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Photo Essay

A Town Gone To the Dogs

Tracing the canine history of Nanaimo, and thus, civilization.

By Peter Culley 16 Jan 2009 |

Nanaimo resident Peter Culley is author of To the Dogs. This excerpt was published with permission from Arsenal Pulp Press.

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A barbaric yawp.

[Editor's Note: To the Dogs is Nanaimo author Peter Culley's tribute to canines. Extensive essays and photographs in the book portray the broad range of dog culture, in an effort to explain why the animal holds such lasting fascination for humans. In this excerpt, Culley describes the evolution of dogs in Nanaimo, B.C., mapped against the evolution of the city itself. View the photo essay for examples from the diverse images Culley pulled together for this project.]

Close to Nanaimo, British Columbia, a galaxy of little islands dot the coast like so many aquatic rest stops. Though not designed expressly for human convenience (they lack fresh water), many have such vividly distinct and harmoniously attractive little ecosystems that one leaves them with reluctance. They bring out a person's inner Robinson Crusoe: you start to look for a place to swing your hammock.

It was on some of these little islands that the Coast Salish women protected and tended the "little wooly dog," the only breed indigenous to this part of the world, now extinct. For a little over five decades, these dogs flit through the historical record, then are gone. First noted by George Vancouver at Restoration Point in May of 1792, and described in the same year by a crewman of the Spanish Sutil-Mexicana expedition then anchored off Gabriola Island (near Nanaimo):

The Indians also offered new blankets which we afterward concluded were of dog's hair, partly because when the woven hair was compared with that of those animals there was no apparent difference, and partly from the great number of dogs they keep in those villages, most of them being shorn. These animals are of moderate size, resembling those of English breed, with very thick coats, and usually white: among other things they differ from those of Europe in their manner of barking, which is simply a miserable howl.

The dogs were kept on islands to prevent them from breeding with or being harmed by the bigger, meaner hunting dogs; they were fed and watered by boats dispatched daily, and shorn of their thick, water-resistant coats twice a year. The resulting cloth, often made by interweaving with cedar, was an important source of clothing and blankets, and dog ownership was a measure of social status among Salish women.

The only visual record of the breed is in the National Gallery of Canada, in Hudson Bay Company painter Paul Kane's c. 1851-56 Interior of a Clallam Winter Lodge, Vancouver Island. In it, two of the dogs, about the size of small poodles, attend alertly to their masters. They are clearly a vital aspect of the painting's cozy and carefully depicted indoor life; truly domestic and beloved, their presence must have livened winter's dullness as well as keeping out the chill. But the same company that brought Kane to depict the Natives brought the Hudson's Bay blanket, which became commonplace, replacing those made by the Salish women; as a result, in the same decade as Kane's painting, the weaving skills began to fade and soon enough, the dog did too. Within the larger genocide, a tiny extinction. Their last appearance in the historical record is taken from the account of Jonathan Miller, Vancouver's first postmaster, who while attending a potlatch in 1862 saw what he thought was one of the breed being devoured. However, such things were known to be faked, and I prefer to think that they were.

I recount the tale of the "little wooly dog" not only as necessary preface to my own anecdotal contribution to local dog history but also as an example of how quickly the processes of evolution can turn against you, the contingency of the most secure niche and adaptation. The discrepancy of scale is astounding: countless generations spent evolving a coat that could repel moisture and a personality that could willingly accept regular shearing, all undone by the introduction of a single product, the Hudson's Bay blanket. In an instant, their cosseted island life was gone, their status as a living luxury item suddenly superfluous. Sad, but the annals of domestication are made up of an uncountable number of such evolutionary advances and retreats.

Sniffing around

Beyond the fact of their being descended from wolves attracted to our hunter-gatherer trash heaps, the actual origin of the dog is unknown and unknowable. No clear narrative emerges from the fossil record. But one look at a wolf and another at the vanished breed so cheerfully underfoot in Paul Kane's painting tells us that the existence of the dog species could never have been simply the result of a human "taming" a wolf (however managed) and hoping for the best. The evolution of the dog must of necessity have been a collaboration, one that has ensured the thriving survival of both species, with strong agency exerted on both sides.

While most of the historical minutiae that record such events are irretrievably lost, it doesn't mean that they all are: Walter Benjamin's conviction that useful data can be generated merely by walking around attentively works as well or better in small towns and the countryside. Power structures don't much bother to disguise their intentions for the benefit of us podunks and hillbillies; what is corruption in the city is small-town business as usual. And anything a man can do, you can watch.

It was said that the 19th-century journalist William Cobbett (Benjamin's great predecessor) could judge the economic health of a village by eyeballing the state of the fields, the cleanliness of the milkmaids, and the feel of the dirt between his fingers. So when I assert that I have witnessed something of a watershed in dog history -- at the very least a massive local advance of the ongoing process of domestication -- it is based on three and half decades of empirical, if not always conscious, research. Never having learned to drive is qualification for little else.

Living away from my parents' home for the first time in the late 1970s, there were parts of town I was required to cross on foot where the process of canine domestication seemed very far from complete, and in my most fearful late-night moments, hardly to have begun. Having, as I said, grown up a cat person in a cat family, my close-up experience of dogs was limited, and the semi-organized dog packs I would encounter in my nocturnal journeys over Old Nanaimo's Nob Hill probably intimidated me more than they should have.

They never did bite me; that distinction belongs to a solo Lambert Avenue Peke in broad daylight, who one day zotted out of his yard and onto my ankle with a speed I still shudder to recall. But being followed for half mile or so by a motley group of mutts, murmuring sotto voce at intervals while maintaining a disrespectfully short distance (walking in that dancing little step that cannot quite declare itself as hurrying and hence provocative -- they can smell fear, you know!) was a little humiliating, even alone as I was. And on some of those same nights, just south of town in semi-rural Cedar, similar gangs (which, as Jack London reminds us, most dogs are more than happy to join) had regrettably graduated to the wanton massacre of sheep, with whole herds murdered for sport, untouched but for killing wounds. The next morning, owners would find their prize cockapoos and collies dreaming under the porch, muzzles matted with blood. A little smaller or weaker and my delicate half-trot wouldn't have got me very far. They would have killed me if they could, for kicks, or so I thought anyway; more likely they were just bored, following me along on my route, which couldn't have been nearly as far as I remember it. But it turns out their nights of roaming were numbered anyway.

Darkest Nanaimo

It is hard to describe just how utterly deserted and dark Nanaimo was in the "wee hours" of those distant nights. Before sodium vapor streetlamps were introduced sometime in the early 1980s -- their burnt-orange surveilling glow spreading south towards us from the north end's new car dealerships, malls, parking lots, housing developments and industrial parks -- nighttime Nanaimo was a dim and mostly uninhabited country. On these late night strolls, a passing car was a rarity, a passing pedestrian almost unknown. After midnight, a dull-blue TV glow might emerge from one house in 10, but otherwise sleep reigned. No motion detectors detected your motion, your passing triggered no lights. No cameras stared, no police passed. Before the 24-hour doughnut shop landed on Terminal Avenue, nothing was even open, so there was no place to spend money, assuming you had any, which you generally didn't. The dogs were the only frightening thing about the wee hours, and mostly because I was a wimp who had strayed into a space and time that were still, for a while at least, theirs.

The owners who put their dogs "out" on these nights had faith not only in the night's essential benignity, but also that they were realistically acceding to their dog's true nature, its reiterated desire to wander around for a bit, howl at the moon, sniff the breeze, perhaps even encounter a stranger of its own species for the pleasures of status establishment combined with a little anonymous sex or violence. Theoretically Rover could then return to his daytime role of companion animal with renewed energy and commitment, having both gotten in touch with his "wild" side and "worked off a little steam." A wink-and-a-nod here. Adolescent boys still enjoy many of the same privileges.

Jack London's definitively "red in tooth and claw" Darwinian novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang enact this evolutionary catch-and-release over the course of their mirrored narratives, the first where the bon-bon-eating San Franciscan Buck "finds himself" as the man-killing alpha dog of an Alaska sled team and then in White Fang's re-enactment of the primal moment of taming, where an actual wolf eventually hears the equally strong call of the warm fireside.

London's fable is partly a eugenic one, where the comforts of polyglot civilization forever threaten to dilute an essential strain of ancient wild purity, and must have been a comfort to those packs of readers, trapped in the narrow beds of industrial civilization, who felt something primordial stir at the sound of a distant siren as they once would have at a distant howl. By selectively drawing on inner resources of "wildness," dog and boy could roam between human and animal realms in a controlled way, enacting a liberatory blurring of civilization and anarchy, consciousness and unconsciousness. And from Mowgli to the Wolf Man, the image of the roaming feral dogchild still exerts a powerful attraction. However crudely essentialist such ideas may have been, however much statistically safer a dog (or boy!) who sleeps indoors is, we can still mourn the loss of the night as a place of mystery and adventure.

Society on a leash

Civilization has a price. But the sheep killers of Cedar put an end to the age -- which must have stretched to the beginnings of human settlement -- of nocturnal canine freedom, at least as far as Nanaimo was concerned. Dogs were citizens now, like everybody else.

The rapid emergence of the virtual "mall world" north of Nanaimo was, along with the newly illuminated night and the stricter enforcement of leash laws, an important passage in the city's belated transition from hardscrabble coal and lumber town to minor communications hub. The air of genteel frontier lawlessness which the city managed to carry well into the 1980s could no longer be sustained. And though this process is still short of completion, the end is in sight -- if the boondoggle "conference centre" half-completed downtown (the phantom "private lenders" ran out of money, naturally) does little else, it will admit Nanaimo to the elite level of third-tier travel "destinations."

This new Nanaimo will not be defined by its perpetually high unemployment rate, its once sulphurous but now shuttered pulp mill, its embarrassing Bathtub Race, high addiction rates or non-existent civic "culture." Instead, a "waterfront" is uneasily Lego'd onto the old city's docks and foundries, with cruise ships ejecting hapless tourists to be herded and sheared along its walkways. A call centre succeeds the pulp mill as the town's largest non-governmental employer, and when the doors of the biker gang's clubhouse were chained by the RCMP (a couple of months before the pulp mill went into receivership) our vast, hidden drug economy began to diversify in earnest. One paradox of this transformation is that the revitalized service economy that allowed for Nanaimo's "renaissance" depended on increasingly punitive social welfare policies.

Life for Nanaimo's poorest has become increasingly marginal and visibly more difficult. Drug activity, prostitution and homelessness now define many parts of the old city. Those activities were always there, and often in greater proportion than now, but at least the people who did them could still afford places to live. The thumbnail history of the past couple of decades is that where once Nanaimo had stray dogs, it now has stray people. An injured human lying on the grass of a downtown park is more likely to get stepped over or walked around and less likely to get help or sympathy than an injured dog.

If the word "stray" implies a carelessness deserving sympathy, "homeless" is always the rendering of a judgment. The process of Nanaimo's modernization began with the roundup of the dogs and ends with the abandonment of its poor. It is possible to fall lower than a dog, but it will probably be through your own doing ... the fresh air will do you good.

It's a yard dog's life

Over time too, the era of the roving dog gave way to the era of the yard dog. However invisibly, the streets were now administered, the state in control. People still put their dogs "out" at night, but into a yard that was generally well secured -- the pound only lets you know the first time. Whatever exercise and entertainment the dog would get, it would have to get there, or, if fortunate, during the regulation four-block neighbourhood sniff, shit, stroll and bag. The arrival of something as interesting as a burglar would be like Christmas morning.

Anyone who walks is necessarily witness to the abject misery and humiliation of the average "yard dog." Dogs don't continually bark unless they're bored and unhappy, and in the dogs that furiously bark at me as I walk up for the mail each day -- snouts poking eagerly through the fence -- the emotions of aggression, boredom and earnest dutifulness exist in a self-cancelling loop: their barking gives no relief, but can't end either. Humanity has perhaps worse sins on its record, but the transformation of these clever, noble spirits into neurotic backyard prisoners says nothing good about us. The statistically insignificant numbers of actual working dogs, admirably fulfilling real functions from digging tots out of rubble to detecting plastique at the airport, seem to mock the designed purposelessness and indirection of the others.

Nanaimo is still primarily a place of yard dogs, but even here the final drama of domestication is beginning to be played out: the symbolic movement from the yard to the house, from the animal to the human. The time-honoured, seigniorial slave/master relationship of "pet" to "owner" is regarded by many as the residue of a less enlightened age; the cliché of the visiting Martian's question on seeing a human following a dog with a plastic bag -- just who's in charge here? -- has become an open question, though they might have thought the same watching the Coast Salish women rowing to an island with water and snacks. Another cliché -- if you want a friend, get a dog -- has moved from being a cynical statement about human loyalty to an active instruction many are happy to follow. Yet another cliché -- that over time, owners come to resemble their dogs -- has also come oddly true for our society as a whole. Increasingly clannish, volatile, and with an ever shorter-attention span, much of our culture exists at a dog level already.

Everyone likes to be petted

The inwardness and emotional solipsism endemic to the post-Diana, post-9-11 West has brought the dog indoors as much as our caring leash laws. A lot of people seem to need what dogs offer, and they seem to need more and more of it. It's easy to see the appeal; in a friendship with a dog one needn't fear criticism, contradiction or an invocation of the wider world. A dog won't call you stupid, or ruin the mood by bringing up the Iraq war. In this calculus, light cleanup duty seems a fair exchange, a seat at the table a reasonable request. But the residue of this collectively implied rejection of the human is a cultural void, a burdensome misanthropy that does dogs no favour either.

"Dogland" was the name we gave to the part of Nanaimo on the border between the Old City and Harewood, through which the Cat Stream (invisible then in the unclipped alder/blackberry thicket that had grown over the midden from the 1962 Chinatown fire) flowed; bounded by Pine Street, Harewood Road and the unpaved alley at the foot of Machleary: it was probably a couple of acres in extent. The alley, a mostly-unacknowledged-because-rarely-needed uphill short cut, was its centre. If dogs were intending to follow me on a given night, it was this alley (in a dark notch between the old streetlights' weak coronas) from which they could be expected to emerge. And though I passed through untroubled on all but a handful of nights, that sense of moving through the autonomous zone of another species was always there and remains in my memory.

In a dark corner of town there remained, however briefly, a free republic, a Camelot for dogs, a zone of autonomy into which one trespassed with respect.

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