Will Ferguson’s Canada


So what if some of it’s fake? That’s part of the charm.

July 15 2002
Will Ferguson’s Canada


So what if some of it’s fake? That’s part of the charm.

July 15 2002


So what if some of it’s fake? That’s part of the charm.

Will Ferguson’s Canada

IT TOOK ME three tries to find the dead guy. I was looking for the Honourable David Higgins, speaker of the B.C. legislature from 1890 to 1898. Higgins died in 1917, long after having left office, and it was only when they went to hang up his official portrait that they discovered there was none. So they took a photograph of his corpse instead, propped up, with the eyes pried open.

Urban legend or historical quirk? I had heard tales of the Dead Speaker, but in three consecutive visits to Victoria, I had never been able to locate the portrait. It was only when I availed myself of the talents of May Brown, a Victoria writer and sometime comedienne, that I had success. May arranged for a tour guide to take me through a parliamentary side door and down a corridor. “The portrait is not in a public area at this time,” said the guide. “We’re rearranging things.”

And there sat Mr. Higgins, his pupils dilated, his mouth slack. Was he really dead? I examined the photograph with a Quincy-like determination. Higgins certainly looked dead, but his head was leaning forward slightly and his fingers were curled around the arm of the chair. Could any corpse, no matter how carefully arranged, keep its own head up? And would anyone taking a photo of a dead man have the presence of mind to add a grasp to the fingers?

“Perhaps they had him embalmed,” said May cheerfully. In any other city in Canada, such a suggestion would have seemed preposterous.

Victoria, B.C., a colonial outpost at the end of a rainforested Pacific island, is as far away from Britain as you can go and still be in Canada. Metaphors abound; you can pluck them from the branch at your leisure. My favourite (aside from the embalmed Victorian gent propped up for posterity) is the petrified dinosaur tracks outside the main doors of the Royal

British Columbia Museum. Some are the real tracks of real dinosaurs, cut from the rock and carefully preserved.

I am in love with Victoria. And as with any infatuation worthy of the name, it is as much an act of selective delusion as it is of affection. I love the illusion of Victoria. I experience the city through layers of warm gauze, veils that both soften the edges and dull them, part embrace and part suffocation. Even as you fight your way through one layer, another entangles—lace curtains catching the sunlight, rendering the world in a muted pastel glow.

Sunlight fills Victoria’s inner harbour. It has the colour of cognac, the scent of lilacs and warm leather. Seaplanes lift off, leaving watery V’s in their wake. Nearby, tourists move in slow motion. Buskers, hucksters, shysters and spray-paint artists work the crowd. A flurry of jugglers, flirting with fire, draws applause and spare change from the audience.

There are genuine natives selling Genuine Native wares, and I mill about the Native beadwork, the Native necklaces and the (ahem) Genuine Native soapstone carvings. One of the most popular items is the dream catchers, Ojibwa in origin and half a continent and several language groups away, but who’s counting? Victoria itself is one big dream catcher.

In Victoria, even the hustle and bustle is languid, even the festivities are drowsy. A soulful cowboy busker wails, “Goodtime Charley’s got the blues.” But in Victoria, the blues—the very idea of the blues—is more an abstraction than an

Was the Speaker really dead in the photo? Could any corpse, no matter how carefully arranged, keep its own head up?

emotion. Surely the danger in Victoria is narcolepsy, not depression.

Above us, looking down upon the harbour, are those two great architectural slabs: the Empress Hotel and the provincial Parliament Buildings. Tourism and government, the two key elements without which Victoria would cease to exist.

The vine-covered Empress is Victoria’s grand dowager and its archetypal embodiment. Entering the Empress lobby, with its cold warmth of marble and pith-helmet fronds, is like entering a BBC costume drama. “Anyone for scones and clotted cream?”

At a right angle to the Empress are the Parliament Buildings, a stately array of green copper domes and grand superfluous stairways. True, the side windows have dour stained-glass slogans embedded within them: “Great effects come from industry and perseverance,” “The virtue of prosperity is temperance.” And yet, there is a lightness even here, and at night the Parliament Buildings all but disappear. Draped with prima donna stage lights, the buildings are reduced to a shimmering connect-the-dots outline.

Splendor Sine Occasu (splendour without diminishment): the provincial motto might very well have been penned to capture the enduring timelessness of Victoria itself. This is a city caught in a perpetual twilight. It is a city of layers, in the way that lacquer has layers.

THREE STATUES stand on guard near the harbour, and between them they tell a story. In front of the Parliament Buildings stands Queen Victoria herself, crown on head, sceptre in hand. Further down, a scowling soldier wields a bayonet and rifle. Facing the Empress Hotel, and completing the trio, is Captain Cook, clutching his scroll of nautical charts. There you have it. The crown, the map and the gun: the three pillars of Empire. Exploration, military

might and royal assent: so much of Canada’s colonial past is contained in those three statues. They harken back to a time when imperialism was not a dirty word. While the rest of the country’s cities struggle with the tensions of postmodernism, Victoria, snug in its flannel comforter, has yet to move into post-colonialism.

And colonialism, to be truly effective, must at some point become self-afflicted. Case in point: Victoria’s colonial clock.

I first heard about this clock from Ross Crockford, the former editor of Monday Magazine, Victoria’s arts-and-activism weekly. Having listened to me gush about Victoria, tossing out words like “languid” and “dreamlike,” even as I blissfully ignored the crouching queues of teenage panhandlers begging for spare change along Douglas Street—having heard me describe his city in semi-mythic terms one too many times, Ross took me to see “the clock.”

It hangs inside a shiny, hermetically sealed shopping mall that is folded behind the facades of older buildings.

(This parlour trick of hiding modern downtown shopping centres behind a veneer of history is a particularly Canadian talent. Calgary has done it, so has Charlottetown and Halifax and Saint John.) “The fact that the clock is in a mall is even more appropriate,” says Ross with a half-smile.

Suspended from the highest ceiling, the clock is a hefty bronze cube of polished imperial sentiments. “Westward the Course of Empire Goes Forth” reads the message emblazoned across it. The clock also tells us the time in Bombay, Singapore, London, Zanzibar and Kowloon, which is very strange. Why would shoppers need to know what time it is in Bombay? Or Singapore? Or London, for that matter?

Victoria. It’s not a city; it’s a cargo cult, awaiting the return of a long-dead queen, lighting candles, waiting for the sun of Empire to rise again.

Ah, but this clock is a historic artifact, no? An heirloom of the city’s past. Except that it isn’t. Victoria’s colonial clock, with its Kiplingesque references to Zanzibar and Kowloon, wasn’t built in 1890. It was built in 1990.

It’s not British, it’s Mock British. “It represents the Disneyfication of Victoria,” says Crockford. “A sort of half-assed attempt at preserving the trappings of Empire, while catering to American expectations of quaintness. It wasn’t put up to honour the past, it was put up to fool the tourists.” In Victoria, Ross notes, the past has been commodified. “And it’s not even the real past—but an invented one.”

There is, he assures me, another Victoria, one that is very different from the officially packaged version. “On the weekends, loggers and other workers blow into town with money to burn. It’s far from genteel.” There is also, apparently, a writhing underbelly in Victoria, one of Wicca worshippers, poetry slams, drugfuelled raves, sado-masochistic sex clubs and weed-smoking lesbian vegans.

Even better, this darker, less-refined side of Victoria actually predates the twee traditions of today. Victoria, after all, began as a frontier fur-trading outpost and first boomed during the gold rush of 1858, when it became the jumping-off point for prospectors heading into the interior. The town was overrun with

Will Ferguson’s Canada | >

rough-knuckled, uncouth American miners. Saloons and brothels sprang up like mushrooms in a dank cellar, and the streets of Victoria became thick with mountebanks, ne’er-do-wells and mud.

Remnants of this less-than-savoury past are not hard to find. Just take a walk through Chinatown, once home to Victoria’s infamous—and very profitableopium dens. This is the oldest Chinatown in Canada, and one of the smallest; it is contained in a few square blocks of recessed balconies and parapets.

But appearances are deceiving, and this is a neighbourhood of Escher-like dimensions. An entire network of hidden lanes and adjoining passageways leads from building to building. In the shadowy world of gambling rooms and opium, any number of exits and escape routes might be conjured up. Wooden doors would swing aside, iron gates would slide into place. A closet might open into the next building, a washroom wall might offer unmarked access to a back alley. Police raids into Victoria’s Chinatown were exercises in futility, somewhat akin to trying to storm a labyrinth.

(Far from being banned, the opium trade was taxed and tolerated by governments of the day. The police raids were meant to catch tax dodgers and unlicensed dealers rather than shut down the consumption of sin.)

Fan Tan Alley one of the narrowest commercial streets in North America, was once the heart of the Chinatown gambling world. Today it is home to small shops offering T-shirts and trinkets and rare LP collectibles. Halfway down, an old Chinese barber shop, miraculously untouched by time, exists in a small side-pocket. It is a simple, unadorned wooden room, facing the alley. Inside, a barber slowly strops a razor as elderly gentlemen wait their turn. And you wonder, if the police stormed in, whether the walls of Chinatown might fold in on themselves even now, hiding their secrets as easily as a shopping mall might hide behind city facades.

THE EMPRESS HOTEL, grande dame of Victoria, was built upon swampy ground. The Songhee called the area Whosaykun, “the muddy place,” a brackish, fetid cesspool that was dammed and drained by CPR engineers.

The Empress stands on invisible stilts, an entire forest of Douglas firs, the trunks stripped down and driven into the swamp as pilings, through the sludge and the effluence of a soap factory’s runoff, down through the murk and the muck, to the hardpan below. The Empress sits on a bedrock of imperial certainties, part hotel and part palanquin, carried on the standard-bearers of a primeval forest.

In the Empress Hotel, they say, there was a room that had no exit. Whether this was an architectural oversight or an intentional dead end is unknown, but if you stand outside the main lobby and look up, toward the left turret, you will see a line of thin windows. Legend has it that two of these windows once marked a room without a door. Undisturbed for more than 70 years, this room became an unintentional time capsule. It is said a workman once peered in from the rooftop and saw pillows and blankets, awaiting guests who never came.

There are other ghosts. Other reminders. A collection of totem poles, artfully arranged at Thunderbird Park, is tucked in behind the museum and across from the Empress.

The hotel I am staying in (not the Empress) is situated on Laurel Point. It sits on an Indian burial ground. Lifesized carvings representing great orators and warriors, erected by the Songhee Nation, once stood guard over the dead at Laurel Point. But the burial sheds and the carvings are gone now, and a hotel with a wonderful breakfast buffet stands there instead.

The history of Victoria is the transmuta tion of burial shed into hotel lobby. The city has been likened to a mausoleum, a "graveyard of ambition," but it is more subtle than that. The existence of Victoria is a denial of mortality; an imperial past has been invented and enshrined, the clock has been stopped. The layers of shellac and lacquer do not cover the essence; they are the essence. Splendor Sine Occasu.

Will Ferguson's debut novel, HappinessTM, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize (Canada Caribbean) and won the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Fiction and theLeacockMedalforHumour. It has now been sold in 20 countries and 16 languages.