On Friday, August 24, I went on the Fort Victoria walking tour put on by the Architectural Institute of B.C. (AIBC). While I did learn a few interesting facts, overall it was a disappointing experience. The guide made several offensive comments, got some historical facts wrong or misinterpreted them, and failed to provide a coherent educational experience. There are several ways in which my experience could have been improved, and I offer some positive suggestions for doing so at the end of this post.
The offensive comments started with the guide’s introduction, in which he described local First Nations as “primitive” when Fort Victoria was founded in 1843. Describing a group of people with technology adapted to their environment, who engaged in beautiful art and other cultural activities, and who had a highly developed social structure, as “primitive” is nothing short of racist. Because of this, I was tempted to leave within minutes of the tour starting.
Hoping that his racist comment was thoughtless and not malicious, I continued with the tour and was disturbed to hear him make other offensive remarks. He described the bricks on Government Street and in Bastion Square that list early residents of Victoria as naming the “founding fathers” of Victoria, despite the fact that many of the bricks name women. With this single phrase, he propounded an outmoded form of historical explanation and devalued the contributions women have made to our city. On a slightly less offensive note, the guide described the original developer of the Burnes House building in Bastion Square as possessing “Irish Charm,” which smacks of national stereotyping and seemed like a gratuitous addition to an architectural tour.
The guide also made some bizarre errors and omissions in historical fact and interpretation. His introduction included reaming off a number of significant dates in Victoria’s history, including the founding of the Fort (1843), the Fraser River Gold Rush (1858), B.C.’s Confederation with Canada (1871), and the Klondike Goldrush (1897). He failed to mention that the City of Victoria was incorporated in 1862, a significant omission in this year of sesquicentennial celebration!
At the building now occupied by Munro’s Books, the guide told us that it originally housed the Royal Bank of Canada, and that there was a “shooting gallery” in the basement in which bank employees would practice shooting their firearms. He said that this was because Victoria was part of the “wild west” in the second half of the 19th century. The fact that the building was designed and constructed in 1909 seems to militate against this hypothesis. It also obscures the fact that Victoria was not part of the American West, to which the term “wild west” more commonly refers.
At the Maritime Museum in Bastion Square, the guide told us that the ornate elevator is the oldest continually operating one in British Columbia, and was installed in the 1890s. He said that it was originally operated by hand crank, because electricity wasn’t installed in the city until after the turn of the century. The fact is that Victoria was electrified in the 1880s.
The guide was also unable to answer a participant’s question about why the Temple Building has the word “temple” in its name. He indicated that he had been asked the question during earlier tours, but had yet to look up the answer.
Aside from the specific concerns listed above, I also have serious concerns about what the pedagogical aims of this walking tour are. The AIBC’s brochure describes the walking tour this way:
Learn about the development of Victoria, from a small Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading fort to the provi[n]cial capital it is today. Follow the outline of the fort walls along Government Street, and learn about the architectural conservation and re-use strategies employed over time. Explore Bastion Square, once the heart of Victoria’s legal community, and Wharf Street, the city’s original “Commercial Row” converted into residential and commercial spaces.
A good tour might have done all these things, and used the buildings as teaching tools for a larger purpose. We could have discussed how architecture changed over time in this part of Victoria. The guide could have argued that efforts to preserve these buildings provide tangible social and cultural benefits to the city. He could have used the buildings to elucidate particular aspects of our city’s history, by discussing their relationship to our social history.
Instead, most of the walking tour consisted of the guide pointing out interesting features on some of the buildings in the area described by the brochure. As I pointed out above, he provided a somewhat confused and offensive history of the city, but said almost nothing “about the architectural conservation and re-use strategies employed over time.” Moreover, a brief walk through Bastion Square and along a block of Wharf Street hardly counts as exploring an urban area, especially when the statements that accompanied the walk are offensive, inaccurate and incomplete.
There are a couple of actions that I believe the AIBC ought to take to correct the problems that I have noted above. If the AIBC runs similar tours next year, there ought to be a more conscious grounding in historic fact than was evident during this tour. The incorrect and misleading statements need to be corrected before they run similar tours in the future, and the offensive statements need to be entirely removed. A more coherent pedagogy also ought to be part of the redevelopment of the tours for next season. These changes might be aided by consulting with local historians and with people who are experienced at leading walking tours.