Should Victoria lose its status as British Columbia’s capital?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
B.C. Legislature (Courtesy Tourism Victoria/Sherran Andersen)

The economy of Victoria rests on three legs; tourism, retirees and, of course, government.

A National Post feature story spells out some very good reasons for taking away one of those legs by moving British Columbia's capital off the island and to bustling Metro Vancouver.

It'll never happen but the Post makes a strong case that it's illogical to retain the capital of the province on Vancouver Island, when most of the action is a 90-minute ferry trip away on the B.C. mainland.

The fact Victoria ended up as capital of the then-colony of British Columbia has its origins in some political dirty tricks.

Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland were separate colonies until 1866, with New Westminster, on the banks of the Fraser River east of present-day Vancouver, was the mainland.

Locating the capital of the soon-to-be province of British Columbia in New Westminster only made sense. Though Victoria was the key port during development of Vancouver Island's mineral resources, the B.C. Interior was being opened up by gold-rush miners and settlers. The pace would only accelerate once the railway arrived in the mid-1880s.

The political and economic rivalry between the two frontier cities climaxed in a vote in the newly merged colony's House of Assembly, according Wikipedia's history of New Westminster. William Franklyn, who supported New Westminster's bid, was set to give a speech, only to find a Victoria supporter had shuffled the pages and popped the lenses from his glasses.

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The assembly recessed briefly in an uproar and when it resumed, the Speaker, also a Victoria supporter, refused to allow Franklyn a second chance to speak.

The Post's account, based on Victoria lore, said Franklyn showed up drunk for the session and mixed up his speaking notes. Whatever happened, the assembly voted heavily in favour of Victoria to become the capital of the merged colonies, which would join Confederation in 1871.

New Westminster became a seedy river port, railway freight hub and suburb of Vancouver.

The jewel of Victoria, the B.C. legislature building designed by Francis Rattenbury (who also designed the Empress Hotel), offers a compelling reason to move the capital to Vancouver, the Post story argued.

A report done for the B.C. government almost a decade ago warned the ornate building needed a very expensive upgrade to ensure it wouldn't collapse into rubble in a major earthquake.

The report by Zeidler Partnership Architects was done in 2006 but not revealed until 2011, according to an article in The Tyee online news site at the time. It recommended an eight-year program worth $182 million to bring the building up to current seismic standards.

"If the buildings are destroyed, whether as a result of significant event or slow erosion, a disheartened public could more easily turn to civil disorder resulting from the loss of a focal symbol," the report said, perhaps a little hysterically.

"If a sudden event compromises the government, critical leadership could be lost, and disaster magnified with serious implications to the governance of the province."

The report was kept under wraps until a reporter forced its release through a freedom-of-information request, The Tyee said.

The government is unlikely to want to spend that kind of money (the Post pegged the current cost at $250 million), so why not just pull up stakes? Hey, the province could sell the legislature building to a developer to be converted into condos. Imagine the view!

The Post said Victoria is the most isolated provincial or territorial capital in Canada, but added many U.S. states also have their capitals in smaller cities away from economic power centres.

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Moving the capital likely also would mean shifting thousands of public servants from Victoria to Metro Vancouver's pricier commercial and residential real estate market. It's a non-starter.

So B.C. MLAs and ministers will keep riding the ferry or take the harbour-to-harbour float plane and helicopter shuttles to do the public's business.

But the fact is there's already a secondary centre of power in Vancouver, where the government maintains cabinet offices at Canada Place overlooking Vancouver harbour. The premier and senior ministers can be found there almost as much as they can in Victoria.