As the days grow longer and (hopefully) drier, a new season will begin in Vancouver, a time of year that lines the pockets of my fellow tour guides: Tourist Season. But should we be ashamed by the myths and stereotypes propagated by our profession?
With five million people visiting Vancouver each spring and summer, the tour buses and sightseeing trollies become a familiar sight on the streets of the city. Tourism is big business in Vancouver - but what about all of the stories the tourists don't hear?
As a guide, I have experienced this whitewashing of our history firsthand. When the hop on/hop off buses crawl down Water Street, there is no talk of the Coast Salish village Luck Luckee here before colonization. The trollies don't mention the hundreds of First Nations, Japanese and Hawaiian people who were forcibly removed from Stanley Park in 1886. The trip through Chinatown glosses over the racist realities that young Cantonese men faced at the turn of the last century.
Vancouver's history is awash with urban legends, half-truths and untold stories - myths are kept alive by ill-informed tour guides who repeat stories taught to them by companies more concerned with profit than accuracy.
These are not easy topics to cover on a family-oriented afternoon, but as a walking tour guide I know that it can be done with grace, respect and, at times, even humour. How? With the most important tool in a guide's arsenal - knowledge.
Now, some will say that historical inaccuracy is common in all cities, but I argue that in ours it can be particularly egregious. Take, for instance, the story of Gassy Jack, the saloon owner who "founded" the city when he opened the first bar in what would become Vancouver. What isn't often repeated is the fact that he was a violent drunk who impregnated and then married his aboriginal first wife's 12 year-old cousin.
Other guides I have spoken with wonder if it's important for tourists to know these unsavoury facts. Shouldn't we, as the city's ambassadors, keep some of this controversial history to ourselves and tell stories only of Vancouver's good side? To this I reply "No!" As "gatekeepers" between the public and history, I believe we have an obligation to portray our city's often troubled past - and its present - in as accurate a light as possible.
Local history scholar Alasdair Butcher agrees. "As guides we should illuminate new histories for our visitors, not re-hash the same old 'stock' information. Making our 'dirty history' visible - whether it's the banning of the potlatch, the anti-Asian riots, or the expulsion of the Komagata Maru - is often far more compelling for guests than hearing about the Olympics or a steam clock."
In order to make sure that my own tours are as accurate as possible, I have spent countless hours researching civic history and am a member of Heritage Vancouver. I know that accounts of the city's early history are often fuzzy and contradictory, so I present multiple possibilities to my guests and refuse to shy away from the hard truths. With few exceptions, this type of tour is sorely lacking in Vancouver.
I believe that we here in Vancouver's tourism industry should look to Montreal for a model on how to change this. According to bylaw G-2, all guides in the city of Montreal must complete a 240-hour accredited training course. This course covers many aspects of the city's history, including culture, food, architecture and language.
For our city, a series of lectures and online learning sessions could be a start. It would be important to include education from First Nations elders, talks from experts on the histories of different ethnic neighbourhoods and required readings on the city's social history to help remedy some of the insensitive gaffs committed by inexperienced guides.
I'm not saying that I think that guides should face any obligation to spout standardized stories. On the contrary, I think that this training could help their tales become more unique! Guiding, like any creative endeavor, is a matter of personality and skill, but with a framework of fact and cultural sensitivity guides would have more confidence as they navigate groups of visitors through our city's complicated and often controversial past.
This is a phenomenal city, but we have a checkered past, and the low points in our history should not be ignored or glossed over in favour of the highs. To do so is dishonest, unethical and less meaningful for our guests.
Jessica O'Neill is a student of heritage policy at Simon Fraser University and a civic historian specializing in neon signage. She is the director of tour development at Vancouver's highest user-rated tour company, Tour Guys.