Her family lived in Vancouver's Stanley Park until they were forced out in 1931
Rennie Smith is fighting to have her Squamish-Portuguese ancestors recognized as part of park's history
Originally published on September 30, 2019.
As a child, Rennie Smith was told by relatives and family friends that she was "the throwback to the park," but she didn't learn what that meant until she was in her mid-forties.
It was then, in 2005, that Rennie found out that her ancestors were part of a mixed Portuguese-Squamish settlement at Brockton Point—on the eastern shore of what was to become Stanley Park—from the mid-1800s to the 1930s.
Despite growing up in Vancouver and living there most of her adult life, Smith had no idea that generations of her family had called the park home, including her own father.
Rennie's been fighting ever since to have Brockton Point and her family's history there made a point of pride, rather than shame.
"If I'm the 'throwback to the park'—and I am—then I'm going to do something about it," said Rennie.
Before Stanley Park was Stanley Park
Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre urban forest in Vancouver, B.C., is described on the City of Vancouver's website as a "natural West Coast rainforest." But that isn't entirely true.
Long used by Coast Salish people such as the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, it wasn't until 1887 that the area we now call Stanley Park officially became a park.
Its creation was part of a broader trend in North American cities: the urban parks movement. It sought to ameliorate the conditions of city life by creating nature retreats for working people. Along with Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Stanley Park is one of North America's great urban parks.
The Brockton Point community
Upon Stanley Park's founding, two Squamish villages called Whoi Whoi and Chaythos sat on the park's northern shore, a settlement of Hawaiian immigrants lived at Kanaka Ranch on the park's entrance, and a number of Chinese men lived in various locations in the park. There was also the community at Brockton Point, where Rennie's family lived.
After failing to strike it rich in the Cariboo Gold Rush sometime around 1860, a handful of Portuguese men made their way to Vancouver to settle. A few of them, including Rennie's great-great grandfather, married local Squamish women and built homes at Brockton Point.
This Portuguese-Squamish community lived at Brockton Point from roughly 1860 to 1931.
Families lived in half a dozen wooden houses along the shore, many growing produce and flowers in their backyards. Men worked as whalers, longshoremen or in the mills along the Burrard Inlet. The location was ideal to fish and to travel to other parts of the city by boat.
The city and the park board wanted the residents of these communities gone. By the early 1900s, occupants of Kanaka Ranch, Whoi Whoi and Chaythos had already been pushed out as the park was developed into a wilderness retreat for the city's white working class. The settlement at Brockton Point, however, remained until 1931.
The community resisted dispossession during the 1920s, fighting the local and federal governments who sought to remove them by proving in court that the families hadn't lived at Brockton Point long enough to have land rights.
Ultimately, they lost. The only people who could testify to how long the community had been there were First Nations people, and it was agreed by the courts that Indigenous people weren't reliable witnesses because they couldn't tell time.
Unearthing family secrets
In 1931, when Rennie's father Herbert was just three years old, the houses at Brockton Point were burned down and the families removed. Only one house was allowed to remain. The owner, who hadn't been formally named as a defendant in the court battle, lived in the park until 1957. Then that house, too, was demolished.
Rennie Smith lived most of her life knowing none of this. But in 2005, she and her father, Herbert, met with Jean Barman, a B.C. historian.
Rennie's father had been raised to be ashamed of Stanley Park and his First Nations roots, and Rennie will never forget watching him open up to Barman, discussing his long-kept secret for the first time.
"He was, at times, defeated," recalled Rennie. "His body actually slumped. And it was over, the lies were over."
But for Rennie, something else was beginning—the fight to get her ancestors' home recognized.
"I have no cultural tradition. I'm tribeless. But not anymore," she said.
Never officially recognized
Over the next decade, Rennie contacted city officials, parks officials, the media.... anyone who would listen. She wanted the Brockton Point community—more specifically, the lilac bushes her great-grandmother had planted, and the traditional burial grounds—acknowledged and recognized.
But a cancer she had first fought in her mid-twenties came back, and put everything on hold.
Then, in July 2018, Rennie learned of a colonial audit that was taking place for Stanley Park. The audit, approved by the Vancouver Park Board, meant there would be investigations into the Board's colonial practices, including the removal of First Nations people from city parks.
Smith saw the colonial audit as an opportunity, but was uncertain she would be included in it. The community at Brockton Point has never been formally recognized as a First Nations community in Vancouver.
One early spring day in 2019, Rennie was able to talk to someone face to face about her concerns for the park, in relation to the audit. Rennie met with the city's Reconciliation Planner, Rena Soutar, at Brockton Point, where the two women chatted by the lilacs, discussing the need to have them tended.
Rennie also offered to write a statement for the Park Board, explaining the Smith family history. She left the meeting feeling a small step closer to her final goal: having her family's heritage, like those neglected lilacs, respected and acknowledged.
"I'm so glad you're here doing this work, because now maybe the lilacs can get pruned," Smith told Soutar. "I want so badly for Stanley Park to be treated differently… all of Brockton Point treated differently."
To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page.
Alex de Boer is a journalist and nonfiction storyteller based in Vancouver. Alex is the Podcast Coordinator at CiTR 101.9FM where she heads the station's Spoken Word Department. She is a reporter and producer on CiTR's weekly news show, Democracy Watch and the award-winning Vancouver current affairs podcast, Seeking Office. Alex holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History and a Master's of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook. Special thanks to Nic Meloney at CBC Indigenous for his advisement.