A black-and-white photo shows a forest fire coming down a gully between two hills.
A forest fire pictured in Coldstream in 1921.

The 2023 Fire Season

2023 has been reported as Canada’s worst fire season. Although this fact cannot be denied, it may or may not provide some comfort to know that folks in and around Vernon have been battling blazes for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, the Indigenous inhabitants of the Okanagan-Similkameen areas practiced controlled burning as a means to maintain forest and grassland ecosystems. Once settlers arrived in the area, the Vernon News, then a farm and livestock journal, often featured advice on how to protect one’s property from fire damage. For example, an 1894 article states, in no uncertain terms, that “the cutting and clearing away of the forest for a radius around the settlement sufficient to ensure safety would be neither an expensive nor a laborious undertaking.”

1900s-1910s

A heatwave in May of 1901 wreaked havoc on the Valley, and the South Okanagan was particularly hard-hit. A forest fire near what is now the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre outside of Penticton saw bridges and culverts burn down, and fallen timber litter the road. At the same time, the whole town of Fairview (now a ghost town) came out to fight a fire that was creeping towards their properties down a nearby gully.

In 1912, the newspaper printed “Six Good Rules for Care with Fire in the Mountains,” one of which was a reminder to knock out one’s pipe ashes or throw cigar and cigarette stumps only where there is nothing to catch fire. In 1922, the “cigarette menace” was once again discussed, with the paper reporting that hundreds of the fires recorded that year in Canada were “due to the evil habit of tossing away lighted tobacco.”

1920s-1950s and beyond

Sometime in the late 1920s, Silver Star Mountain experienced a devastating fire, which was unfortunately not unusual for the region as evidenced by the installation of a forest fire lookout at the mountain’s summit more than two decades earlier. In the spring of 1930, Bill Osborn, David Ricardo, and Michael Freeman became among the first to ski down the mountain – and later described seeing a number of snags (still-standing dead trees) that have been destroyed by this fire a few years earlier. 

In July of 1940, a series of forest fires ravaged the Sugar Lake area. Men were pulled away from their homes and work to fight the blazes, which finally abated thanks to heavy rain. In 1950, a mid-summer fire at Kingfisher was finally brought under control after several long weeks. Fires continued to ravage the Okanagan Valley in the years following, including the unforgettable White Rock Lake fire of 2021.

Thankfully, the area’s inhabitants have demonstrated their resiliency in the face of nature’s wrath time-and-time again, helped along at times by some much-needed rain.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

 

A wooden cross with trees in the background. The cross reads "Stewart Bain Electrocuted Nov 23 1913 Age 24"
Stewart Bain’s cross, photographed by Nancy Josland Dalsin and courtesy of FindAGrave.

A sad Story

A lonely cross tucked in a quiet corner of Vernon’s Pleasant Valley Cemetery reveals a sad story. On November 23, 1913, 24-year-old Stewart Bain was electrocuted while working on a power pole at the corner of 32nd Street and Coldstream Avenue, and was killed instantly.

Stewart was born on May 1, 1888, in Nova Scotia; in the 1901 Canadian Census, he is recorded as the adopted son of 78-year-old Ronald McDonald. In 1911, he was boarding in Hants, Nova Scotia, and working as a Blacksmith.

A silver lining

By 1913, he was working as part of a Vancouver Electric Company crew that traveled to Vernon to work for the City.

An inquest after his death determined that he had accidentally come in contact with a live wire while performing his work. His funeral was held 10 days later, and it is said that all electric linemen and groundmen in the city’s employ were in attendance. Although he had only been in Vernon for a few months, Stewart Bain was well-respected, made evident by an outpouring of floral tributes.

This tragedy did have a silver lining, though, as the investigations into the incident led to a tightening of safety protocols for electric workers across the province.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

 

For the summer months, we are thrilled to present a series of blog posts by Collections Intern Rebeka Beganova. Rebeka (she/her) is a post-secondary student with a passion for research, literature, and history. Having completed an Associate of Arts Degree at Okanagan College, she is glad to be joining the MAV team during her last summer in Vernon before heading off to UBC Vancouver. There is no better way to say goodbye to her hometown than to explore its local history!

A young woman wearing a necklace of bear claws and a traditional Indigenous outfit is staring away from the camera.
E. Pauline Johnson, photographed ca. 1895. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

“Unforeseen audacities”

In April of 1899, a shining star passed through Vernon that turned many curious heads. Emily Pauline Johnson, Indigenous poet and reciter, came to town for a week of performance and thrilling sensation. Her appearances quickly became the center of local attention. Johnson was indeed already a figure of well-known talent. Her stay in Vernon earned her a spotlight in the papers and praise from an audience self-reportedly “not the easiest persons in the world to please.” Her likeableness stemmed – for this city’s folk – from her eloquence, captivation, humour, and humility. In one sitting, she could put her audience in stitches, then minutes later mesmerize them with heart-stopping lyrics.

Her popularity may be surprising to us now, knowing what we do about the social dynamics in 1899. We may wonder what it was like for Johnson, as an Indigenous woman, to stand alone before an overwhelmingly white audience holding, at best, thinly-veiled racist attitudes. Reports about Johnson bear the mark of white bias; her style is described as “full of unforeseen audacities” and at the same time, “a lofty strain of the purest patriotism.” Especially compared to Johnson’s own self-image, these interpretations call into question whether the audience, who so adored E. Pauline Johnson, really understood her messages at all.

Tekahionwake

Johnson was half Indigenous and half English. Her father, G.H.M. Johnson, was Chief of the Mohawk Tribe, part of the Iroquois Six Nations. Her mother, Emily S. Howell, hailed from Bristol. Much of Pauline Johnson’s writing centered around her Indigenous background and emphasized the relationship – the violence and disrespect – spearheaded by white settlers toward her people. She went by her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, just as her father had his: Onwanonsyshon.

Her pride in her Indigenous identity further muddles Vernon’s reaction to her performances. It is hard to imagine the population of 1899 welcoming with open arms a public figure that challenged so many of their social, political, and religious convictions. Much of her poetry was not subtle, either. “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” for example, concludes with the lines: “By right, by birth we Indians own these lands, / Though starved, crushed, plundered, lies our nation low. / Perhaps the white man’s God has willed it so.” Her meaning is unmistakable.

Message not received

The prolific poet passed away in Vancouver in 1913 after battling cancer. News of her death reached Vernon to much despair and grief. An article was published in the Vernon News detailing her passing, an article that spanned two entire page-long columns. The account included a short description of her early life as well as her accomplishments as an artist. It was undeniably a heart-felt tribute.

It is left for us to ponder, then, the paradox of E. Pauline Johnson’s impact and the simultaneous persistence of unchecked anti-Indigenous racism in Vernon. Her words pierced so deeply, yet her message was somehow lost in translation – ignored, as is very likely the case. Johnson’s denunciation of colonialism must be remembered now, even if it was not then. The introduction to her book, The Shagganappi, quotes of her: “Never let anyone call me a white woman. There are those who think they pay me a compliment in saying that I am just like a white woman. My aim, my joy, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people.”

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Rebeka Beganova, Collections Intern

 

 

For the summer months, we are thrilled to present a series of blog posts by Collections Intern Rebeka Beganova. Rebeka (she/her) is a post-secondary student with a passion for research, literature, and history. Having completed an Associate of Arts Degree at Okanagan College, she is glad to be joining the MAV team during her last summer in Vernon before heading off to UBC Vancouver. There is no better way to say goodbye to her hometown than to explore its local history!

A sepia snapshot of a butter rationing form from WWII. The title of the form reads "butter declaration for the month of"
Butter declaration form used in WWII, exact year unknown. Like the canning sugar forms, they resemble our current-day tax returns.

Every so often, Vernonites may get the feeling that their city is somewhat sheltered from the goings-on of the wider world. Living in the shadow of Canada’s largest metropolises – especially Vancouver – seems to soften the blow of international events. However, some events are so large-scale that they inevitably seep into even the most secluded kitchens of our city. World War II was one such event.

The Mechanics of Rationing

On November 4, 1942, the President of the Vernon Board of Trade announced the formation of a local ration board. It was high time for this development: 32 of the 33 BC municipalities had already formed theirs. Ration laws themselves were not established immediately, and meat rationing actually began half a year later, in May of 1943. News articles throughout April mused about what the future policies would look like; each person (and baby) was estimated to receive two pounds of meat per week, and rationed meat was to include beef, pork, and “the lowly but popular sausage, in all its forms.” The BC Loggers Association was already up in arms, advocating for a greater allowance for labourers. Café proprietors rightly predicted ‘meatless days’ for their businesses.

The eventual rationing regulations were perhaps stricter than some were imagining. Ration books and coupons basically became the new currency: as such, they were treated like true treasure. It was illegal to possess a ration book belonging to someone outside your household, and retail food operators were required to open Ration Bank Accounts. Those tempted to dodge around these laws were threatened with up to two years’ imprisonment, as well as up to $5000 in fines.

A spoonful of sugar, an ounce of beef

Sugar and meat quickly became two of the most precious resources in Vernon. The prior remained on the rationing list for two years after WWII ended and for five years in total. It was possibly the hardest ingredient to limit, as evidenced by the fact that canning sugar and sugar for cooking rhubarb were subject to separate policies. Applications for canning sugar resembled our current tax return forms and surely provoked just as much stress. Icing recipes were released across Canada that minimized the use of cane and beet sugar.

Meat rationing was pushed equally as hard. The newspaper predictions from 1943 proved largely accurate in terms of the severity of meat cut-downs. 40% of Canada’s meat production was shipping overseas – but civilians were encouraged to send their food waste as well. Ads appeared in papers urging readers to “save all waste, fats & bones” because they were used in the production of explosives. Taglines like “Out of the frying pan and into the firing line” accompanied unsettling cartoons. These ads were generally produced by the Department of National War Service.

The bureaucracies and restrictions that formed in Vernon during this time demonstrate the invasive nature of large-scale war. Those hoping to lead a private life found regulatory fingers reaching into their cupboards and pantries. If our troops are fighting overseas, they said, then you have your own part to play.

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Rebeka Beganova, Collections Intern