Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Local Economy
Labour + Industry

Vancouver's Dirty History: A Tour Guide's Plea

Let's give wide-eyed visitors an honest tourism experience. What are your suggestions?

Jessica O'Neill 9 Jun

Jessica O'Neill is a student of heritage policy at Simon Fraser University and a civic historian specializing in neon signage. She is the director of tour development at the Vancouver tour company Tour Guys.

As the days grow longer and (hopefully) drier, a time of year that lines the pockets of my fellow tour guides begins again in Vancouver: Tourist Season. With more than 5 million people expected to visit this spring and summer, the tour buses and sightseeing trollies become a familiar sight on the city's streets.

Tourism is big business in Vancouver. But what about the stories that tourists don't hear?

As the hop on/hop off buses crawl down Water Street, there is little talk of the Coast Salish village LuckLucky, here before colonization. The trollies don't mention the hundreds of First Nations, Japanese and Hawaiian people who were forcibly removed from Stanley Park in the late 19th century. The trip through Chinatown glosses over the racist realities that young Cantonese men faced at the turn of the last century.

Vancouver's history is awash with urban legends, half-truths and untold stories, and these myths are kept alive by tour guides who repeat stories taught to them by companies more concerned with profit than accuracy.

Stock tourism

Sure, some of these myths are mostly innocuous: like the fact that Blood Alley likely never housed a butcher shop or abattoir, despite the legend propagated by local restaurateurs eager to enhance their diners' experience.

More dangerous than the myths are the omissions, important events in Vancouver's past that are simply erased from tour guide patter. Taking a harbour cruise, tourists do not hear about the Komagata Maru, the Japanese steamship carrying 356 Punjabi men that was not allowed to dock in 1914.

My biggest beef with Vancouver tourism stock stories? Standing in front of the totem poles carving school on Granville Island, I've heard guides claim that the poles were carved by "Native tribes trying to regain skills after the practice was almost lost." Little or no discourse occurs about colonial policies such as residential schools or the banning of the potlatch that lead to this "loss," and the horrors of this country's past go unvoiced.

Even less attention is paid to the inequalities that still exist in the city today. Though I disagree with "poverty tourism" that ferries busloads of tourists through the streets of poor neighbourhoods to snap photos, the complete denial of the Downtown Eastside's existence on most tours is shocking.

These are not easy topics to cover on a family-oriented afternoon, but as a walking tour guide I know that it can be done with grace, respect and at times even humour.

History's gatekeepers

Some will say that historical inaccuracy is common in all cities, but I argue that in ours it can be particularly egregious. Take, for instance, the story of Gassy Jack, the saloon owner who "founded" the city when he opened a bar in what would become Vancouver. What isn't often repeated is the fact that he married and then impregnated his Aboriginal first wife's 12-year-old cousin Quawail-ya.

Other guides I have spoken with wonder if it's important for tourists to know these unsavoury facts. Shouldn't we, as the city's ambassadors, keep some of this controversial history to ourselves? But as the gatekeepers of our city's history, I think we have an obligation to portray its often troubled past -- and its present -- in as accurate a light as possible.

Local history scholar Alasdair Butcher agrees.

"As guides we should illuminate new histories for our visitors, not re-hash the same old 'stock' information. Making our 'dirty history' visible -- whether it's the banning of the potlatch, the anti-Asian riots, or the expulsion of the Komagata Maru -- is often far more compelling for guests than hearing about the Olympics or a steam clock," he says.

La métropole historique

To make sure my own tours are as accurate as possible, I research civic history and am a member of Heritage Vancouver. I know that accounts of the city's early history are often fuzzy and contradictory, so I present multiple possibilities to my guests and refuse to shy away from the hard truths. With few exceptions, this type of tour is sorely lacking in Vancouver.

Vancouver's tourism industry should look to Montreal for a model on how to change this. According to bylaw G-2, all guides in the city of Montreal must complete a 240-hour accredited training course. This course covers many aspects of the city's history, including culture, food, architecture and language.

For our city, a series of lectures and online learning sessions could be a start. It would be important to include education from First Nations elders, talks from experts on the histories of different ethnic neighbourhoods and required readings on the city's social history to help remedy some of the gaffes committed by inexperienced guides.

I don't think guides should face any obligation to spout standardized stories. On the contrary, I think this training could help their tales become unique. Like any creative endeavour, guiding is a matter of personality and skill, but with a framework of fact and cultural sensitivity, guides would have more confidence as they navigate groups of visitors through our city's complicated and often controversial past.

Vancouver is a phenomenal place, but we have a checkered past, and the low points in our history should not be ignored or glossed over in favour of the highs. To do so is dishonest, unethical and less meaningful for our guests.

What would an honest hop-on, hop-off tour look like in your British Columbian city? What less than squeaky clean historical facts would you include? Give us a whirl in the comments below.  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

Take this week's poll