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They’re so out of touch’: British Columbians yearn to move isolated island capital to Vancouver


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They’re so out of touch’: British Columbians yearn to move isolated island capital to Vancouver


Victoria was not the first choice of capital for the colonial founders of British Columbia.

When the Big One finally hits coastal B.C., while Vancouver’s earthquake-proof skyline and the region’s many wood homes will come out largely unscathed, the province’s iconic Parliament Buildings will most likely topple.

That’s at least according to Zeidler Partnership Architects, the firm hired by the province in 2005 to find out how the Richter would treat their legislative home. The firm did not mince words: Parliament will be rubble, ministers will be dead and a stunned populace would be left to “more easily turn to civil disorder.”

The only solution, concluded Zeidler Partnership, is a $250-million upgrade to the copper-domed structure. At that price, making sure the building does not fall over could well cost as much as it took to put it up in the first place.

It is why, better yet, the province could do what British Columbians have yearned to do for more than a century: Pull up the stakes of their geriatric, island capital and ship it across the water to Vancouver.

After all, of all Canada’s 14 capital cities, Victoria is easily the most isolated and dissimilar to the province it is tasked to govern.

Geographically, Victoria is literally as far away from the rest of the province as possible on a peninsula that is flanked on three sides by U.S. territory. In a province continually transformed by new waves of Asian immigration, Victoria’s ethnic mix has flatlined for decades. And while B.C. remains a province in which resource revenue pays the majority of the government’s bills, Victoria has not seen a logging truck or a coal train in several generations.

Nearly 150 years after it got the title from men whose names are now affixed to street signs, the City of Gardens has turned out to be a horrible place to put a capital.

Victoria was actually not the first choice of capital for the colonial founders of British Columbia. With an eye to the development on the province’s interior, administrators picked New Westminster, a mainland city now part of Metro Vancouver.

The selection did not sit well with the then-industrial and shipping centre Victoria, which quickly had the decision overturned through intensive lobbying — although Victorians appear to have been helped by New Westminster’s appallingly bad choice of spokesman.

According to local lore, at a capital-picking session of the colony’s legislative council, Captain William Hales Franklyn was pegged as New Westminster’s booster. He showed up drunk, fumbled his notes, and when the meeting wrapped up, the fate of the “miserable, one horse town,” as Victoria liked to call New Westminster, was sealed with a 14-5 vote.

Nowadays, nearly half of B.C.’s MLAs live within public transit distance of the capital that Captain Franklyn failed to protect.


Victoria, B.C.: Beautiful but remote

On sitting days, a squadron of float planes and helicopters are needed to ferry MLAs from Vancouver across the few dozen kilometres of Pacific Ocean that separate the two cities. In cases of low-lying fog, entire rows of legislative seats can be left empty.

MLAs from the North and the interior must arrive at Vancouver International Airport and then transfer onto a Dash 8 making one of the shortest connector flights in North America.

British Columbia’s premiers (seven of the last eight of which came from Vancouver), habitually nurture some form of resentment for the city of 12,000 bureaucrats where they are forced to keep their office.

Seventies-era premier Bill Bennett gradually shifted his cabinet meetings and press conferences into Vancouver, Gordon Campbell was known to pack his Victoria business into day trips, and current premier Christy Clark proudly wears her Victoria hate on her sleeve.

Last year, she colourfully called the capital a petty, “sick city” filled with phonies. “I try never to go over there,” she said.

Of course, the put-down could only have endeared her to British Columbia’s frigid northern regions.

“[Victoria] is aesthetically appealing, very well groomed and life is quite easy in a lot of ways,” said Jennifer Brandle-McCall, a former Victorian now serving as CEO of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce. “It is such a dichotomy between that and what northern towns have to struggle with.“

“There is a quintessential difference in culture, daily experience and, I believe, even values between Victoria and the northern half of the province.”

She remembered one particularly stark illustration of the divide between capital and frontier. While participating in a phone-in panel on Victoria news radio, she was asked why northerners couldn’t just run their mines “like a co-operative.”

“I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re so out of touch with how industry actually functions up here,’” said Ms. Brandle-McCall.

The Victoria model of an isolated capital may be rare in Canada, but it is much more common in the United States, where state legislatures are almost universally located in small towns positioned far from industrial or commercial centres.

Los Angeles sends its representatives to a capital where no governor has bothered to take up permanent residence since the 1960s. New York’s governor sits in a 100,000-person city with only a single token skyscraper.

When it comes to capital geography, though, nobody complains louder than Alaskans — and with good cause. Their capital, Juneau, like Victoria, is hundreds of kilometres from main population centres on a narrow strip of land running along the northern B.C. coast


A traveler waits for his Harbour Air flight, in Victoria's inner harbour. With its short flights between Victoria's and Vancouver's downtown, it is a popular choice for provincial government employees.

To get there, representatives can either endure two border crossings, hundreds of kilometres along the Alaska Highway and a five-hour ferry ride. Or if the weather holds, they can take the trip by air — a riskier-than-average prospect in a state where, so far, air crashes have killed one House majority leader, one U.S. senator and comedian Will Rogers.

“I feel fortunate every time I make it down here,” one state representative told the Associated Press in 1994.

Transportation issues aside, a 2012 study by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government even concluded that isolated capitals leave themselves much more open to corruption. One of the study’s main arguments is that media scrutiny of politicians is less robust in a smaller place.

Nevertheless, even Alaska has held the line on their maddeningly secluded capital. Although Juneau’s cause is continually supported by Alaska Committee, a pro-capital lobby group, for the most part, Alaskans have simply balked at the price tag. At last count in the early 1990s, it topped $3-billion.

The same forces are what keep Victoria alive. “Although not the ‘best’ location today, the sunk resources in Victoria probably still give it an edge over the other possibilities,” wrote Norman Ruff, a University of Victoria political scientist, in an email to the Post.

Any relocation of the B.C. legislature onto high-priced Vancouver-area real estate would easily rank as one of the most expensive endeavours in provincial history. Besides, there may be perks to locating the seat of government in a sleepy town cut off from forest fires, cold weather, gang violence or civil insurrection.

“There’s something important about having a well-functioning political realm, and having it in a smaller place helps with that,” said Victoria city councillor Lisa Helps.

In the same vein, there might be benefits to having a capital where MLAs always seem eager to leave.

“I don’t necessarily think that the seat of government means that MLAs need to spend time here, they need to spend time in their constituencies,” said Ms. Helps.

“Victorians sometimes get accused of wanting too much to keep things the way they are,” wrote Ross Crockford, author of Victoria: The Unknown City. “But in this case, it’s probably a good idea.”


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Back to the future - go with New Westminster. The first capital city of the original colony of British Columbia.

And when Victoria won out over New Westminster as the capital city of the new amalgamated colony of British Columbia merging the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island in 1866 and then when Victoria won out in 1871 when BC entered Confederation, much the same issues outlined in the OP were advanced to replace Victoria as the capital city but the move was actively opposed by Gvernor Douglas who was much more comfortable living in Victoria.

In 1859, New Westminster was recommended as the first official capital of the new Colony of British Columbia by Richard Moody, the Lieutenant-Governor, because of its location farther from the American border than the site of the colony's proclamation, Fort Langley. New Westminster, at a defensible location on the north bank of the Fraser River, possessed, according to Moody, "great facilities for communication by water, as well as by future great trunk railways into the interior". Governor Douglas proclaimed "Queensborough" (as the site was initially called by Moody) the new capital on February 14, 1859. "Queensborough", however, did not appeal to London and it was Queen Victoria who named the city after Westminster, that part of the British capital of London where the Parliament Buildings were, and are to this day, situated. From this naming by the Queen, the City gained its official nickname, "The Royal City". A year later New Westminster became the first City in British Columbia to be incorporated and have an elected municipal government. It became a major outfitting point for prospectors coming to the Fraser Gold Rush, as all travel to the goldfield ports of Yale and Port Douglas was by steamboat or canoe up the Fraser River.

The location of New Westminster, at the edge of the forest, necessitated a large amount of labour and money to clear trees and lay out streets, which became a significant burden to the colonial budget when the imperial government shackled the colony with half of the cost of the Royal Engineers. Governor Douglas spent little time in New Westminster and had little affection for the city; and the feelings were amply repaid by the citizens of New Westminster, who avidly supported Colonel Moody's city-building efforts and castigated the governor, who preferred to remain for the most part isolated in distant Victoria. In contrast to Victoria, where settlers from England had established a strong British presence, New Westminster's early citizens were largely Canadians and Maritimers, who brought a more business-oriented approach to commerce and dismissed the pretensions of the older community. Despite being granted a municipal council, the mainlanders in New Westminster also pressed for a legislative assembly to be created for British Columbia, and were infuriated when Governor Douglas granted free port status to Victoria, which stifled the economic growth of the Fraser River city. Moreover, to pay for the expense of building roads into the Interior of the colony, Douglas imposed duties on imports into New Westminster.

In 1866, the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island were united as "British Columbia". However, the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island, Victoria, located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, was made the capital of the newly amalgamated Colony of British Columbia, following a vote in the House of Assembly. On the day of the vote one member of the assembly, William Cox (one of the colony's Gold Commissioners and a Victoria supporter), shuffled the pages of the speech that William Franklyn from Nanaimo (a New Westminster supporter) intended to give, so that Franklyn lost his place and read the first paragraph three times. Cox then popped the lenses of Franklyn's glasses from their frames so that the Nanaimo representative could see nothing at all of his speech. After a recess to settle the resulting uproar and allow the member from Nanaimo a chance to sort out his speaking notes and his spectacles, on the members' return to the House of Assembly, the Speaker John Sebastian Helmcken (from Victoria) refused to allow Franklyn a "second" chance to speak. The subsequent vote was 13 to 8 against New Westminster.

See - Margaret Ormsby, British Columbia, A History, Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1976

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I nominate Abbotsford. It's close enough to Metro Vancouver, yet outside of all its hustle and bustle and about as close as you can get to the province's demographic centre of mass. Plus, there should be enough room to build a bunch of new government buildings around it without too much cost.

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lol it isn't "remote", Victoria is a 1 hr 30 min ferry ride or 15 minute plane ride from Vancouver.... plus, it is the 12th largest city in Canada. Its not like it is really far away and it is really small. I don't really see a reason why we should move it to Vancouver.

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