History of Victoria's Harbour

2009 Harbour Aerial Victoria Harbour is the jewel of Vancouver Island. Lands surrounding the picturesque deep-sea harbour were a traditional winter home for First Nations peoples for thousands of years. When European explorers came about 220 years ago, the harbour was chosen by the Hudson Bay Company as its Pacific Northwest base, and Fort Victoria was born.

For almost a century and a half since then, the fortunes of the harbour have ebbed and flowed. And for just as long, the control of the harbour and its waterfront lands has been disputed. At times, control of Victoria's harbour has been in the hands of absentee landlords in Britain. Once the fledgling province of British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada, jurisdiction rested with Ottawa.

In modern times, Victoria business leaders advocated change. They wanted this local treasure to be under local control. Many people worked tirelessly towards this goal for many years. Their struggle for local ownership of the waters and lands around the beautiful harbour was rewarded in 2002. Greater Victoria Harbour Authority was formed, and four parcels of harbour land were divested to its control. The harbour finally had an advocate and a new voice.

This is the story of the long journey to that historic day and a capsule of the highlights of the first five years of the Harbour Authority's existence. It is an evolving story, an unfinished one, with new chapters being written every year.

 

First Peoples

First Nations peoples first arrived on the southeast tip of Vancouver Island after the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. The Songhees and Esquimalt peoples treasured the calm waters of the area's natural harbour, its abundant fishing and hunting, and its edible bounty of berries, crabapples and camas roots. They prized the towering cedars that provided clothing, shelter, and transportation and they honoured the spirit of the land they loved through towering totems, exquisite artwork and fine craftsmanship. Although they created no written records, they passed knowledge and understanding from generation to generation through strong oral traditions of storytelling and song.

When the first Europeans sailed into the sheltering harbour of what would become the City of Victoria, they found more than a dozen winter villages belonging to the Esquimalt and Songhees peoples, who called the area Lekwammen, or "the land of the winds" because of its winter windstorms.

 

A Welcome Discovery

The first documented arrival of a European on Vancouver Island was the Spanish explorer Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, in 1775. Three years later, in 1778, Captain James Cook arrived at Nootka Island on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Their reports so intrigued other English and Spanish explorers that it wasn't long before colonization began in earnest. In 1788, fur trader John Meares brought Chinese labourers to the Island and built the Island's first trading post at Nootka.

At the heart of growing interest in Vancouver Island was the "safe harbour" explorers had discovered at the Island's southeastern tip. This sheltered moorage was a welcome discovery in the relatively unknown Pacific Northwest, and it quickly became a major catalyst for growth.

 

A Gateway For Trade

From the safety of the harbour, early explorers and settlers discovered a wealth of natural resources that were much in demand in Europe. They began to trade with the First Nations people for furs and salmon, and to fell trees for lumber and sailing masts. Whaling and seal hunting bolstered the Island's fur trade and forestry industry, and when coal was discovered on Vancouver Island in 1835 it created even more interest in the area across Canada and around the world.

The Hudson Bay Company, which already spanned much of the continent, determined that it needed a presence in the Pacific Northwest to take advantage of the many opportunties for trade. In 1837 the company sent Captain William H. McNeill in the steamship Beaver to examine the Strait of Juan de Fuca (as it is known today) for a site that would be suitable as the Hudson Bay Company's Pacific headquarters.

When Captain McNeill returned from his exploration, he reported that there was an excellent harbour, which he called Camosack, at the south end of Vancouver Island. The company began preparations for an outpost there. Five years later, McNeill and the Beaver returned to 'Camosack', bringing the Hudson Bay Company's Chief Factor, James Douglas, with them. They built a trading post and company headquarters on the harbour, and called it Fort Victoria in honour of Britain's young queen, who was just six years into her long reign.

The Hudson Bay Company traded with the First Nations people for furs and salmon, and generally treated them fairly. Their communities grew and prospered. Sadly, however, their newfound wealth encouraged them to abandon traditional home sites in favour of settlements closer to European forts and outposts.

For Vancouver Island's First Nations, this meant a loss of traditional ways of living, including the potlatch that had been central to their culture for centuries. In this ceremonial feast, a host family provided a rich assortment of foods, presented elaborate dance performances, and gave away its most prized possessions to its guests, who would reciprocate when they, in turn, held potlatch. In the 1880's as the erosion of a way of life prized for thousands of years continued, the Canadian Indian Act made potlatching illegal.

The move from traditional home sites to encampments close to European settlements brought other ills; muskets, the scourge of smallpox, and lingering disputes over the ownership of land.

In 1849 Britain recognized Vancouver Island as a colony, chose Victoria as its capital city, and began to encourage settlement. When the colony's first Governor, Richard Blanshard, left his post abruptly in 1851 James Douglas was appointed Governor of the new colony. Douglas attempted to settle outstanding land disputes, signing 14 treaties with First Nations peoples in and around Victoria, some of which are the foundation of continuing discussion today.

 

Golden Opportunities

In 1858, word got out that gold had been discovered in the Fraser River valley. Tens of thousands of people streamed north from San Francisco and beyond to get to the new gold fields, stopping in Victoria to stock up. For prospectors eager to make their fortunes, the arrival in Victoria's harbour and the long lines of men waiting to purchase supplies and buy a miner's licence were memorable sights.

Further gold discoveries in the Cariboo continued to put Victoria and its harbour on the map as the major supply depot and busiest port north of San Francisco. Victoria's deep-sea port, which became a free port in 1860, was an important link in the frenzied supply chain, supporting both the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes.

 

A Capital Idea

Meanwhile, the frenzy over gold and a recent war with Russia from 1854-56 prompted the British to cement their control of the area. In 1858 they established a new colony, named British Columbia, on the mainland with its capital in New Westminster.

After the union of the colonies of Victoria and British Columbia, New Westminster was the home of the legislative council, until Victoria was proclaimed the capital of British Columbia in 1868. The new, larger colony embraced confederation in 1871, when Canada promised to build a transcontinental railway to the coast becoming the sixth province in the Dominion of Canada.

When British Columbia became part of Canada, it was the only province where the native people were in a majority. But by 1911, with the rapid growth and popularity of the new province, First Nations people made up only a small percentage of the total population.

As the population of the province grew, struggles over land increased. In 1876, the federal and provincial governments established a Joint Commission on Indian Land to allocate land to each Indian band. These allocations continued for the next 14 years as the commission travelled the province establishing reserve lands, many of them only small parcels of land with little or no economic base.

 

A Sea Change In Shipping

The transcontinental railway promised by Canada took five years to build. Because it terminated in Vancouver, it greatly boosted the fortunes of that city and its harbour at Victoria's expense. Victorians' disappointment was somewhat appeased with the construction of a federal graving, or dry, dock for ship repair and maintenance in 1887 at the Esquimalt naval base.

As the 19th century came to an end, Victoria remained more populous than Vancouver. During this period, the driving force for the capital city's beautiful but much smaller harbour was the increasing use of steam over sail. Perhaps inevitably, the terminus of the transcontinental rail line in Vancouver soon gave that city the upper hand in growth and trade. A sea change was about to come over the Port of Victoria.

As shipping migrated to Vancouver, tourism and people movement became increasingly important for Victoria's harbour. A triangular route between Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle encouraged the Canadian Pacific Railway to build up its Princess Line - the pride of the B.C. coastal service - to a fleet of 32 ships. Some of these vessels also became a lifeline for other Vancouver Island ports and points further north through the Inside Passage and as far away as Alaska.

There was healthy competition for passengers from the elegant cruisers of the Puget Sound Navigation Company, known as the Black Ball Line, which was based in Seattle. The elegant Canadian Pacific liners Empress of India, Empress of Japan and Empress of China were regular callers at Victoria for over 50 years, carrying mail, passengers and freight speedily across the Pacific.

In 1906, Victoria Harbour suffered a setback when the Royal Navy withdrew 1,000 personnel from Esquimalt, and the Canadian Naval Service became responsible for the base, which had been under British control since becoming its Pacific headquarters in 1865.

 

An Early Tourist Destination

By 1901, Vancouver had eclipsed Victoria in population, and the capital - with its most famous landmark, Francis Rattenbury's Legislative Buildings, which had opened with much fanfare in 1898 - was forced to exploit a new identity ad "a quiet English town of beautiful streets." By 1908, the city got a boost when then Canadian Pacific Railway commissioned Rattenbury to build a magnificent luxury hotel known as the Empress, facing the bustling Victoria Harbour on the reclaimed mud flats of James Bay.

The opening of the Empress Hotel signalled a move into tourism for the capital city. The Outer Wharves, which had been built in 1883 by Robert P. Rithet in Major Bay near Shoal Point, to serve his sugar interests around the world, became a valuable docking point for passenger liners.

Rattenbury continued as the architect of choice for CPR properties in Victoria, designing both the CPR Steamship Terminal (1924) and the Crystal Gardens amusement centre (1925).

 

Shipping And Shipbuilding

Victoria's shipbuilding industry began humbly, in 1859 at Laing's Way at the foot of Dallas Road, but rose to become an economic strength during the early years, particularly in the Inner Harbour, and World War I stretched their capacity to its fullest. Five 2,500 ton, and twenty larger 3,000 ton wooden steamers were built for wartime use, with an additional six large, five-masted auxiliary lumber schooners, being constructed, to maintain B.C. forestry industry shipping throughout the Pacific.

The vision of Victoria as a major industrial centre and cargo terminal began early in the 20th century, as the city anticipated a massive increase in sea trade from deep-sea vessels using the Panama Canal, which was then under construction. Preparations for the expected increase in shipping included building a 2,500-foot granite and concrete breakwater, which was completed in 1916, and two piers and a cargo warehouse which were completed in 1918 - at a total cost of $5 million.

Ownership of harbour lands and assets changed hands several times after the war. On May 1, 1918 the Department of Public Works transferred the breakwater, warehouse and piers to the Department of Marine, who transferred them to the Department of Railways and Canals (DRC) on December 27, 1918. The DRC transferred responsibility for Ogden Point Piers to the Canadian Northern Railway Co. on February 5, 1919. The CNF then installed a rail ferry slip and rail tracks into the yard extending them to each side of both piers and including a deep track within the warehouse on Pier A.

In 1925 the Panama Pacific Grain Terminal Elevator Co. Ltd. built a grain terminal on Pier North B to load grain arriving by rail from the Prairies, on to deep-sea freighters for shipment around the world.

In March of 1928, by Order in Council, Ogden Point was entrusted to the Canadian National Railway. It was around this time that BC Packers built a fish processing and cold storage plant in the yard between Pier A and B.

The first float planes were also seen on Victoria Harbour at this time, when Bill Boeing and Eddie Hubbard and the U.S. International Air Mail service began operating between Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle in 1919. The planes used a small beach landing at Shoal Point between the Brackman & Ker grain wharf and the Victoria Chemical Company wharf, which later became a storage area for Island Pacific Oil Company.

 

A Public Harbour

The Six Harbours Agreement, signed in 1924, is one of Canada's constitutional documents. It describes Victoria as one of six "public harbours" under federal jurisdiction, and contains a detailed metes and bounds description and a rough plan of the Harbour. When it was established as a public harbour, BC supplied information to the federal government that would allow it to confirm all grants, quit claims and other dispositions affecting the harbour on terms and conditions suitable to the country.

From 1924 to the 1960s, the federal government did not exercise any significant control or occupation over Harbour lands, or control filling or foreshore use.

Canada has always maintained its 1924 description of Victoria's harbour: "all that foreshore and bed of Victoria Harbour and Selkirk water" - which means all land below the high water mark.

In the 1960s the Department of Transport undertook the first real legal survey of the harbour and defined the 1924 line, presumably with some, but not all of the earlier land that had been pre-empted or granted prior to 1924.

Archives contain various pieces of correspondence indicating the existence of parts of plans filed in support of grants in or into the harbour, some of which have titles and some which the Land Title Office has historically refused to recognize. For instance, there appear to have been some grants and conveyances in the Lime Bay area in the late 1850s and early 1960s but no titles exist for them.

 

An Asset In Wartime

As in the First World War, World War II saw a resurgence of shipbuilding in Victoria. Local shipbuilders, working in steel this time, instead of wood, built much needed 10,000-ton steel freighters or "Victory ships." The city's principal shipyard, Victoria Machine Depot (VMD) constructed a second yard next to the main Rithet Outer Wharf to handle the increased demand. At its wartime peak, VMD had as many as 3,000 workers working three shifts, seven days a week completing 20 freighters by March 1945.

 

A Flourishing Fishing Port

After WWII, fishing became increasingly important to Victoria's harbour. A single finger float at the foot of Johnson Street was replaced by a $100,000 federally-funded Fisherman's Wharf at the foot of Erie Street, which had moorings for up to 60 large fish-packing ships. The main float was 390-feet long and had six finger floats when the facility opened on March 31, 1948.

In 1947, the Kyoquot Trollers Co-operative Association set up a new fish cold-storage and ice facility for the fleet of fish packers at Victoria Chemical Company's wharf.

As fishing became increasingly important, shipbuilding languished, although VMD did build several vessels (including the Queen of Saanich and Queen of Esquimalt) for a new, government-run ferry company known as BC Ferries, which began operations in 1960. The new ferry passenger and vehicle service used a terminal at Swartz Bay north of Victoria - a location still in use today. Almost overnight, the ferry service brought Vancouer Island out of its isolation from the rest of Canada. VMD shipyards captured headlines a final time when it built the world's largest deep-sea semi-submersible oil-rig. Sadly, a lack of sustained business forced it to close its shipbuilding and repair business in December 1967.

 

A Decline In Fortunes

In 1975, the landmark Outer Wharves at Shoal Point were demolished and construction began on a new Canadian Coast Guard marine base which opened in 1980.

Victoria's once flourishing freight trade was in serious decline when further bad news came in 1976. Canadian National Railways had decided not to ship any further grain through the one million bushel Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevator facility at Victoria's Outer Wharf. The grain terminal then stood empty for about 20 years - almost half of its 48-year life.

A further blow to harbour cruise and freight operations occurred in September of 1977, when a fire destroyed much of the CNR's Ogden Point facility and the baled pulp and rolled newsprint cargoes that were waiting there for shipment.

On January 1, 1978, the CNR relinquished their entrustment of Ogden Point and its ownership reverted to Transport Canada. Westcan Terminals then leased the property from Transport Canada who raised Pier A and constructed a 100,000 sq. ft. concrete warehouse. The warehouse included a lounge for cruise ship passengers. 1978 also saw the removal of the grain elevator on Pier B and the end of CNR rail service on Ogden Point. Westcan purchased a rail locomotive and continued rail service for lumber and pulp to Ogden Point for another 5 years before abandoning the service because of insufficient traffic. Westcan and their parent company, Western Stevedoring, continue to manage the deep sea operations at Ogden Point to this day.

The longest serving business at Ogden Point is probably the Pacific Pilotage Authority, whose original office was at the foot of Montreal Street. Empire Stevedoring and the Commissionaires also used that office, before it was demolished in the late 1990s.

Until 1978, when Transport Canada constructed a fence around Ogden Point, the docks were open to the public at all times. Fishing off the end of the docks was a favourite pastime for many Victorians, and people often drove their vehicles through the lumber piles and down the docks when vessels were working. Shipping from Victoria's harbour continued to decline as forestry and other cargoes left Victoria Harbour for other locations up-Island or were lured to the expanding Port of Vancouver by economics of scale. The concept of a working harbour in Victoria seemed to have run its course, and more and more waterfront land was used for apartment, condominium and housing development.

 

A Bright Future

Today, although only fishing and tourism remain as steady economic drivers, Victoria's working harbour is fighting back. Recent increases in freight handling of items such as luxury yachts, a healthy, growing shipbuilding and repair industry through Victoria Shipyards Co. Ltd. at Esquimalt, and the major refurbishing of one of the oldest yards in BC -- the Point Hope Maritime repair yards in the Inner Harbour -- all promise a bright future.

Over the past 20 years, the mainstays of the harbour have become the cruise ship industry and services set up to cater to people -- scheduled float plane services, whale watching and other adventure tours, and international passenger and vehicle ferry services between Seattle and Victoria, Victoria and the Gulf and San Juan Islands, and Victoria and Port Angeles.

Victoria's harbour has seen a lot of change since its earliest days, when the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations first built their totems and villages here.

Although it is not the same natural gem those Nations treasured, their interest in its future speaks to their profound connection with its waters.

This harbour, which was a welcome discovery for explorers, a safe haven for shipping, shipbuilders, prospectors, fishermen and tourists, has seen good times and bad. It has developed and grown, meeting the changing transportation and shipping needs of generation after generation of Victorians and visitors alike. It will continue to change and adapt as new needs and new challenges arise, and will continue to be the very heart of this vibrant city well into the future.

 

Who Owns The Harbour?

Control of Victoria's crown jewel -- its harbour -- which was once firmly in the hands of the Hudson Bay Company, has long been the subject of lively debate.

The City of Victoria, incorporated in 1862, well before British Columbia joined Canada, had an increasing influence over the harbour and its lands. When Victoria joined the Dominion in 1871, the "public harbour" formally came under Federal Government jurisdiction and with its control of in-bound and out-bound shipping, berthing at the wharves and docks, and harbour safety including vessels and eventually aircraft.

Over the years, the British Columbia Government also acquired considerable properties around the harbour waterfront, and began to plan for their development, including the construction of the lower causeway in 1977. This multiplicity of ownership of the harbour and its lands has been confusing and frustrating for planners and politicians alike since the very earliest days of the city. As far back as 1884, the Victoria Board of Trade sought clarity and advocated local control of the harbour.

 

"Rust Belt" or People Place?

As the Port of Vancouver with its vital rail links to the rest of the continent grew in importance, Victoria's value of cargo shipped dropped dramatically, beginning in the early 1900s. Numerous studies were undertaken during the following decades as the decline continued, but by the 1960s the demise of Victoria's working harbour and its traditional industrial base was so complete that it was described as the "Rust Belt" of the region because of the large number of derelict sites and "tremendous underutilization of the waterfront areas."

Those with vision saw Victoria Harbour becoming a "people place" completely entwined with the tourism industry, a transportation terminus, a centre for celebration, and a place for people to enjoy the waterfront and its marine facilities. It was, however, a vision that would take a long time to realize.

 

Calls For Local Ownership

The demand for local ownership of the harbour continued to grow, as residents grew more anxious to have a chance to do something about the decay. In the late 1970s, the City of Victoria drew on the findings of several previous studies on the future of the harbour in the hope of ending what it called a "jurisdictional melee."

The prospects of setting up a Harbour Commission answerable to Ottawa were explored and dismissed, but the City's Municipal Manager urged changes by the Federal Government involving Government Wharves Regulations and said:

"It is recommended that the City apply for a lease of all federal jetties in Victoria Harbour with a view to setting up a single harbour management capability for floats and harbour cleanup." It sought to involve "the various jurisdictions concerned with the harbour" to see if they would be willing to participate in a "Harbour Committee."

A further report on the administration and development of Victoria Harbour was made in October 1979 with an eye toward better use of Ogden Point and the development of its potential. That report noted the continuing decline of "the shipment of goods" but added that Victoria Harbour "is vital to transportation services and as a tourist/recreational/residential resource."

Progress toward local control of the harbour was laboriously slow during the 1970s and 1980s, and by July 1987 frustration over the on-again, off-again process was on the rise.

A Business and Industrial Development Commission report entitled: "Victoria and Esquimalt Harbours - A New Perspective" was particularly hard-hitting about the delays and lack of vision that had by now stretched over decades.

"As with many port cities it (Greater Victoria's two working harbours) has suffered from a lack of vision and management in its adaptation to successive demands for new functions, with perilous little thought given to the existing or traditional port activities," the report writers said.

"Its development and change in the last two decades has been disjointed and incremental, characterized by a web of loosely related decisions and actions by 13 government jurisdictions and their agencies acting independently, and developers acting profitably."

The report also cited the Ogden Point deep sea terminal and said over the years the facility had faced "one of the most traumatic declines of any part of the harbour and now exists almost in a state of lethargy."

Yet another briefing paper in March 1988 on the "Canadian Harbour Commission System", which some in the provincial capital were advocating, noted:

"Victoria and Esquimalt Harbours, which are vital to the community as a port, are slowly but surely 'going down the tube' as economically viable transportation and marine industrial centres. The need for local imaginative management of Victoria and Esquimalt Harbours is long overdue."

 

Waterfront Development: Fighting For The Right Balance

By the 1990s, there was a growing awareness among those interested in the harbour, that unless the booming development of condominiums along the waterfront was controlled, it would have a serious impact on future "working harbour" activities. However, no level of government appeared ready to halt development -- even those in the marine industry didn't seem to have an answer to the problem. Victoria Harbour was truly fulfilling its official designation as an "unorganized harbour".

The Capital Families Association -- a pro-parenting group who cherished families -- became involved in an attempt to preserve a "living wage" for marine jobs. As a board member of the association and concerned citizen, Bernice Packford became acutely interested in the plight of the waterfront. She attended the opening conference of the new Victoria Conference Centre in 1989, where many speakers lamented the loss of waterfront jobs, but, as Packford said, "no one seemed to have a solution." She canvassed several marine industries, including Point Hope Shipyards, in the hope of gathering support for a survival plan.

As months and years went by, Packford's interest was refocused on the issue by a series of three local newspaper articles in 1992 about "The Death of a Harbour" in which journalist Shirley Hewitt highlighted the plight of Victoria's working harbour.

Within a month, Packford had organized several meetings of concerned citizens, many, like herself, with no ties to the waterfront. The largest of these was the last, which was held at the Princess Mary Restaurant and attended by approximately 100 people.

At the Princess Mary that day, the Victoria/Esquimalt Working Harbour Association was founded, and people identified several threats to the viability of the working harbour, including:

  • Lack of charter boat moorage
  • Lack of public moorage
  • The need for a Harbour Authority with local control
  • Marine fuel station longevity
  • More services for the fishing fleet
  • The need for integrated ferry docks
  • Greater public access to both harbours
  • Provisions for live-aboard boaters
  • The continued marketing of Songhees lands. A suggestion was made to take these lands off the market and offer them to marine interests on long-term leases.

The harbour group's belief was that the harbour should be a place to "live, work and play" and that the "work" aspects of the harbour were being overshadowed by more glamorous "live and play" functions. Waterfront land prices were escalating because of the continuing condominium development, putting it out of reach of marine industries. In May 1994, it appeared the working group's efforts to balance the 'work', 'live' and 'play' aspects of the harbour had been successful. Transport Canada announced that a Harbour Commission would finally be established. Less than a year later, however, the Federal Government had changed its mind. About then, a Victoria Chamber of Commerce meeting was told by a Federal Government official that the harbour would be divested to its stakeholders and not to other levels of government. The official urged the stakeholders to step forward and proceed.

 

Setting The Stage For Divestiture

Spurred by these comments, some local citizens were prepared to "go it alone." In 1995, local lawyer Stewart Johnston (then Vice President Transportation for Tourism Victoria), Tony Sheridan (Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce), and John Sanderson (then President of Victoria/Esquimalt Working Harbour Association) attended a City of Victoria meeting and said they would go on an "independent pathway" to divestiture. They invited the City, Township of Esquimalt and the Province to join them as partners.

The Songhees Nation also sent a representative on a "watching brief" from 1995.

Several meetings followed and in 1996 the stakeholders created a Harbour Advisory Committee (HAC) drawing in all stakeholders and interested groups with Stewart Johnston as Chair. The HAC loosely became known as "the Harbour Partnership" with the City, and the town of Esquimalt on board and the Province taking an "observer" role. A Harbour Steering Committee was set up as a governance body of the divestiture and had three representatives of the HAC and three politicians appointed by the Province, City of Victoria and Township of Esquimalt. A Harbour Technical Committee, largely made up of bureaucrats was established to co-ordinate with Transport Canada and do parallel research on the state of the harbour.

During this time, the HAC played two vital roles - as a full partner in the process and as an advisor on behalf of harbour stakeholders.

A 1996 Memorandum of Understanding was signed detailing the divestiture process: the harbour would be divested to an independent society made up of stakeholders including governments. This plan was quickly found to be unworkable for several reasons. Pollution issues placed immense liabilities on the government, land transfers could not be completed for harbour properties because no survey information existed, and First Nations had yet to be consulted. It was clear Transport Canada had a lot more work to do.

In 1998 the Federal Government, under the Canada Marine Act, created the 19 Canadian Port Authorities for the Port Commissions and the Port Corporations. For Victoria, however, the Federal Government offered divestiture of the harbour instead. It was like music to the ears for many groups trying to win local harbour control, but its realization was still to prove an arduous task.

The Harbour Advisory Committee, which represented diverse harbour interests -- from marinas to the cruise ship industry, float planes to arts and recreation, and from tourism to passenger ferries - was incorporated in July 1998 as the Victoria/Esquimalt Harbour Society.

With it roots partially in the HAC and the working harbour association, the V/EHS was heavily involved in the variety of committees now working toward eventual local control of the harbour. The working harbour association would continue to be active until March 2003, when Packford and the volunteers turned over their stewardship concerns for the harbour to the new society.

In early 2000, the "harbour partnership" had grown to include the Esquimalt as well as the Songhees and meaningful negotiations with all interested parties began in earnest.

 

Establishing Local Leadership For The Harbour

The non-profit society, Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA), was established on February 8, 2002, through a Memorandum of Understanding between the Provincial Capital Commission (PCC), Esquimalt Nation, Songhees Nation, the City of Victoria, the Township of Esquimalt, and the Victoria/Esquimalt Harbour Society (V/EHS).

Potential land parcels were identified and Ottawa, through Transport Canada, launched environmental studies of the lands to be divested. The GVHA received financial assistance to research possible parameters for divestiture.

All the parties acknowledged that Victoria's harbour lies within the traditional territory of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nation and agreed that those Nations would each have meaningful participation in the divestiture process.

Founding members of the new Harbour Authority were the PCC, City of Victoria, Township of Esquimalt, and the Esquimalt Nation and Songhees Nation. The V/EHS, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Victoria and the Capital Regional District were added later.

The original Board of Directors of the GVHA were:

  • Larry Beres (Provincial Capital Commission)
  • H.B. (Skip) Dick (Songhees Nation)
  • Councillor Bea Holland (City of Victoria)
  • Stewart Johnston (Tourism Victoria) Chair
  • Peter Lloyd (Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce) Treasurer
  • Mayor Ray Rice (Township of Esquimalt) Vice-Chair
  • Paul Ridout (Victoria Esquimalt Harbour Society)
  • John Sanderson (Victoria Esquimalt Harbour Society) Secretary
  • Chief Andy Thomas (Esquimalt Nation)

 

Initial Divestitures

The first lands divested to the new GVHA were announced in February and April 2002. They were:

  • Ogden Point Marine Terminals and breakwater
  • Erie Street Fisherman's Wharf
  • The Causeway to Ship Point
  • Wharf Street Docks

The First Nations land title agreement, described in the Delgamuuk'w decision, required that First Nations interests be factored into land divestiture outcomes. This prevented the south corner of the Belleville property from being transferred to a non-government agency. Accordingly, these lands were divested to the Provincial Government in 2000. In addition, Esquimalt Harbour was divested to the Department of National Defense.

Under the control of the new Harbour Authority, Transport Canada was to continue to operate the Victoria Harbour water airport and carry out its aviation and marine regulatory responsibilities in the harbour through a local Harbour Master. The Federal Government retained the polluted lands in the Upper Harbour and West Bay, the harbour surface and bottom, and a few other land parcels for future negotiation.

Transport Canada spent about $1.1 million to bring the divested properties up to current environmental standards. As well, the Federal Government granted GVHA $12 million in startup funding. This covered the costs of maintenance and repairs to the harbour properties until the new body became self sufficient, which was targeted for 2007, but achieved by 2006. The total value of all assets at the time of divestiture was about $25 million.

 

Creating A Vision

In 2002, just after its inaugural Board meeting, the GVHA engaged CitySpaces Consulting led by Gwyn Symmons to manage the Society's administrative affairs and held a Visioning Session, where each director shared their views about the future of Victoria Harbour and the divested properties.

"It was apparent from this session, that for the first time, there is an advocate for the harbour as a physical entity and as an important part of the City and the regional economy," said founding GVHA Chair, Stewart Johnston.

As well as identifying opportunities for the GVHA facilities, the Board also stressed partnerships with the private sector, governments, First Nations, special agencies, and community based organizations - especially when vacant adjoining lands were considered.

A year later in November, 2003, the Provincial Capital Commission boosted harbour revitalization further by involving GVHA in an event called "Amazing Possibilities." Michael Cormier was now in place as the first General Manager and CitySpaces' role in bringing the GVHA team together was complete. Michael Cormier saw this as a way to get "all the people who are affected by the harbour, thinking and talking about the future of the harbour".

"We are pleased to work alongside the PCC as they make harbour revitalization a priority," Cormier said following the sessions.

Hereditary Chief Andy Thomas of the Esquimalt Nation saw "Amazing Possibilities" as an exciting opportunity for his people to become a "part of the economy, part of the workforce ... we have been invisible for too long."

 

Major Upgrades Take Priority

The sad and sorry state of Ogden Point was the GVHA's highest priority, and in 2003 the facility was given a $3 million upgrade. This project involved a general facelift for the existing terminal building and the upgrade of the dock and new Canada Customs & Immigration building at Pier B, to accommodate the rapidly growing number of cruise ships calling on Victoria through the warmer months.

GVHA also developed a new pedestrian promenade, which linked Piers A and B for the first time, and removed some of the unsightly chain-link fencing in the area. The Victoria tradition of hanging baskets and banners was also adopted to beautify the area. In recognition of their 100th anniversary, the Rotary Club of Victoria approached GVHA about developing a legacy garden at the entrance to Ogden Point. Butchart Gardens joined in this initiative, which ensured a beautiful welcome for visitors. The Ogden Point Enhancement Society has also been important in the beautification of walkways and waterfront in the area. The Society began in the 1990s when then Mayor, Bob Cross, organized a group of volunteers to care for the grassy area opposite the breakwater and along the waterfront up to Confederation Point.

In 2006, GVHA commissioned a comprehensive study of Ogden Point to ensure today's development would not limit opportunities for the next 50 to 100 years. This study reversed the earlier concepts outlined in the Ogden Point Storyline "Matulia" developed by Vancouver consultants Envisioning & Storytelling and refocused GVHA on operating Ogden Point as a deep sea terminal. This allowed the Board to focus their energies and capital on Fisherman's Wharf.

In the early days of GVHA ownership the wharf, residential and business areas of Fisherman's Wharf were upgraded. The project, which began in 2004, included new washrooms and showers, and laundry facilities for wharf users, which include fishing boats, transient vessels, and float homes. Major improvements were also made to the space between Fisherman's Wharf and the adjoining Shoal Point development, to ensure unimpeded pedestrian access to all commercial spaces.

Another major achievement came in 2006 when Imperial Oil (ESSO) Limited announced that they intended to close the marine fuel station located at Fisherman's Wharf. The fuel tank lease with the Department of National Defence had expired and DND were not interested in continuing it. GVHA recognized the vital importance of marine fuel to a working harbour and began to look for alternatives. Through extensive negotiations with Imperial Oil, an agreement to purchase the infrastructure was reached and installation of three new underground tanks began in summer 2006. The fuel station opened in October under the management of Victoria Marine Fuels Limited.

On February 1, 2005, GVHA took over full control of the Lower Causeway in front of the Empress Hotel. The causeway floats had previously been leased to the City of Victoria.

Within months, GVHA had launched a $650,000 upgrade project, adding 15 new concrete floats and almost 1,000 feet of dock, as well as improvements to the electrical and water systems, and the addition of a new access ramp.

At Ship Point, GVHA replaced fender piles in 2006 and added 500 feet of new floats - built for the first time by GVHA in its own workshops.

For its part, Transport Canada spent over $4 million between 2002 and 2006 in cleaning up properties in the harbour to ensure that they meet environmental standards. The Federal Government and BC Hydro have also undertaken a joint $32 million clean-up of Rock Bay, once the site of a coal gasification plant. That work is scheduled for completion by December 2007.

GVHA faced a major challenge in its ability to issue long-term leases for tenants. In order to honour long-standing relationships with existing tenants, GVHA properties had to be subdivided. This meant meeting both federal and provincial regulatory environmental standards so that Certificates of Compliance could be issued. Jonathon Secter of Secter Environmental has been working with these, and to date, Ogden Point and Fisherman's Wharf have both received their Certificates. Work on the remaining properties continues.

 

Belleville International Terminal

The original Memorandum of Understanding that established GVHA acknowledged the importance of the Belleville International Ferry Terminal and agreed to "fully involve the Authority in the planning, development and management of the new terminal facility". This relationship was reaffirmed in a 2004 Memorandum of Understanding between the Provincial Capital Commission and GVHA. Although it remains an important long-term goal for the GVHA, progress in developing a single new international terminal at the Belleville site for use by ferries to Seattle and Port Angeles, has been discouragingly slow.

The plan is for the two existing terminals to be merged into one new "landmark" facility - a major gateway to Victoria that would bring over 1 million people a year to the city - but the GVHA owns none of the land involved, which remains under the control of the Crown through the Provincial Capital Commission, and the project has still to get off the ground but is gaining momentum.

In November 2011, GVHA was selected by the PCC to lease the CPR Steamship Terminal building. The selection of GVHA was made on the strength of a proposal that included the revitalization of the CPR building as the first phase of a future consolidated ferry terminal on Victoria's Inner Harbour.

 

 

Pressing Ahead

The Minister of Transport once promised GVHA that his department remained committed to "divestiture of all facilities of the Victoria and Esquimalt Harbours" through a phased approach, and the Authority has continued to advocate for additional strategic properties from the Johnson Street Bridge to Rock Bay.

In 2006, Transport Canada extended its Port Divestiture Program until March 2007 giving Victoria new hope for key land parcels and seabed divestiture. Control of the water airport and harbour movements are more difficult to resolve and remain outstanding.

The goal of a pedestrian pathway system around the entire harbour is also oustanding although the GVHA is encouraging other harbour property owners including the City of Victoria to share in this vision.

GVHA achieved financial sustainability more quickly than it anticipated, in part because of the growth of cruise operations at Ogden Point. King Brothers Limited have built a strong relationship with the major cruise lines, and this has strengthened Victoria's tourist industry despite challenges such as passport regulations and a stronger Canadian economy. Victoria's harbour is ranked as the second busiest cruise port in Canada. GVHA's financial position was further enhanced when Paul Servos, appointed as General Manager in February 2006, implemented an aggressive business strategy focused on ensuring the financial viability of all GVHA facilities. Don Prittie, appointed to the role of Board Chair in October 2006, focused on garnering support of the Greater Victoria community for a vibrant working harbour.

 

The Future Of Victoria's Harbour: Alive, Accessible And Dynamic

GVHA envisions a harbour where people can live, learn, work and play. With careful development and further divestiture, Victoria Harbour will be an even more spectacular gateway to millions of visitors each year, a place for celebration, and a vital centerpiece for the growth and development of local and regional economies.

As the leading advocate for an "alive, accessible and dynamic harbour," GVHA is passionate about the power of the harbour to act as a catalyst for Victoria to fulfill its destiny as one of the most outstanding experiences in the world.

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