Re-enacting the past in New Westminster

Paul McCann, Patron Master of the newly opened Blood & Iron school of Western Martial Arts in New Westminster (photo: Bloodandiron.ca)
Paul McCann, Patron Master of the newly opened Blood & Iron school of Western Martial Arts in New Westminster (photo: Bloodandiron.ca)

They say that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But for some folks, the past isn’t just for remembering. It’s for re-enacting.

It’s well-known that New Westminster has a deep love for the historical. As one of the oldest settlements in B.C., we are reminded of times past in the brick storefronts on Columbia St., the names of our boulevards and avenues, and even in the surprise discoveries of forgotten cemeteries. And there are a number of organizations who go beyond talking about history, and actually live it.

New Westminster is regularly visited by James Douglas and other key historical figures courtesy of the Royal Engineers re-enactors. Our mayor has even taken Douglas to task over giving away our status as B.C.’s capital to Victoria.

There’s also a local chapter for the Society of Creative Anachronism, which will be hosting an event for newbies in New Westminster on March 20 at the Masonic Hall at 508 Agnes St., where the historically-minded can learn medieval skills like armor-smithing, rapier technicque, Italian dancing, and the Bardic Arts.

And for those of a warlike persuasion, you can learn both archery and swordplay right here in New West. On East Columbia St. in Sapperton, Boorman Archery can outfit you with bow and quiver and direct you to local contests of skill (though you may first want to practice a bit in their archery range or sign up for their archery lessons). Meanwhile, over on Front St., Blood and Iron, an ‘Academy of Western Martial Arts,’ has just opened, where you can learn the art of swordsmanship.

Whether or not you’re the type to dress up in old-tyme gear or pick up bow and spear, you can surely enjoy the spectacle. It’s great to see groups like these breathing life into our history and reminding us of the good (and bad) of the ways of the past.

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.