Paying the Piper

Guests received the royal treatment, with golden crowns for centrepieces and silver tea services.
Guests received the royal treatment, with golden crowns for centrepieces and silver tea services. (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

New Westminster loves not only a parade, but events in general. Today’s ‘royal’ tea at Century House was no exception. The place was packed and the event sold out, with Mayor Wayne Wright and New West city councilors, MP Dawn Black, Poet Laureate Emeritus Edna Anderson, Salvation Army Captain Dave MacPherson, and Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larabeeall in attendance. After being piped in, the pipers were paid and Master of Ceremonies Don Andrews introduced the mayor, who welcomed the crowd to the kickoff event for a year of celebration to commemorate the proclamation of New Westminster as British Columbia’s first capital in 1859.

Paying the piper (Photo: Ruth Seeley)
Paying the piper (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

‘Celebrating Our Past, Embracing the Future’ is the theme for the year (one tiny quibble, Embracing Our Future would really sound better – wouldn’t it?). And the event organizers did a bang-up job of making Century House look beautiful, with golden crowns as centrepieces on every table and silver-plated tea services everywhere.

Royal Engineers Living History Group re-enactors play Gov. James Douglas and wife Amelia (photo: Ruth Seeley)
Royal Engineers Living History Group re-enactors play Gov. James Douglas and wife Amelia (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

After walking the gauntlet formed by the Royal Knights and the May Queen Suite, members of the Royal Engineers Living History Group attended while Governor James Douglas read the proclamation officially naming the site of what is now New Westminster as the capital of the Colony of British Columbia on February 14, 1859.

Miss New Westminster 2008 and the 2009 Hyack Ambassador candidates shared a very small stage as they took turns presenting anecdotes from 1859, including a short speech about Caroline Kennedy, one of the first non-aboriginal women to live in New West and another about W. J. Armstrong, the city’s first merchant. After opening a general store, Armstrong went on to become sheriff and justice of the peace.

Mayor Wayne Wright cuts the cake (Photo: Ruth Seeley)
Mayor Wayne Wright cuts the cake (Photo: Ruth Seeley)

After an enthusiastic round of God Save the Queen (who chose the city’s name because Westminster was her favourite part of London), the tea began. There were the usual fancy sandwiches, mini scones, and pastries. And then, of course, there was cake. We must have seemed hungry, because the catering staff kept dropping off more plates of sandwiches – and more pots of tea.

I was particularly fascinated to hear Rhonda Larabee speak. I had never heard of the Qayqayt First Nation before, and it was moving to listen to her talk about her people’s original village site on the banks of the Fraser, and the creation of three reserves after the Royal Engineers began building the city. These reserves – located at the old Scott Paper plant, Bridgeview, and the burial grounds on Poplar Island – were all closed in 1916, and Qayqayt First Nation now comprises only 48 people and is the only First Nation in Canada without a land base. “We are the River People,” said Larabee, who successfully established that the Qayqayt were not extinct and launched a claim to regain her Indian status in 1994.

A city that remembers its past will hopefully not be doomed to repeat it. As New Westminster enters an era of rapid population growth* in uncertain economic times, I hope the spirit of inclusiveness that seems to prevail here will be one of the things we choose to preserve.

* The city estimates New Westminster will have 84,000 residents by the year 2021, although other sources put that figure as high as 88,000.

Debating History

The Festival of Volunteers took place this past Saturday at Royal City Centre and the anachronistic thrills my co-author Briana referred to here did not disappoint. 

There is something about bagpipe music that just makes me smile -I have no idea what it is. So when I finished my shift at the booth I was volunteering for, it was perfect timing to grab a cup of chai from the Beverage Station in the centre court of the mall and grab a seat and listen to a procession being piped in by a member of the Delta Police Pipe Band. It was quite the sight to see Mayor Wayne Wright in all his finest office accoutrements along with Sir James Douglas, Councillor Jaimie McEvoy, John Irving – all were bedecked in appropriate debating garb. I have to apologize for the quality of these photos – my camera died and these were taken using my cell phone. 

Debate participants are introduced by John Irving
Debate participants are introduced by John Irving

The debate did not disappoint. True to misogynistic form,  Sir James Douglas downplayed his decision to build parliament in Victoria and steal away the capital city moniker from New Westminster, by suggesting that it was simply to restore the declining city of Victoria. He resisted the idea that it had something to do with nepotism and displayed shock when Mayor Wright reminded him of a few of his shadier deals. Both McEvoy and Mayor Wright were well informed and the spluttering James Douglas certainly lost the debate. The assembled crowd snickered and laughed a few times throughout the debate – it was entertaining to see such great pieces of our collective history come alive. 


Councillor McEvoy and Mayor Wright look incredulous at Douglas' assertions
Councillor McEvoy and Mayor Wright look incredulous at Douglas' assertions

There was a pretty decent sized crowd assembled, including many members of council:


Members of Council look on as the debate occurs
Members of Council look on as the debate occurs

Mayor Wright also took advantage of this debate to remind citizens that New Westminster has big plans for the future of our Fraser River waterfront, and the crowd responded with cheers – I’m anxious to see plans.

Kudos goes to the actors who portrayed the famous Canadians so well and to the city staff and volunteers who organized such a unique mock debate.



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Anachronistic thrills at Festival of Volunteers

I have had the rare pleasure of having a local newspaper delivered to my door (seriously, our paperboy must be stockpiling them for a Piñata-making party), and after reading through the agenda in the two-page ad for the Festival of Volunteers, I see now that they’ve buried the lede.

My co-author Jen has already covered the altruistic reasons to head out to Royal City Centre this Saturday for the Festival of Volunteers. But even if you have zero interest in volunteering, it will be worth it to come out to see Mayor Wayne Wright take Gov. James Douglas (d. 1877) to task for allowing cheeky Victoria to steal away our birthright as capital city of British Columbia.

Up until 1868, New Westminster was the capital city of British Columbia, before that honour was snatched away by Victoria. Find out how such a historic injustice could have occurred! Join Mayor Wayne Wright for a spirited discussion with Governor James Douglas (first Governor of B.C.) on the merits of restoring the Royal City of New Westminster as B.C.’s rightful capital.

Source: Festival of Volunteers ad, page B2 & B3 of The Record

Actors from The Royal City Engineers Living History Group will play Sir James Douglas, Lady Amelia Douglas, riverboat captain John Irving, New Westminster’s first Sheriff Chartres Brew and a Royal Engineer. It gets better: Colin Barrett of the Delta Police Pipe Band (warning: autoloading audio files if you follow the link) will play a period bagpiper, skirling away! 

The historical re-enactment portion of the Festival of Volunteers is from 11am to noon. The actors will be available for photos by donation, with proceeds going to support The Royal City Volunteers. 

Other events include: 

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