Iconic West Coast scenery of sandstone shorelines, lush forests and golden beaches, Gabriola Island is full of natural beauty just waiting to be explored. Beyond its stunning looks, this Gulf Island in the Strait of Georgia has a deeply layered history, founded by ancient roots and years of settlement.
Long before any European settlers set foot here, the island was inhabited by the Snuneymuxw First Nation, a Coastal Salish people who thrived off hunting and fishing beginning somewhere around 5,000 years ago. While not much is known about these times, petroglyphs depicting local animals carved in the rocky shores remain today as mysterious remnants of this ancient culture.
In 1791 the first Europeans, a Spanish schooner, visited the island. Over the next several decades, more Spanish explorers made visits to the island in hopes of finding gold. They left many Spanish names including Descanso, Malaspina and even Gabriola, which comes from the word “gaviota”, meaning seagull in Spanish.
But it was the discovery of coal on nearby Vancouver Island that sparked permanent European settlement on Gabriola in the 1850s. While there was no coal on the island itself, its natural resources were used to support the industry and neighbouring communities. By 1874, a small group of settlers, many of whom had married First Nations women, farmed the land to supply food to Nanaimo. The abundant deposits of sandstone were used as millstones in pulp mills and for construction in nearby cities. From the 1890s to 1952, the Gabriola brickyard produced up to 80,000 bricks a day, while the sheltered waters of Silva Bay were home to a fishing fleet, a lumber mill and a shipyard. Despite its thriving industry, the island’s population remained small, with fewer than 400 residents in 1950.
Today, Gabriola Island is home to more than 4,000 full time residents and many more during summer months. BC Ferries have made Gabriola much more accessible, now just a 20 minute ride from Nanaimo. Inspired by the beautiful surroundings and the relaxed way of living, Gabriola is known as the “Isle of the Arts” and is home to one of the highest concentration of artists in Canada, covering almost every discipline.