Amos Dawson fought the wheel of his trusty gill-netter. Boiling spume lashed the windshield like spilt milk. Six-year-old Emma Dawson hung nervously to her grandfather’s sea boots. They were off to an illegal potlatch on Gilford Island. Filthy weather always grounded Indian Agent, William Halliday, and his RCMP cronies.

In 1870, Spencer and Huson landed on remote Cormorant Island, just off Port McNeill at the top end of Vancouver Island. A couple of opportunistic entrepreneurs, they built a salmon saltery and later a cannery, store, and sawmill in Alert Bay. They needed cheap labour to keep things running.

The government obliged by relocating the entire Namgis Nation from Fort Rupert, along with dreaded Indian Agent William Halliday. Anglican missionaries followed to keep the “natives on track.”

Potlatches were immediately banned. They could last for a weekend or a month and were considered bad for business, ungodly and wasteful. “Gotta teach them Indians frugality and a work ethic.” (Today potlatches are alive and well and can run to $100,000 or more).

I arrive in Alert Bay by ferry from Port MacNeill on a mid September morning. Fog and driving rain shroud colourful clapboard houses along the boardwalk. The Quadra Queen, a native motif etched across her bridge, nudges into the dock.

If I turn right, I will pass Bill’s Café and Pool Hall (best breakfast in town!) – though the pool tables have disappeared along with much of the salmon which once kept the economy thriving. Venture beyond the splendid totem poles commemorating decades of Chiefs and Elders in The Namgis graveyard, and I would reach rows of neat cottages with gingerbread trim and immaculate gardens, built for the managers.

Instead, I turn left. St Michaels Residential School looms through the mist. Stark and forbidding, the peeling brick mausoleum was built to house and educate native children into mainstream society. Illustrious carvers like Sean Whonnock and Johnathon Henderson have since taken over the basement, but don’t expect cheap knick-knacks for Aunt Nellie. When the last lick of paint is dry, a miniature totem pole, rattle or bentwood box, can run to a cool $8000 from one of these masters.

In 1921, Native culture took a serious pounding when RCMP raided a secret celebration at Chief Dan Cranmer’s place on Village Island. Twenty five participants were thrown into Okalla jail for “attending an illegal gathering.” Ancient ceremonial masks, rattles, coppers and whistles were seized and shipped to museums and private collections in Eastern Canada.

A delegation was later dispatched to Ottawa to demand the return of these stolen artefacts and since 1980, they have been proudly displayed in the newly built U’mista Cultural Centre - A Kwakwaka’wakw word meaning: “Return of something important.”

There has been a cultural revival in Alert Bay. Lucky visitors from around the globe are treated to a riveting explanation of the display by knowledgeable Elders like Andrea Sandborn and Lillian Hunt, followed by traditional dancing in The Big House – right behind the world’s tallest totem pole. Afterwards, plates of bannock and salmon are shared between dancers and tourists around the fire pit..

There is a powerful energy to the island. Half finished totem poles lie propped at the roadside awaiting the carvers knife. (Coach loads of tourists from Taiwan to Tennessee record that special digital memory beside Namgis-carved totem poles in Vancouver’s Stanley Park). Namgis dancers are invited to perform internationally. The Kwawaka’wakw language is taught to children in the elementary school and adults at The Cultural Centre.

It is a bright, windless day when I return to the ferry with stories from Elders, like Emma Dawson, still fresh in my ears. There is no need to buy another ticket. The same $25 fare is good for the round trip. Sointula on Malcolm Island is little more than a golfer’s drive away.


How did Finns and Namgis Indians become curious neighbours in remote Broughton Strait?

In 1901, Matti Kurikka, a charismatic Finnish journalist/playwright and free love advocate, approached the BC government. His plan was to lead Finnish coalminers and their families away from the abusive conditions in the pits of Nanaimo and Ladysmith to a socialist utopia – with privileges! The government granted a 7-year lease on Malcolm Island.

Four years later, the experiment flopped due to bad planning and infighting. Families arrived to find only tents to live in and no pasture for their livestock. The cooperative went broke. A few hardy folks remained and bought homesteads from the government.

Temperance groups delayed the sale of booze. Desperate imbibers received bottles by mail, which often fell prey to the tippling postmistress! Alas, on a day that found prohibitionists too drunk to vote, the motion for a liquor store passed!

As well as legal suds, the 1960’s brought draft dodgers and pot smoking hippies. After all, Sointula is a Finnish word meaning: Place of Harmony – “Hey man chill out and roll me a joint!” Those wanting to work, cleaned-up in the logging and fishing boom – before salmon stocks and lumber prices collapsed.

To be sure there is angst at the Senior’s daily coffee klatch where a buck buys coffee, homemade muffins and a bit of juicy local gossip. Outsiders are driving up property prices. Kids must go off-island to work. Today, there are probably more Finns in the graveyard than behind the pretty garden gates.

The socialist dream left its mark. Three cooperatives supply the island’s goods and services. BC’s oldest grocery co-op was established here in 1909. Want to know who is getting hitched or having babies? Check the notice board. Need fish bags or buffalo snow for the Christmas tree? Nip upstairs to the Dry Goods department. Oh and don’t miss the museum. A wondrous collection of island history – open by appointment.

Sointula is the kind of place where eggs are delivered to the library on Thursdays. The nearest cop is a phone call away – in Port MacNeill. Old fishing nets are used for rug making. Redundant floats decorate rope fences.

To a visitor seeking time-out, great hikes and creative people, this is a pristine paradise. Beaches rivalling Longbeach, stretch for kilometre after deserted kilometre, interrupted only by sun bleached driftwood and chattering seabirds. Orcas drop by a favoured “rubbing beach” at Bere Point.

Be warned, the Islanders are an independent lot. Things can close early: A relative dropped by from out of town; a wedding; a sick child. Off-season, make sure your B&B can do dinner in a pinch!

Individually these unlikely “twins” are magic to visit, but together, they provide a unique and unrivalled experience – two cultures for the price of one ferry ticket!



GETTING THERE: From the Nanaimo ferry terminal head North for 350 km’s to Port McNeill on excellent Highway #19.

GOOD STOPS: Sayward: Lunch at The Cable House Café (wrapped in logging cable!) - then walk the Salmon River wetlands. Woss: Examine the old “#113 Steam engine” and other railway memorabilia. Telegraph Cove: Visit The Whale museum (by donation) and boardwalk.


Port McNeill
At Water’s Edge B&B: $70/$100
Toll free 1-866-956-2912
Four immaculate beachfront rooms.

Cormorant Island - Alert Bay:
Accommodation On The Beach: $70/$135
Toll free 1-800-668-6722

Alert Bay Lodge: $42/$75
Toll free 1-800-255-5057

Malcolm Island - Sointula:
“430 – 2nd Street B&B”: $90
1-250-973-6346 (Fred cooks great dinners for $25)

Dunroven B&B:
Cottage or Room – learn to drive an oxcart and work a forge!

Sea 4 Miles Cottages:
Self-catering across from the beach



Copyright © 2007 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.

and stunningly beautiful.

WRITER'S THOUGHTS: Would I go again? You bet - I’m booking!



Copyright © 2005 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.