Vancouver Island

Living History

Take some time to explore the rich heritage and cultural charm of Alert Bay and Cormorant Island.

by John Lee

Photo courtesy of Dominic Schaefer

It’s a breezy, blue-skied morning off northern Vancouver Island, and forest-flanked Port McNeill is fading from view as the ferry moves swiftly across Broughton Strait. On board, time has slowed to a calmer pace as an almost tangible expectation percolates among those passengers who haven’t been out this way before. Cormorant Island is just 45 minutes away, and the Village of Alert Bay is calling.

For thousands of years, Cormorant Island has been the traditional home of the ’Namgis First Nation—part of the larger Kwakwaka’wakw band. Alert Bay, meanwhile, grew and then faded as a commercial fishing capital on the island from the late-1800s onwards. This dual history means the village, with its gently curving shoreline, fuses pioneer-era cottages and gracefully crumbling net lofts with the bold carvings and totem poles of a robust indigenous culture.

Alert Bay’s waterfront boardwalk, snaking in both directions from the ferry dock, links many of the island’s First Nations sites. But just wandering around is an attraction in itself here, as long as you take your time: locals routinely stop to greet you, ravens (real and carved) keep an eye on all proceedings, and paint-peeled older buildings—many perched on piles over the water—lure every camera lens in sight.

“Our locals are very welcoming and we are always willing to share our culture with those who want to know more about us.” — Barb Cranmer, Culture Shock Gallery

“People talk about going back in time when they come here—there’s a totally different pace,” says Colin Ritchie, owner of the refurbished and charming Seine Boat Inn as well as four vintage double-decker buses he hopes to convert into cool backpacker accommodation. The inn, a near-century-old former dry goods store, was a labour of love. “It took years to renovate, but it was worth it; it’s helped us introduce people from all over the world to this delightful island and its vibrant First Nations culture.”

That vibrancy is exemplified at Culture Shock Gallery, a short boardwalk stroll away. The gable-roofed storefront, owned and operated by Barb Cranmer and her sisters for more than a decade, challenges many visitors’ preconceptions about First Nations art.

“We’re all about inviting people in and surprising them,” says Cranmer, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who helps select the gallery’s clothing, jewellery and artworks. Along with the creations of noted BC First Nations artists including K’odi Nelson and William Wasden Jr., the gallery also hosts a variety of indigenous-themed cultural experiences in the summer, from salmon barbecues to cedar-weaving workshops.

“We’re a bit off the beaten path here, but we’ve found that when people visit Alert Bay, they often want to do more than just typical tourist things. Our locals are very welcoming and we are always willing to share our culture with those who want to know more about us,” says Cranmer.

Wandering the Village

That’s what inspired Lillian Hunt to become a local tour guide. Born and raised on the island, she has several suggestions for visitors. “Everything is just a toe-step away, including some beautiful beaches,” Hunt says, suggesting a to-do list that includes touring the dramatic ’Namgis traditional Big House, hiking the trails in Alert Bay Ecological Park and visiting (from afar) the sacred ’Namgis burial grounds.

When you stand on the sidewalk alongside these gently sloping grounds—visitors are asked not to enter, but the cemetery is easily viewed from the perimeter—you’ll experience a feeling of reverence as you peruse the one-of-a-kind totems. Carved orcas and ravens adorn many of the weathered markers facing the sea here.

The ’Namgis burial grounds underscore a cultural pride that is epitomized on the other end of the village, where the renowned U’mista Cultural Centre sits at the end of a waterfront road. The Big House-style complex has been reclaiming and celebrating the area’s First Nations culture since its 1974 inception. The highlight? A gallery of precious heritage items many believed had been lost to the island forever.

“Our Potlatch Collection makes this place special,” says U’mista collections manager Juanita Johnston. “It’s a group of masks, regalia and coppers surrendered under duress in 1922 [after Canada’s government had banned traditional potlatch ceremonies] and later repatriated from museums around the world. They’re now on open display. Our elders felt they had been locked up for so long it was wrong to lock them up again.”

Island Allure

Between the U’mista Cultural Centre, the Big House—where cultural dances are staged for summertime visitors—and the nearby 53-metre totem that claims to be the world’s tallest, Cormorant Island is an accessible and enticing introduction to First Nations culture. But the island has other elements for new visitors to experience, too.

“This is a great area for wildlife spotting,” says the Seine Boat Inn’s Ritchie, pointing to the village’s Seasmoke Whale Watching tours and Blackfish Adventures Ltd.’s round-island kayaking excursions. Or you can just wander to a beach. “Minke whales, otters, orcas and lots of eagles—it’s not unusual to see them here. We even had a couple of grizzlies walking down the street recently, although that’s pretty rare.”

It’s not rare, however, to find yourself drawn into a friendly chat with a local when you’re strolling just about anywhere in Alert Bay. “When people come here from the city, they’ve sometimes forgotten how to say ‘hi’ to each other on the street,” says Ritchie. “Coming here reminds them how to do that again.”

It’s these off-islanders—many of them unplugging from digital devices for the first time in months—that Culture Shock’s Cranmer also loves to see at her gallery, especially in summer when her patio becomes a popular coffee-quaffing hangout. “I know I’ve done my job when the deck is full and people are sitting there enjoying the sun and asking us lots of questions about our culture. It always puts a smile on my face,” she says.