Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ugly Victorians

I’m taking this month off to finish a book proposal, so here’s an oldie but a goodie from the original Secrets book, updated in time for the Imperial festivities of Victoria Day.

As anyone who visits quickly notices, Victoria is whiter than a Klan rally in a snowstorm. The 2006 census showed that visible minorities make up only 10 percent of greater Victoria’s population, while the provincial average is 25 percent. Could it be that ugly aspects of Victoria’s history have deterred some people from moving here?

The Last Stand of Mifflin Gibbs: Philadelphia-born Mifflin Wistar Gibbs arrived here in 1858 with 250 American blacks who’d been persecuted in California and sought refuge under a British flag. Gibbs opened a grocery business, and later became a popular city councillor, but he was also barred from sitting in the best seats of Victoria’s concert halls. So one night in 1861, Gibbs and several black friends tested the rule by sitting in the dress circle of the Victoria Theatre. One performer refused to take the stage, and a storeowner handed out onions to throw at Gibbs’ party. When a bag of flour was tossed on the black pioneers, Gibbs and a friend threw punches at their attackers. All involved were arrested, but the result of the “riot” was the posting of notices that blacks were welcome only in the theatre’s gallery. After it abolished slavery in 1863, Gibbs went back to the United States.

Then We Take Berlin: On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Nearly 1,200 passengers died, including 21-year-old lieutenant James “Boy” Dunsmuir, the beloved son of Victoria coal baron James Dunsmuir. Members of James’ Victoria-based regiment were enraged, and the following night they took revenge upon the bar in the German-owned Kaiserhof Hotel (now the Demitasse café), where they threw spitoons and smashed mirrors. The mob then vandalized a German social club on Government Street, and Simon Leiser’s warehouse on Yates. (Leiser’s bust was removed from the Royal Theatre for safekeeping, but it was never returned and its location remains a mystery.) The mayor had to read the riot act and call in the cavalry to quell the disturbance.

Yellow Peril: Victoria’s often been afraid that it’s about to be overwhelmed by immigrants from Asia. In 1878, the B.C. government passed its first law against Chinese immigration, and over the next 30 years created dozens more – requiring English-language fluency, for example, or forbidding long men’s hair – even though such laws were repeatedly struck down by the federal government or the courts. Undaunted, in 1909, premier Richard McBride told a convention of his Conservative party, “We stand for a white British Columbia, a white land, and a white Empire.” Chinese residents didn’t get the vote in B.C. until 1947, Japanese residents not until 1949. Some might wonder if local attitudes have improved that much: when four shiploads of Chinese refugee claimants arrived off Vancouver Island in August of 1999, the Times Colonist published the headline “Go Home” on its front page, with results of a phone-in “poll” showing that more than 3,000 readers wanted the boat people deported immediately.

Mr. Christie, You Defend Bad Cookies: Known nationally as the defence lawyer for anti-Holocaust teacher Jim Keegstra and hate-literature peddler Ernst Zundel, Doug Christie has been the centre of controversy almost since the day he moved to Victoria in 1970. A strict vegetarian who neither smokes nor drinks, Christie works out of a windowless parking lot attendant’s booth across the street from the downtown courthouse, and continues to crop up in the news as a fringe political candidate and advocate for the indefensible. In 2007, Christie represented Nazi prison guard Michael Seifert, who was eventually extradited from Canada to Italy to serve a life sentence for war crimes.

Want to know more about the influence the conquering British had – and still have – in Victoria? UVic students have created an “anti-imperialist walking tour” that reveals the unpleasant histories behind several city landmarks. Check out the online tour here.


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