Despite its status today as one of Canada’s biggest and most important cities, the city of Vancouver very nearly had a shockingly short lifespan. Incorporated in April of 1886, the entire city was almost destroyed only two months later due to a massive fire that broke out on the 13th of June, afterwards known as the Great Vancouver Fire.
It all started when a brush fire in Yaletown got out of control. The fire was being used to clear the land between what are now known as Main Street and Cambie Street, but there was a strong gale blowing that day, and it caused the fire to spread quickly.
On Vancouver’s North Shore, the Squamish Nation people living in Ustlawn, now the Mission Reserve, saw the fire across the Burrard Inlet. The Squamish Nation had been previously evicted from the land on which Vancouver was built, but according to traditional teachings, the Squamish people must help those in need, so they set off in their canoes across the inlet, despite the danger of the journey. During this crossing, the brave canoers composed a song, later known as the “Paddle Song.” They managed to ferry many people to safety, although the fire was so extreme that dozens of people still lost their lives.
In the aftermath of the fire, Vancouver was rebuilt to more modern standards. The city acquired up-to-date water systems, electicity, and even streetcars (which were then discontinued in 1955). The fire spurred fundraising for a fire all and fire-fighting equipment. It also encouraged the creation of the city’s first police force.
Today, Squamish Elders still tell of the fire, as it was passed down to them from eye-witness accounts. Likewise, the “Paddle Song” is still sung amongst peoples of the Squamish Nation to this day.