrey. According to the 2021 census, the population in the metropolitan area was 2,642,825, while the population of the city proper was 662,248.
From 1901 (the first year for which statistics are available) to 1951, people of British ethnic origin — many of them Canadian born — formed three-quarters of the population and dominated the elite. During roughly the same time period, Asian people, who made up a significant portion of the non-British population, experienced a series of now-notorious racist events: there was an anti-Chinese riot in 1887, an anti-Asian riot in 1907, the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, and the internment of Japanese Canadians in 1942. These events demonstrated the hostility that Vancouver residents, like other British Columbians, felt towards Asian people.
After the Second World War, the easing of immigration restrictions and the attractiveness of a booming economy drew new immigrants who made Vancouver more cosmopolitan. According to the 2021 census, Chinese people make up the largest ethnic group, at 24.5 per cent of the city’s population, followed by English (13 per cent), Scottish (10.6 per cent) and Irish (10.1 per cent).
Economy and Labour Force
According to the 2021 census, the largest number of Vancouver residents are employed in professional, scientific, and technical services, followed by health care and social assistance, retail trade, and educational services.
Vancouver’s geography is an important force shaping the city’s economy. Owing to its proximity to Asia, as well as its excellent deep-water harbour and transportation infrastructure, Vancouver is Canada’s primary hub for trade with Asia. The city’s international connections have also made it an important financial centre. All of Canada’s major banks as well as several international banks have offices in Vancouver, including the Canadian headquarters of London-based HSBC. Strong connections to the United States and Asia have also helped to foster other sectors of Vancouver’s economy such as digital media, information and communications technology, and life sciences. Major corporations such as Microsoft, IBM and Nintendo maintain offices in Vancouver. Vancouver has long been home to the executive offices of mining companies extracting minerals from British Columbia’s mountains.
Tourism and conventions contribute substantially to the city’s economy as visitors come to enjoy the city’s beauty and amenities or to use it as a transfer point to nearby destinations such as the resort at Whistler. Along with tourists, filmmakers have been attracted by Vancouver and British Columbia’s natural beauty. The filmmaking industry centred in Vancouver is the third largest in North America, earning the city the moniker “Hollywood North.” Inspired by the adjacent mountains, forests and ocean, Vancouver has a strong active outdoors culture which has produced a small but significant industry producing athletic performance apparel.
Vancouver was the child of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The railway linked the city with the rest of Canada and quickly made it the country’s leading Pacific coast port. Almost from the city's beginning, trans-Pacific ships, including the Canadian Pacific's Empress liners, called regularly. Coastal steamship companies, including CP Navigation and Union Steamships, made Vancouver their headquarters and eastern businesses established their Pacific coast branches in Vancouver.
Inland trade developed slowly owing to the lack of direct rail connections and discriminatory freight rates, which put wholesalers at a disadvantage relative to Calgary and Winnipeg in securing the trade of BC's interior. In response, the provincial government offered aid to new railways, including the Pacific Great Eastern and the Canadian Northern Pacific.
After the First World War, cheap ocean transport through the Panama Canal opened new markets for BC lumber on the American east coast and made Europe more accessible. The province's successful campaign for freight-rate reduction enabled Vancouver to become a grain-exporting port. The port itself expanded greatly and came under the jurisdiction of a federal agency, the National Harbours Board, in 1936.
By 1963, Vancouver ranked first among Canadian ports in tonnage, a position it still retains. The shipment of grain as well as lumber, potash and coal, necessitated the construction of specialized port facilities. The port was also extended east to Port Moody and south to the Roberts Bank coal (1970) and container terminals (1997). In 2008, the separate port authorities governing Vancouver, the Fraser River and the North Fraser were combined to form Port Metro Vancouver, one of the city's largest employers.
Owing to the importance of the Pacific Rim, CP Air (later Canadian Airlines International or CAIL) established its headquarters in the city in 1949. International and domestic carriers use the Vancouver International Airport, which the federal government expanded significantly after buying it from the city in 1961. When CAIL went out of business in 2000, Air Canada took over its trans-Pacific routes.
In 1992, the federal government transferred control of the airport to the Vancouver International Airport Authority, which, using the brand "YVR," has built major new runways, opened a new international terminal (1996) and expanded the domestic terminal.
Vancouver’s suburbs have been connected by public transit since the turn of the century. An inter-urban line to New Westminster (1891) and Chilliwack (1910) was one of the first electric railways in Canada (see Street Railways). By the 1950s, as buses and private automobiles became more popular, passenger service was abandoned, but much of the line still carries freight. In 1986, the SkyTrain, an elevated railway (except in the downtown, where it is underground) opened to serve much of the city, Burnaby and New Westminster. In 1994, the SkyTrain was extended to serve the growing suburb of Surrey. In 2009, the new Canada Line linked downtown with the airport and the suburb of Richmond. The SkyTrain system was extended again in 2016 to reach Coquitlam and Port Moody.
Vancouver is the centre for an active publishing industry. Douglas & McIntyre, for example, was established there in 1971. In addition, the University of British Columbia Press is a major publisher of academic books, and many smaller publishers specialize in regional studies, self-help books and literature.
The city is serviced by two daily newspapers, the Sun and the Province, a number of specialized newspapers and journals, including the free alt-weekly the Georgia Straight, and a wide variety of local and ethnic newspapers. Vancouver has also responded to the concentration of news media ownership with successful independent online publications like The Tyee and The Vancouver Observer.
Government and Politics
Vancouver is unique among BC municipalities as it is incorporated under the Vancouver Charter (1953). This provincial statute grants the city a number of different powers than those under BC’s Municipalities Act. The city, however, remains a creature of the provincial legislature, which must approve every charter amendment. In 2009, for example, Mayor Gregor Robertson had to petition the province for an amendment to the Charter that would allow the city to borrow $458 million in order to complete construction of the 2010 Winter Olympics Athletes’ Village.
From 1929, when the suburban municipalities of Point Grey and South Vancouver became part of the city, until 1936, Vancouver was governed by a mayor and aldermen, elected from 12 wards. The city abolished the ward system by popular plebiscite in 1935 and adopted an at-large system (i.e., elected candidates represent the city as a whole). Today, the mayor and 10 councillors, who are elected at large for four-year terms, lead Vancouver City Council. A deputy mayor is chosen monthly from among the councillors.
Vancouver City Council, unlike most Canadian municipalities, operates with a party system. This model originated with the formation of the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), a center-right coalition of Liberals and Conservatives within the business community in 1937, which opposed the dominance of left-leaning Co-operative Commonwealth Federation representatives. The NPA’s dominance was only challenged in 1972 by The Electors Action Movement (TEAM) and more recently by several left-wing groups, of which the most important is the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) whose candidate Larry Campbell became mayor in 2002 with 8 of the 10 councillors elected also representing that party.
Vancouver's first experience with a regional Metropolitan Government occurred in 1913 with the formation of the Vancouver and District Joint Sewerage and Drainage Board. Metropolitan agencies concerned with water, public health and regional planning appeared later. The growth of suburban municipalities encouraged the provincial government to create an elected body, the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). In 1967, the GVRD took over most functions of the earlier agencies and added such responsibilities as capital finance, building regulations, housing and air pollution control. In 2007, its name was changed to Metro Vancouver, which comprises 23 members total, including 21 municipalities, one electoral area and the Tsawwassen First Nation.
The Art, Historical and Scientific Association (one of the first groups organized in the city) established a museum in 1894. In honour of the 1958 BC centennial, the city began constructing a new museum, a Maritime Museum, city archives, and, with funds from lumberman Harvey R. MacMillan, a planetarium. When the Canadian Pacific Railway opened an opera house in 1891, Vancouver became a regular stop for touring concert artists and theatrical companies.
The diversity of the city’s residents has contributed Vancouver’s rich cosmopolitan arts and culture scene. The city, for example, is home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Vancouver Opera. The symphony plays in the restored Orpheum Theatre, while touring musicals play in The Centre for Performing Arts (formerly the Ford Theatre, which opened in 1995). Smaller venues include the Arts Club Theatre and the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (affectionately known as the Cultch).
The Vancouver Art Gallery (established in 1931) moved to its current site at the Old Courthouse in 1983. Architect Arthur Erickson and his firm designed the relocation project. Erickson also designed the Museum of Anthropology (established in 1976) on the campus of the University of British Columbia. That museum, a popular tourist attraction and a research institution, is especially noted for its collections of Indigenous material. Equally striking, but in a different way, is Library Square (1995), home of the central public library, which is modelled on the Coliseum of Rome.
The Vancouver area offers many opportunities for outdoor recreation, including skiing and year-round boating, golfing and diving. Within the city are more than 200 parks, of which the largest and most important, Stanley Park, has many recreational facilities including an 8.85 km portion of the seawall, a favourite location for walkers and joggers. Visitors will also find a world-renowned collection of totem poles in Stanley Park at Brockton Point as well as Klahowya Village, which offers a comprehensive experience of Indigenous culture through arts and performances.
In February and March a total of 26 medals of which 14 were gold, which set a new record for most gold medals won in a single Winter Games.
Vancouver is a city with several professional sports teams. The British Columbia Lions have played in the Canadian Football League since 1954 and won the Grey Cup six times. In 2011, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC joined Major League Soccer, while the Vancouver Canucks have played in the NHL since 1970.