A short walk and one bridge away from my apartment is Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market. So when the Culinary Historians of Canada chose “markets” as this month’s topic for the Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge, I knew it was time to do some literary fare research on the surrounding neighbourhood of False Creek.
Whether it’s a weekend or weekday, the Granville Island Public Market is abuzz with summer tourists, foodie walking tours, and local shoppers relishing the sun after a rainy spring. Ranked as one of Canada’s most popular tourist attractions, the public market is what I would describe as a “must see, must taste” place.
Wandering through the market, you’ll discover seasonal produce towering in the aisles. Everything is within reach: fresh halibut from Haida Gwaii, fine cheeses, and artisanal chocolates. If you’re ever nostalgic for Montreal (as I tend to be), there are authentic bagels served warm from a flame oven.
But when you peer beyond the cornucopia of today’s Granville Island Public Market, you encounter multiple histories in this space. Writers in Canada have played a significant role in giving voice to these realities.
Granville Island is located on the traditional Indigenous territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil Watuth, and Squamish First Nations.
In her narrative essay “Goodbye, Snauq”, writer Lee Maracle, a member of the Stó:lo Nation, recounts how the Squamish resided year round at Snauq (now called False Creek) since the early 1820s. For time immemorial, Snauq “was a common garden shared by all the friendly tribes in the area…. On the sandbar Musqueam, Tsleil Watuth, and Squamish women tilled oyster and clam beds…. Wild cabbage, mushrooms and other plants were tilled and hoed as well. Summer after summer the nations gathered to harvest” (119).In 1913, the Squamish people who were living near the south end of today’s Burrard Street bridge were manipulated and forced out of their homes and off their land by settler society. (Barman) The Squamish people’s unjust removal precipitated the Island’s construction, since the sandbar, or Snauq, to which Lee Maracle refers, was eventually built up and turned into Granville Island.
Today, if you head west from Granville Island, walking along the seawall and underneath the Burrard Street bridge, you will pass one of Vancouver Public Library’s Literary Landmarks that pays tribute to Lee Maracle and to her story “Goodbye, Snauq”.
Lee Maracle makes clear that the “Snauq supermarket” of locally sourced and cultivated food was eventually destroyed by Vancouver’s industrial development and urban settlement. (121) The inlet known today as “False Creek” was reduced in size and polluted by garbage, toxic chemical waste, and human sewage. (118)
Reminders of this industrial chapter of Granville Island’s colonial history are readily visible when you visit the market. Many of the original buildings remain but have been refurbished to house the food market, artists’ studios, community centres, and shops.
Next door to the Edible Canada restaurant is a small parkade that was once the Canada Chain & Forge Company (est. 1922). A large piece of chain is affixed inside the parkade wall, a leftover discovered after the company vacated the property.
Today, one of the last remaining heavy-industry tenants is Ocean Concrete, which has been operating on the island since 1917.
If you’d like a sense of Granville Island’s industrial past, I’d recommend Al Purdy’s visceral poem “Piling Blood”, which recounts memories of strenuous manual labour. During the Depression, Ontario-born Purdy “rode the rails” to Vancouver in search of work. One of his jobs was at Arrow Transfer on Granville Island, piling 75-pound paper bags of “powdered blood” from butchered cattle.
In the poem, Purdy remembers that the blood meal (used as fertilizer) tended to “belly out / from the bags in brown clouds” and “settle on your sweating face” (13). Purdy’s other job at the time was working at Burns’ slaughterhouse on East Hastings Street. So between the “blood smell” that clung to his clothes and the “screams / of dying cattle”, Purdy recalls a haunting time living in Vancouver in the 1930s, a time when he “wrote no poems” (15).
Eventually, “Industrial Island” was transformed into the Granville Island Public Market, which opened its doors to the public in 1979. Today, the market is a food lover’s paradise. More than anything, though, the storied memories are what give shape and meaning to Snauq and Granville Island, revealing the complex and troubling histories of Canada’s past 150 years and beyond.
Barman, Jean. “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity in Vancouver.” BC Studies 155 (2007): 3-30. Canadian Business & Current Affaires Database. Web.
Maracle, Lee. “Goodbye, Snauq.” West Coast Line 42.2 (Summer 2008): 117-125. Print.
Purdy, Al. “Piling Blood.” Piling Blood. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984. 13-15. Print.
Text and Photo Credits (except where indicated): Shelley Boyd