British Columbia

New Westminster history told through tiny, uninhabited island

You've probably passed by Poplar Island as you go through New Westminster on the SkyTrain — but you probably don't know about its interesting and complicated history.

Story of Poplar Island explored in "documentary poem" From the Poplars, by Cecily Nicholson

Poplar Island seen from River Road ca. 1913. Over the years, Poplar Island has been home to the Qayqayt First Nation, a smallpox containment facility, shipbuilding, and pulp and paper facilities, but is uninhabited today. (New Westminster Archives)

Cecily Nicholson is telling the story of a little island in B.C.'s Fraser River with what she's calling a "documentary poem."

The Lower Mainland poet's latest work, From the Poplars, explores Poplar Island in the North Arm of the Fraser River.

Today, it is an uninhabited island covered in trees in New Westminster, with a paper mill across from it. But that's a big change from times past.

"It's the kind of place people go by all the time without noticing, but it's quite storied. Like a lot of spots on land it has layers of history," she told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

Nicholson says those layers are part of the bigger story of the settlement of New Westminster. Poplar Island was home to shipbuilding and factories during World War I, and was also a site used by the pulp and paper industry.

However, it also has a dark side.

Cecily Nicholson wants British Columbians to think about their land and the unknown stories behind it. (Cecily Nicholson/Facebook)
The Qayqayt First Nation lived there prior to contact with Europeans, but they were displaced to turn Poplar Island into a smallpox containment facility.

Because of the complicated history of the island, Nicholson felt poetry was the best way to tell its stories.

"Poetry allows us to weave together that kind of narrative and those kinds of histories in a complex way that still has an aesthetic appeal to it," she said.

"[It] allows, perhaps, an entry point to deal with that very heavy content, the responsibility of that settlement."

She says she hopes the work gets British Columbians to think about the land they occupy, and the stories they might not know about it.

Nicholson will be reading excerpts of From the Poplars in Prince George at Books and Company on Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. PT.

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: How one tiny island tells the story of New Westminster