Beyond the City Limits: Rural History in British Columbia

By R. W. Sandwell | Go to book overview

11 Rurality Check: Demographic Boundaries on the British Columbia Frontier

John Douglas Belshaw1

One of the legacies of the age of boosterism in British Columbia was the incorporation of many cities whose 'urban' qualifications were dubious. 2 In the late nineteenth century, communities with a population of fewer than one thousand could qualify for incorporation, Many hamlets and villages took advantage of this opportunity to box above their weight on the maps of the British Empire. This development had consequences not only for the promotion and pattern of settlement, but also for the ways in which the province's history has been constructed. 3

It can be argued that no province in Canada has a stronger urban tradition than British Columbia. The landscape obliged concentrations of newcomer populations in narrow valleys and fjords, at river mouths and at confluences. Typically, nineteenth-century towns and cities sprang up without the preliminary of an agrarian, pre-urban phase. This was dictated by terrain, in part, but it was also due to the demands of resource extraction industries. In the golden Cariboo, the silvery Kootenays, and on the coal field of Vancouver Island, urban formations without a rural past erupted in short order; Vancouver City's explosive growth following the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway was hardly different. As foci for settlement and for conflict, these cities have naturally become lightning rods in the writing of provincial history. The corollary has been that rural history has been largely neglected. 4

The legal boundary lines drawn between city and countryside in British Columbia during the last hundred and forty years were arbitrary and usually artificial. Without city walls or topographic barriers to demarcate the city from the wilderness, there was, typically, a blurring of urban woodlands and rangelands and rural forests and pasture. Even assuming that there was a palpable difference between town and country at the time, the economic interests of one were very frequently the lifeblood of the other. In studies of rural life in other parts of Canada, historians have demonstrated repeatedly over the last fifteen years that a neat bisection of Canadian

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