Travel: Victoria

British Columbia's capital shares similarities with Juneau

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2005

Theres a capital city in the rainy Pacific Northwest that is accessible only by ferry and air.

This capital city is overshadowed by a much larger city in its region, and the main industry besides government is tourism, with 135 cruise ships a summer coming to town. There even have been occasional rumblings about moving the capital.

This may sound a lot like Juneau, but its not.

Welcome to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.

As the Victoria Clipper, the catamaran ferry that travels daily from Seattle, pulled into Victorias Inner Harbour the British Columbia Parliament Buildings stand just a couple of blocks away from from the ferry terminal. They were among the first buildings to define themselves as I arrived on the ferry earlier this month, and they quickly let visitors know that Victoria is a government town.

During a recent trip to Seattle, I decided to take an overnight trip to Victoria to check out one of Juneaus neighbor capital cities. Its a short 2 1/2-hour ferry ride away from Seattles Pier 69, though my trip to Victoria took a little bit longer because the ferry captain stopped the boat so we could watch a large pod of orcas play in the middle of Seattles harbor.

Besides the Victoria Clipper service, there dozens of ferries daily from other parts of British Columbia and Washington, with a mix between car ferries and passenger-only boats like the one I rode. B.C. Ferries is based in Victoria and is the West Coasts largest ferry service. Its now managed by former Juneau resident George Cappaci, who used to run the Alaska Marine Highway System.

This wasnt my first trip to British Columbia, but it was my first time visiting Victoria. Most of my trips to British Columbia have taken me through Vancouver, the largest city in the province and the upcoming site of the 2010 Winter Olympics, or to some of the smaller towns in upper British Columbia like Atlin.

But reading about Victorias similarities to Juneau intrigued me, and I was able to book a round-trip passage from Seattle, including a hotel room for my overnight stay, for roughly $125 through the Victoria Clipper. For people wanting to make a day trip to Victoria from Seattle, the round-trip fare is closer to $90.

The City of Victoria is a picturesque town of about 73,000 people located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The town looks more English than most Canadian cities, with all the Victorian- and Georgian-era architecture in the buildings near the Inner Harbour.

Once you get outside the Olde Town and downtown core, the buildings look like those youd find in any North American town, with modern shopping malls and American chain stores such as Sears, Wendys and Home Depot mixed in with some of the popular Canadian stores like The Hudsons Bay Company. This is known as Greater Victoria, a region that includes about 14 smaller communities, such as Sidney, Swartz Bay, Brentwood Bay, Sooke and others. The population of Greater Victoria is about 350,000, or about a 10th the size of Vancouver.

For most of my trip, I stayed in the downtown core of Victoria, which had more than enough to keep me busy during my visit.

One of my reasons for visiting Victoria was to check out the similarities to Juneau, and to see if the folks in Victoria might share their secrets about being a water-based capital that isnt readily accessible by the mainland.

So I stopped by Victorias City Hall, where I met Helen Hughes, who is one of the eight councillors for the City of Victoria (the city government has eight councillors and a mayor). Hughes has also visited Juneau, she and her lawyer husband watched a civil trial at Dimond Courthouse, so shes heard about the frequent attempts to move Alaskas capital out of Juneau and up near Anchorage.

We hear those things, too, Hughes said, quickly adding that most of the comments about moving the British Columbia capital are said in jest. Vancouver seems to think its the center of the universe, and they think were too hard to reach. Vancouver has a lot of population, but theres something to be said about having the government away from the main city.

Trading, protection and gold played a part in the founding of Victoria, and it didnt become a government center until later.

James Douglas of The Hudsons Bay Fur Trading Company established Fort Victoria in 1843 as a trading post and fort in an area the local First Nations people called Camosack, and colonization of Vancouver Island started in 1849. The small community grew when miners arrived to get outfitted for the Cariboo gold rush of 1858, because Victoria was the main harbor with access to the mainland.

About this time, Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia developed separate governments, with Victoria becoming the capital of Vancouver Island and New Westminster the capital of mainland B.C. In 1866, the Union of the Colonies was proclaimed and New Westminster was named the capital from 1866-68. The capital functions moved to Victoria and it officially became the new capital in 1871 when the unified British Columbia became the sixth province to join the Dominion of Canada.

Government has been a big industry, it was the No. 1 industry, Hughes said. But now, the largest industry is tourism.

Were really into tourism now, and we get 135 (cruise) ships in the summer. We have a lot of historic architecture, and we have the oldest Chinatown in North America. But the biggest thing is you can walk the entire downtown all within 25 minutes. The navigable water is very important to us and our Inner Harbour is a precious place. Its one of the things people enjoy, going whale watching or fishing.

In 2002, Conde Nast Traveler magazine rated Victoria No. 9 on its list of the Worlds Top 10 Foreign Cities (a category that also included Sydney, Australia; Rome and Florence, Italy) and Vancouver Island was No. 1 on the Best Temperate Island in the World. In 2003, Conde Nast Traveler rated Victoria No. 1 on its list of the Top Cities in the Americas.

One of the most popular attractions is the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, which dominate the downtown area near the Inner Harbour.

The first attempt at building a capitol in Victoria came when Douglas, now the governor, convened the first Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island within Fort Victoria in 1856. Several government buildings were constructed and christened The Birdcages in 1859, and they remained in use for nearly 40 years. The current Parliament Buildings, which were designed by a then-25-year-old architect named Francis Rattenbury, were built in the 1890s and they formally opened in 1898.

Rattenburys designs dominate much of Victorias Olde Town, since he also was the architect for the Empress Hotel (where the afternoon tea is a big part of the communitys life) and for Crystal Gardens.

Organized tours are available for the Parliament Buildings, but there are many areas where tourists can roam if they arrive between tours. However, there are some areas, such as the Legislative Library, that are off-limits to unaccompanied visitors.

The lower rotundra, the main entrance room, is where the Lieutenant Governor (the queens appointed representative in the province) meets the Legislative Assembly. The Premier (the leader of the provinces dominant party) has an office on the first floor of the West Wing.

From the lower rotunda, there are two wings to each side with committee rooms and offices for the 75 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), the unicameral body that governs British Columbia. Going up a flight of stairs takes you to the memorial rotundra, which leads into the Legislative Chambers.

Inside the Legislative Chambers, the Speakers Chair dominates the southern end. There are four rows of chairs and desks running east to west on each side of an open center aisle, with the members of the dominant Liberal Party tending to sit in the two rows to the speakers right and the members of the opposition parties (the New Democratic Party and the Independents) in the two rows to the left. There is some mixing of parties, and those MLAs who oversee key committees or have cabinet posts are seated closer to the speaker (who also is an MLA).

According to Dirk Meissner, who covers Victoria for the Canadian Press, the Liberal Party tends to be pro-business and is closer to the Republicans in the United States, while the New Democratic Party tends to be more socialist and is further left than the U.S. Democrats.

Our biggest issue right now is the election coming up on May 17, said Meissner, who added that Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski recently met with British Columbia MLAs as part of a Pacific Northwest Region group of governments. Some of the other big issues are offshore oil and gas near Fort Stewart (which is a five-minute drive from Hyder, Alaska) and Queen Charlotte Island, tourism and fish farming.

Only the 75 Members of the Legislative Assembly are allowed in the Legislative Chambers, which feature a brass bar that blocks the main entrance. At times, members of the public are called to the bar to answer questions from the speaker and other MLAs.

There is, however, on the third floor a visitors gallery that overlooks the Legislative Chambers. There is seating for up to 166 members of the public along the three sides of the building that face the speaker, but no note-taking, photography or talking is allowed in the gallery.

A separate press gallery, where note-taking is allowed, also is on the third floor and it is behind the speaker on the south side. Also, the Hansard Facilities are on the north end of the public gallery and they have provided televised coverage of the Legislative Assembly since the early 1990s.

In past years, Meissner said there has been what Alaskans call Capital Creep, when government agencies start moving their offices away from the capital and into other regions. But Meissner said the current government hasnt been as bad about the Capital Creep and seems to like Victoria.

Still, there have been issues with government access. Les Leyne, a columnist for the Times Colonist (the main newspaper in Victoria), said in the 1970s the British Columbia government even went on a traveling road show with sessions taking place in hockey arenas around the province. He said televised proceedings and better transportation faster ferries and dozens of daily helijet flights from the mainland have helped solidify Victoria as the capital.

About every 30 years or so, the issue comes up, said Leyne, who added that hed recently interviewed Rep. Norman Rokeberg (R-Anchorage). Its always like one day, and its like April Fools, they say we ought to move the capital back to New Westminster, which was the original capital. But it will never happen. In this day and age, the physical location isnt as important as it used to be, back when it was a major task to get in your wagon or ride a slow boat to get here.

Charles Bingham can be reached at

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