Monday, 16 June 2014

Chinese Cemetery at Harling Point

Parking: on street
not wheelchair accessible
Dogs: not permitted

If you wend your way along the waterfront of Victoria towards Oak Bay, and detour towards Harling Point, you will find the Chinese Cemetery right at the water's edge at the end of the road. This cemetery is the oldest Chinese Cemetery in Canada, and was designated as a National Historic site in 2008. This is a bit of a departure from the forested parks I've taken you to in previous posts, but is a very interesting public space, and the community at large is encouraged to visit the site through the trail network that connects the Cemetery with Trafalger Park and Walbran Park on Gonzales Hill. On a windy day, it feels quiet and calm, even though it is surrounded on the back side by residences.

The Cemetery sits on a parcel of land with a large open, grassy field, flanked by a rocky outcropping on the eastern side.  With Gonzales Hill rising up behind it, a view across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a south-west orientation giving it protection from heavy winds, and no roads pointing directly at the graves, it has all the desired feng shui elements for a cemetery site. The rocky outcropping on the eastern side is covered with camas, salal, shooting stars and trailing blackberry, and drops down to the shoreline where you can see glacial formations such as "Harpoon Rock" which appear in the traditional stories of the Songhees Nation.

This cemetery site was purchased in 1903 by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, and is the oldest Chinese Cemetery in Canada. It contains approximately 300 individual grave markers and 13 mass grave markers aligned parallel with the water and the large funeral altar. It was in use up until the 1950's and formally closed in 1961. Since that time, many of the gravestones and grave markers have been broken or destroyed due to vandalism and many have been covered by grass over the years, but surveys conducted by the CCBA show there could be as many as 970 graves of Chinese pioneers.  In  2001, the site underwent a first round of restoration work, and that restoration effort continues today (Note: no dogs or bicycles are permitted in the cemetery due to this)


The Chinese community has a troubled history in British Columbia and Canada that has only recently been formally recognized by government. Chinese workers came to British Columbia as temporary workers for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway - almost all without their wives or children. After the railway was built, many stayed in British Columbia, and moved to Victoria.  As a result, by 1884 Victoria's Chinese population was the largest in Canada.

It was at this time that the provincial government set the head tax in motion in order to discourage immigration, thus removing any hope for existing Chinese residents to reunite with their families by bringing them to British Columbia.  For those who died in Victoria, custom required them to be buried temporarily in Canada, until their remains could be transported back to China, giving some rest to their spirit when their bones returned home, and the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Associated - formed in 1884 to assert their rights in light of racist policies and practices - assumed burial responsibilities for those in Chinese community.

In death, as in life, Chinese pioneers were segregated from the rest of the community.  The first Chinese graves in Victoria appear in a corner of Pioneer Square, and were not even marked with names, but rather refer to "Chinamen Number 1, Chinamen Number 2 ..."  In 1873, the Ross Bay Cemetery opened, and a section near the water was designated for Chinese.  Not only did this site possess bad feng shui, but it was also too close to the water, meaning that some of the graves got washed away during heavy storms.

In 1891, the CCBA scouted out potential new cemetery sites with more auspicious feng shui, and purchased a piece of property on the southern slope of Christmas Hill. Unfortunately they encountered racism and extreme resistance by farmers in the area who did not want the Cemetery near their properties, and so the site sat unused for 10 years, until the CCBA sold it in 1902 and purchased the Harling Point site in 1903.

In 1907, a small brick structure was built onsite to house the bones of those whose remains were being transported back to China.  The practice at the time was to bury the deceased for 7 years, then exhume the remains, clean and dry the bones, and pack them up in crates to be shipped back to China.  This practice continued until 1937, when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, and shipments could no longer be made. The CCBA performed this task, along with maintenance of the cemetery and honouring of the graves with joss sticks and sacrifices of food and money during festivals. You can still see evidence of this today on individual graves and the altar.

Through the 1920 and 1930s, there were periods of tension between neighbours, the municipality and the CCBA over the appropriate use of the land, and at several points since, developers and other interested parties have attempted to shut down the cemetery.  Since 2001, there has been a commitment by government to support the CCBA's restoration efforts, and recognize the cultural importance of maintaining this site as a cemetery. Its current designation today as a National Historic Site ensures it will not be removed or replaced with urban development.

Natural history

This geography of the cemetery is unique, in that two separate pieces of the earth's crust meet at Harling Point. This meeting formed a natural channel for glaciers to flow through in millennia past, which formed deep grooves as they moved across the rock, and also left large boulders such as "Harpoon Rock" in their wake. As a result of its unique natural features, the site figures prominently in local Songhees stories and songs.

The glacial formation has also given rise to the perfect location for many wildflower species, including Camassia spp, Erythronium and Frittilaria.  It is also home to patches of Limnanthes macounii - a rare form of meadowfoam considered to be a species at risk, and the stand at Harling Point is one of less than 30 remaining natural occurrences of the plant.    

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Bow Park

Parking on street
Wheelchair accessible trails in Bow Park area, steeper gravel trails towards Mackenzie Avenue
Dogs permitted: on leash

You might have driven down Mackenzie Avenue around Braefoot Park and idly wondered about that pedestrian overpass - wondering why anyone would put an overhead walkway to seemingly nowhere.

But the fact is, that overpass does lead somewhere! Right off the overpass, you find yourself on Ferndale Trail, heading up the hill towards to Bow Park, a superb example of how the hard work of volunteers working with the municipality can help preserve and restore natural ecosystems in suburban Victoria in a very short space of time!

Bow Park is also accessible off of Cedar Hill Road via Hopesmore Drive, and with Brodick Park is a habitat reclamation area smack-dab in the middle of a residential area that has rise up around it over the years. Its somewhat unique in that its Garry Oak groves sit in the midst of a boggier area, rather than the rocky, camass-covered outcroppings we typically see. There is small pond right in the middle of Bow Park (complete with ducks and frogs!), surrounded by Cottonwood, and the the understory of this Park is largely chokecherry, salmonberry and some Rosa Nutkana.

Park Highlights:

The stroll around the pond itself is a lovely walk, with benches placed strategically at a couple of spots.  If you go in late spring/early summer, you might be able to spy a nesting duck, or ducklings sunning themselves by the edge of the pond.  A number of residences back right onto the park by the pond, and then the trails make their way deeper into the forest, which is teeming with birds.


Brodick and Bow Parks were first established around the time of the first round of subdivisions in the area.  One end of Bow Park opens up onto Brodick which is an open field area, with a small playground with an "old school" slide and swings.

More recently though, with its commitment to connected greenspaces, Saanich began more intensive work on the parks in this area, including Bow Park.
"In the spring of 2011 Saanich Parks began a project to reduce the grade of a connector trail that travels through Feltham Park and Bow Park to connect Mckenzie Avenue with Cedar Hill Road. Throughout the summer and early fall, Saanich Park staff along with Pulling Together volunteers, removed invasive species such as Himalayan Blackberry and English Ivy within a stand of Garry Oak, Bitter Cherry, Indian Plum, and Black Hawthorn trees. On Tree Appreciation Day Saanich staff and more than 50 community volunteers planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs along the portion of the trail from Livingstone Avenue to Bow Road. This area will be an ongoing restoration area and support from the community for maintenance is required." Our Backyard, a Newsletter on the Natural Environment in Saanich, Vol 11 Issue 4, 2011, pg 5

You can see signs throughout the park highlighting the areas where trees have been planted, and can see evidence of the invasive species removal crews at work.  It is amazing to see the effects that just 3 years of focussed work has had to move this area to a more naturally balanced mix of flora.  In the lower parts of the trail that connect to Mackenzie Avenue, you can see the return of horsetail, skunk cabbage and wetlands species in the understory of the cottonwoods and alder, and in the upper areas closer to the pond, the chokecherries and salmonberries are thriving.

Final note: If you take the time to stroll through the park on a warm evening, make sure you come armed with mosquito repellent!

Saanich Parks info on Bow Park
Our Backyard, A Newsletter on the Natural Environment in Saanich, Volume 11, Issue 4

All images © 2014 Janice Mansfield

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Phyllis Park

Dogs permitted - on leash
Accessibility - not wheelchair accessible at all, somewhat steep, rough trails down to the shore.

Phyllis Park is one of those spots you probably wouldn't know about unless you lived in the neighbourhood. It provides some of the best uninterrupted views over the San Juan Islands to Mount Baker that you will find around Victoria, in the midst of a Garry Oak and Arbutus grove.
Keep going!!! There's more trails

Phyllis Park is one of a number of loosely connected small parks at the very south end of Arbutus Road, where the road heads up the hill to some rather expansive homes that were part of a 1980's development of the area.  If you are tromping through the park, you will find some of the park trails at the South end connect up with Mount Baker View Road and Phyllis Road in Ten Mile Point at the lower level, and there are a number of other parks on the other side of Arbutus Rd. near the top of the hill, including Viewpoint Park, Wedgewood Park, Wedgepoint Park and Benson Park,

The main park entrance, off Arbutus Road has prominent signage, with on-street parking.  You go directly up a few stairs to access the lookout deck (with the only bench in the park!).  There is some fencing to discourage the more adventurous from slipping and falling over some of the steeper sections of the rocky outcropping at the top.  And if you stopped at the top you might be fooled into thinking the lookout and moss-covered rocks and scattering of Garry Oaks and Arbutus trees was all this park had to offer.

Take a turn to the right, before you go up the stairs, however, and there is a whole trail network that takes you over the rocks, and into the forest below, and ultimately right to the rocky shoreline - the park covers more than 5 hectares in total! The trails are fairly steep in spots, and minimally tended (there were piles of dry broom in spots, indicating crews come through periodically to remove invasive species), so make sure you wear comfortable shoes, and have at least one hand free for easier going.

As you make your way down the trail, you will see many species of plants typical in the Garry Oak habitat - lots of grasses, Camassia Quamash, some Elegant White Death Camas (this one IS poisonous, don't eat it!!!), yarrow and plantain.  Further down the slope, the trail winds its way into a more forested zone, with Douglas Fir cover, and lots of Rosa Nutkana, trailing blackberries and wild honeysuckle.  The trail goes right down to the shoreline, where you can scramble down to a rocky beach area, or follow the shoreline along the rocky cliffs.  On a late spring day, there was evidence of otters, so be careful depending on the time of year - if they are nesting, they can be quite protective!

Some of the trails loop around, and straight up the cliff if you are feeling adventurous, but I recommend heading up the way you came down, as you need a sharp eye to make out where the trails pick up in spots.

Link: Saanich Parks info for Phyllis Park

All images © 2014 Janice Mansfield