Research, Urban Studies

Telling the Untold Story: “Reclaiming The New Westminster Waterfront”

November 19, 2013

Ports and the labourers who work in and around them are integral to the functioning of urban centers like Vancouver, New Westminster and surrounding municipalities. This view might seem obvious to anyone who has grown up or lived near a port city. Dr. Peter Hall of Geography and Urban Studies is heading the (Re)Claiming the New Westminster Waterfront project—a project that seeks to put city residents and workers in dialogue with their ports and port history.

Beginning his career working for municipal government in the port city of Durban, South Africa gave Hall insight into questioning the relationship between waterfronts, ports, and their cities. Hall says his work at the municipal level saw governments undergoing “drastic transformation” in 1990s South Africa; the country and its urban centres saw much social, political and economic alteration, including the continuing repeal of many Apartheid segregation laws and the lifting of trade embargos for South Africa’s economic trade. As Hall puts it, he was compelled to question and to try and understand how “local public agencies interact with global forces” through the lens of economic geography. He remembers that, while the foci of his doctoral research could have been “airports or convention centres” in Durban, “it made sense for it to be ports.”

His current work, The (Re)Claiming the New Westminster Waterfront Project is an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional project involving people from academic, public and business sectors: scholars from Geography, Education, History and Sociology at Simon Fraser University, The New Westminster Museum and Archives, members and retirees of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), educators from the New Westminster School District, and various New Westminster waterfront employers, and international scholars and collaborators. While the project is presently in its second phase—collecting and analyzing oral histories of dock workers and hosting public lectures by Canadian and international academics—Hall says the goal is to connect with workers, academics, and residents of the community in New Westminster to engage in dialogue about the way the relationship between the city and the port has fundamentally changed.

According to Hall, this change includes, at its heart, a loss of knowledge and connection between residents of cities and the labourers who inhabit the port as space where work happens. The majority of the world’s ports are still in cities, Hall says, and “certainly in the developed world there’s been a loss of knowledge about each other.” The real crux of the project then is to “create a set of forums where people who have never talked about the waterfront or certainly never talked about work on the waterfront with each other before can have that kind of conversation; sometimes this is recognizable as traditional research and sometimes it’s more about…bringing groups together to see what happens when they have that conversation, but overall it’s about trying to recapture some of that lost knowledge.”

The scope of the project is broad. The SFU team of researchers includes Dr. Susan O’Neill of Education, Dr. Mary Ellen Kelm and Dr. Willeen Keough of the History Department, and Dr. Pamela Stern of Sociology. Dr. O’Neill, for example is working on intergenerational learning and arts and has helped develop programming for the public school system. Students in the New Westminster School District have already been able to engage with some of stories from workers on the waterfront and produced such material as clay models and paintings (at the elementary level) or videography (at the secondary level). Another academic working on the project is Sapperton-raised scholar, Dr. Chris Madsen from the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College, Toronto, Ontario. Dr. Madsen teaches and publishes in the fields of naval, military, legal, business and labour history, particularly the early national history of the ILWU which started in the 1930s during the Depression era in Canada and into the Second world war period. As Hall describes it, the longshoremen were “really keen when he came along because he’s telling them the founding story” of their union which, in New Westminster, dates back to 1944-45.

Another part of the project Hall describes is an “impossibly huge database of all the places of work on the waterfront since 1945.” And this research material on the oral history and the databases will, as Hall explains “become the property of the archives so that it’s publicly owned. A public resource.” Public ownership and public opinion of the waterfront are at the core of this project. When spaces previously used for industry and work go through periods of rapid commercial development or transformation and when pressure is mounting to develop these spaces, Hall notes, “there often exists this attitude or discourse about the port as a ‘dangerous’ or ‘dirty’ space.” And while these views are never complete or even mostly accurate, Hall says they “create an idea that the space should be seen as non-industrial.” City planners or developers often approach the space as “terra nova” and thus ensues a subsequent “erasure or paving over of the area’s labour history.”

With the city of New Westminster changing rapidly, development pressures have been present for some years. As Hall notes, “the city has a council that is committed to preserving industrial land and industrial jobs” alongside a “strong civic association base.” He explains that New Westminster has a “municipal government that takes its civic responsibility seriously and that takes engagement seriously, in a way that’s costly.” The River Market at New Westminster Quay is a key example. Regular cargo handling activities ended in the central waterfront area by the early 1980s, but it took many years for the space to be re-defined. Hall explains that “as a city you want to do something with [the space] but on the other hand if you’re a community that has a huge problem with trucks and a view of the waterfront that’s just industrial, then you want to clean up the trucks.” In the 1980s the Quay was an Expo-era development but struggled for years to establish itself as a public space. Hall notes that even as recently as 6 years ago, the Market was struggling, whereas now it is rapidly gaining a reputation as a dynamic space, with the people organizing the Market having “really interesting ideas about animating the space.”

As urban development affects port growth and transforms waterfront spaces, new fires burn in New Westminster and the imperative to record the histories and stories of the place becomes all the more vital. As Peter Hall highlights in his project, it is critical to try and “situate that story in this place. And not lose sight of the fact that, even though people might not realize it, this is still a place of work. That’s the idea behind the project. Telling the untold story.”