Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, located on the northeastern side of Vancouver Island, is attractive to boaters as an opportunity to go ashore and stretch their sea legs or load up with provisioning as they travel en route to points north or returning home. For many, Alert Bay, known as the home of the killer whale, is a wonderful location to learn about the area’s First Nation history and culture, as it was on our visits.
This small historic community has plenty to offer visitors:
- Well protected marina
- 37 Totem Poles
- U’mista Cultural Centre
- Big House
- Ecological Reserve
Alert Bay has a long fishing history.
Alert Bay A Walk Through Namgis Culture
The Namgis First Nation has called Alert Bay home for as long as anyone can recall, and the town is the island’s oldest community. A longtime fishing center, Alert Bay became an important trading hub for early residents in the area, and today the island is home to a diverse population of 1,300 who share a unique cultural environment.
Adjacent to the ferry dock is Alert Bay Boat Harbour, which is well protected behind a large breakwater. Because the town is cruiser friendly, the harbormaster always tries to leave room on the docks for transient vessels. Standard government dock fees apply, and power and water are available. The pure fresh water comes from a well more than 300-feet deep.
The U’mista Cultural Centre is the center piece of the village.
Services and the Cultural Centre in Alert Bay
A grocery store, a pharmacy, a liquor store, a bank, a post office, The Alert Bay Library Museum with over 6,000 photographs of local history and a handful of restaurants and pubs make the town center, but the center piece of the village is the U’mista Cultural Centre. U’mista refers to “the return of something important,” which in this case are native people’s potlatch artifacts that were confiscated by government and church officials when potlatch was banned from the late 1800s until 1951. The potlatch ceremony marked an important occasion: the naming of children, marriage, transferring rights or privileges and mourning the dead.
The collection of Kwakwaka’wakw artifacts housed at the cultural centre is one of the finest anywhere, and the priceless ceremonial masks and other items are presented openly in a traditional big-house style.
History of the Residential School
Adjacent to the centre is St. Michael’s, one of British Columbia’s residential schools, which now houses a carving studio and administration offices in its basement. The decaying four story brick building is a reminder of the persecution of the Native people from 1929 to 1974, when native children were forcibly taken from their families to live and study at the school, in an effort to “civilize” them through Anglo-European beliefs and values while providing them with a basic education.
There are 37 totem poles throughout the community.
Exploring Alert Bay
We walked up the hill from the cultural centre to the traditional Big house and a 73-feet totem pole, the world’s tallest. During the summer, visitors can see performances of traditional dancing and drumming.
After returning to the marina, we continued to explore the culture of Alert Bay, strolling south a few blocks along the waterfront boardwalk to a display of totem poles at the ‘Namgis Burial Ground. Walking in the grounds is not permitted, but you can view the traditional carvings from the perimeter.
The visitor’s centre in town provides informational brochures and map routes for self-guided walking tours with interpretive displays that have been installed along the way.
We ran out of time, so our plan for our next visit is to walk to the Alert Bay Ecological Reserve, aka “Gator Gardens.” The community has established 10 miles of trails. One that runs through the reserve has a boardwalk that provides an up-close view of culturally modified cedar trees, which were partly stripped of bark by native people who processed it for fiber to be used in clothing, fish nets, baskets, and rope.
Signs of the Namgis culture are everywhere in Alert Bay. From scores of totem poles and ritual masks to the U’mista Cultural Centre and the Big House has ensured that the area’s rich native heritage is remembered and celebrated.
One day in Alert Bay taught us more about area First Nation culture than weeks exploring the surrounding islands.
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