The ferry has barely had the time to leave the jetty that the rudder is already making the big boat steer westwards, avoiding an impending wall of rocks. There, in front of us, lies a branch of open waters, fringed by low-lying islands and islets thick with vegetation.
This are the same waters that Richard Blanchard saw when sailing to its new post as Governor of Vancouver in March 1850. What nows is one of the world’s most civilised areas, part of the commuting belt of a city – Vancouver – which figures on the podium of every quality of life list was a lot different, back in the day. Blanchard had just the time to recover from understanding that his residence in Fort Victoria hadn’t been built yet when he found out that the Hudson Bay Company, whom the Crown had been given a 10-years long free-for-all lease contract on the whole island, had made physical violence on miners at Fort Rupert part of the company’s policy. There also were rumours of an indian attack.
Things look a lot more peaceful, now, as we sail gently starboard of Salt Spring island, and it’s hard not to give Blanchard and his successor Sir James Douglas a lot of credit for it. Blanchard – who wasn’t paid for this job at the very end of the Empire – started a new policy of dialogue with the First Nations tribes on the island, and Sir James followed in his footsteps. Critics might say they were forced by arithmetics – there were 30 Aboriginals per Caucasic white – and most of the treaties were utterly unfair, which is true, but it’s worth mentioning that just south of the border the soon-to-be called American pioneers were fighting the first of a series of bloody Indian wars.
The BC Ferries boat sails quite far from Salt Spring Island. The island looks invitings and welcoming (the acre-big mansions on its shores might play a part I daresay), as it must’ve been for the African-American settlers who, invited by Sir James himself, moved there from Missouri, having in the meanwhile found California a little bit too racisr for their own safety.
To our south are the Pender Islands, home to some 2000 people mostly huddled together in a community called Magic Lake and two First Nations clans practicing fishing. The only other sea-faring vessel we encounter, though, is a nice sloop that looks more like belonging to a Vancouver dentist than to a proud Canadian Aboriginal.
Weather, here, can change dramatically. It was a hot and sunny day in Victoria, and it would be even more so in Vancouver; but here, in the Georgia Straits off Mayne islands, a cool wind has just risen, bringing clouds in and forcing most of us on the deck to don windstoppers and jumpers. Captain George Vancouver had none of it when he had to stop and camp on Georgina Point.
Mayne Island has a rich story, much richer than what its austere looks would let an observer guess. It was originally settled by members of the Tsarlip First Nation, who were then joined by the toffs on their Royal Navy ships. Then a surprisingly large Japanese community arrived, as if responding to some internal call, and made Mayne their home. This unlikely mélange thrived until late 1941 when Hirohito’s armies attacked Pearl Harbor; fearful of some preposterous attack to Vancouver brokered by the Mayne Japanese, the Canadian government deported the whole community far inland in continental BC, releasing only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been reduced to smithereens. Disaffected and lost, their houses repossessed and haunted by bitter memories, the community disappeared. All that remains of their presence on the island is a Japanese garden.
The last island before crossing the open seas to Tsawwassen ferry terminal south of Vancouver is Galiano island. The name, suspiciously similar to that of a famous, recently disgraced fashion designer, is owed to Dioniso Alcalá Galiano, a Spanish explorer and captain who visited these waters in 1794. Eleven years later, in the waters of Trafalgar, Galiano died hit, as the famous Admiral Lord Nelson his opponent, by a projectile.
The ferry passes within a stone’s throw from the steep cliff of Galiano’s southern coast before saluting a sister ship bound for Victoria. Then the waters, unexpectedly, widen up, almost reaching up to the horison where the Rockies beckon. Finally, one hour and a half into the journey, the shimmering crystal towers of Vancouver appear in the distance.