First Nations' people have inhabited northern Vancouver Island for thousands of years. The 'Namgis First Nation, within the larger Kwakwaka'wakw band, today represent two-thirds of Alert Bay's total population.
The revival of Kwakwaka'wakw cultural heritage in general, and the community celebration known as the potlatch in particular are celebrated at the U'mista Cultural Centre. This museum and gallery is a must-see for anyone interested in First Nations art, storytelling, ritual, and history.
'Namgis First Nation
The 'Namgis were originally based at the mouth of the Namgis River (aka the Nimpkish), directly across the Broughton Strait on Vancouver Island. Here they lived off the region's abundant salmon, herring, cod, and halibut, while relying on the western red cedar for housing materials, canoes, clothing, and blankets.
First European Contact
Captain George Vancouver made first European contact with the 'Namgis in 1792. A Hudson Bay Company post was established near Port Hardy. A brisk trade in salmon, furs, game, and shellfish continued as the Kwakwaka'wakw were introduced to western culture. Like other First Nations peoples, the Kwakwaka'wakw were devastated by small pox, experiencing a population decrease from 19,000 in the 1700s to 3,000 in 1880.
Development of Alert Bay
A pair of entrepreneurs leased Cormorant Island from the government and established a salmon saltery on the Alert Bay waterfront in 1870. In need of labour, they convinced the 'Namgis to relocate their village to the island – which traditionally had been used as a seasonal home and sacred resting place. The saltery was joined by a cannery a decade later, and settlement grew rapidly. A store, sawmill, and post office made Alert Bay the unofficial capital of northern Vancouver Island for remote logging communities in the area.
The repression of First Nations' culture continued with the 1913 enforced ban on potlatches (the ceremony at the heart of Kwakwaka'wakw culture). The advent of the Great Depression hit the region hard, and BC Packers closed its salmon cannery. After World War II, the economy rebounded. The Village of Alert Bay was incorporated in 1946 as the fishing and logging industries boomed. The harbour was jammed with fishing boats, and the main street was lined with shops and services.
Alert Bay Today
Today, Alert Bay is a quiet little town renowned the world-over as the cultural and artistic centre of the Kwakwaka'wakw.
Stop by the Alert Bay Visitor Centre for details on local historic sites – including the circa-1908 Alert Bay Shipyards and Christ Church Anglican, which held its first service in 1892.