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Living off the land

The ancestors of Vancouver’s First Nations people began arriving in British Columbia at least 10, 000 years ago, crossing via a land bridge at the Bering Strait near Alaska. They trickled southwards from here, with many setting up camp in coastal areas that are still regarded as important First Nations lands to this day. Those who traveled furthest eventually arrived at the warmer waters of what is now known as the Lower Mainland.

These first Vancouverites lived in villages comprising wood-plank houses arranged in rows, often surrounded by a stockade. Totem poles were set up nearby as an emblem of family or clan. It’s not surprising these groups were attracted to this area – the local beaches and rivers teamed with seafood, the forests bristled with tasty wildlife including deer and elk, and fat silvery salmon were abundantly available to anyone who fancied outsmarting the odd bear for the privilege.

Several distinct communities formed. The Musqueam populated Burrard Inlet, English Bay and the mouth of the Fraser River, although they shared some of this area with the Squamish, who were largely based at the head of Howe Sound, but also had villages in North and West Vancouver, Kitsilano Point, Stanley Park and Jericho Beach. The Kwantlen controlled the area around New Westminster, while Delta and Richmond were home to the Tsawwassen. The Tsleil-Waututh occupied much of North Vancouver, while Coast Salish tribes, such as the Cowichan, Nanaimo and Saanich, set up seasonal camps along the Fraser River when the salmon were running.

Art and creativity were key features of everyday life at this time. Many homes were adorned with exterior carvings and totem poles – later examples of which are displayed at the Museum of Anthropology. These exemplified a reverential regard for nature, suggesting that early First Nations people enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their surroundings. In many ways, they were Vancouver’s ‘green’ founding fathers.


The Brits decide to join the party when the Royal Navy’s Captain George Vancouver sails into Burrard Inlet. He stays 24 hours then turns tail and heads out, just like many latter-day cruise-ship passengers.


The Hudson’s Bay Company builds Fort Langley, the first European settlement to grace the region. It would be several more decades before the Bay launches its first department-store sale.


‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton rows in with a barrel full of whiskey and a head full of big ideas. He opens a saloon, and a small, thirsty settlement – called Gastown – soon springs up near the entrance.

Scant evidence exists about this intriguing period in Vancouver’s history: most settlements have crumbled to dust and few have been rediscovered by archaeologists. In addition, these early settlers generally maintained oral records – they told each other (often in song) the stories of their ancestors, rather than writing things down for posterity. This method would have been highly successful until the disruptive arrival of the Europeans.

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Captain Van hits town

After centuries of unhindered First Nations occupation, Europeans began arriving in the late 18th century. The Spanish sent three expeditions between 1774 and 1779 in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. They ended up by the entrance to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island and never ventured into the Strait of Georgia (but that didn’t stop their influence from seeping into Vancouver, evidenced by latter-day street names like Cordova, Cardero and Valdez).


The fledgling town is incorporated as the City of Vancouver, silencing those who wanted to bid for the 2010 Gastown Olympics. Within weeks, the new city burns to the ground in just 45 minutes.


The first transcontinental train pulls into rebuilt Vancouver, wondering exactly where it is. The residents of Port Moody, the originally proposed terminus for the major new service, decide never to speak to Vancouverites again.


First Nations communities, who have lived here for thousands of years, are displaced from their settlements in the Vanier Park area, as rapacious colonials sweep them and the forests away.

British explorer Captain James Cook elbowed in from the South Pacific in 1779. He had a similar Northwest Passage motive, and a similar result: he hit the west coast of Vancouver Island and believed it to be the mainland. It wasn’t until 1791 that the Strait of Georgia was properly explored. Spanish navigator José María Narváez did the honors, sailing all the way into Burrard Inlet.

Next up was Captain George Vancouver, a British navigator who had previously sailed with Cook. In 1792 he glided into the inner harbor and spent one day here – a lucky day, as it turned out, though it didn’t seem so at first. When he arrived, he discovered that the Spanish, in ships under the command of captains Valdez and Galiano, had already claimed the area. Meeting at what is today Spanish Banks, the men shared area navigational information. Vancouver made a note of the deep natural port, which he named Burrard after one of his crew. Then he sailed away, not thinking twice about a place that would eventually be named after him.

As Spanish influence in the area waned in favor of the more persistent British, explorers such as Simon Fraser and Alexander Mackenzie began mapping the region’s interior, opening it up for overland travelers and the arrival of the legendary Hudson’s Bay Company.

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Gold, fur & timber

The region’s abundant natural resources spurred creeping development throughout the first half of the 19th century. In 1824 the Hudson’s Bay Company, under James McMillan’s leadership, launched a network of fur-trading posts. McMillan noted a particularly good location about 50km from the mouth of the Fraser River, building Fort Langley there in 1827. The region’s first permanent European settlement, the fur-trading fort shipped more than 2000 beaver pelts in 1832. Today the Hudson’s Bay Company has developed into the Bay, a cross-Canada chain of department stores. Its flagship downtown location is at the corner of Granville and Georgia Sts.

In 1858 an interesting tidbit of news began percolating around the region: gold had been discovered on the banks of the Fraser River. More than 25, 000 American prospectors rapidly swept in with picks, pans and get-rich-quick dreams. Concerned that the influx might inspire a US northern push, the mainland – following the lead of Vancouver Island, which had declared its colony status in 1849 – announced it was officially becoming part of the British Empire. James Douglas was sworn in as the governor of the expanded region – officially named British Columbia – although BC and the island remained separate protectorates at this time. The proclamation was made at Fort Langley on November 19, 1858.


The region’s Chinese, Japanese and First Nations people are given the provincial right to vote in elections; a poor swap for losing their ancestral lands or their lives while building the railroad network.


The West End is rezoned for greater population density. The high-rise boom begins as hundreds of wooden homes are bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks and the annual Pride Parade that’s due to kick off any decade now.


The SeaBus passenger ferry service launches between downtown Vancouver and the North Shore, sparking an immediate rush for the best seats at the front of the boat.

Douglas requested British support and the Royal Engineers, under the command of Colonel Richard Moody, arrived at the end of 1858. Alarmed by Fort Langley’s poor strategic location, Moody selected another site on the Fraser River – closer to its mouth – and built New Westminster, which was declared BC’s first capital. In 1859 Moody forged a trail (now called North Rd) from New Westminster to Burrard Inlet, providing the colony with an ice-free winter harbor. In 1860 he built another trail, more or less where Kingsway is today, linking New Westminster to False Creek. These trails were the foundation for moving the settlement to its present downtown location – although at this point it was a dense area of rainforest.

The sawmills soon changed all that. The first mills were set up along the Fraser River in 1860, and their logging operations cleared the land for farms across the region. It wasn’t long before the companies began chewing northward through the trees toward Burrard Inlet. In 1867 Edward Stamp’s British-financed Hastings Mill, on the south shore of the inlet, established the starting point of a town that would eventually become Vancouver.

In 1866 the protectorates of Vancouver Island and BC officially merged under the title of British Columbia. With the creation of a new country called Canada out east in 1867, the colony became concerned about its future, fearing US annexation. With the promise of access to a new national railway network, BC joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871. It would be another 16 years before the railway actually rolled into the region.

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The city’s boozy start

True, Hastings Mill was there first, but it was the demon drink that really launched Vancouver. In 1867 Englishman ‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton rowed into Burrard Inlet with his First Nations wife, a yellow dog and a barrel of whiskey. He knew the nearest drink for thirsty mill workers was 20km away in New Westminster. So he announced to the workers that if they helped him build a tavern, drinks were on him. Within 24 hours the Globe Saloon was in business, and when a village sprang up around the establishment it was dubbed ‘Gastown.’ In 1869 it became the town of Granville.

Another town thriving around a sawmill was Port Moody, at the eastern end of Burrard Inlet, which had been chosen as the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). However, a CPR official – who also happened to be an influential Granville landowner – ‘discovered’ that the eastern end of Burrard Inlet wasn’t a practical harbor for large ships. Granville was suddenly selected as the new railway terminus location, much to the disgust of Port Moody residents.

The CPR negotiated with the provincial government for 2400 hectares in the area, making it Granville’s largest property holder. The story goes that in 1884, while workers rowed the railway company’s general manager, William Van Horne, around what would later be Stanley Park, he commented that the new city needed a name to live up to its future as a great metropolis. Van Horne reasoned that since Granville was an unknown name, the city should be called ‘Vancouver’ after the man whom everyone knew was responsible for literally putting the area on the map. In April 1886 the town of Granville was incorporated as the City of Vancouver.

The first piece of business for the city’s new council was to lease a 400-hectare military reserve from the federal government and establish it as the city’s first park – and so Stanley Park was born. But the city faced a less enjoyable task at the tender age of two months: on June 13, 1886, CPR workers lit a fire to clear brush, and it rapidly spread out of control. The ‘Great Fire, ’ as it came to be known, took 45 minutes to destroy Vancouver’s 1000 wooden structures, kill as many as 28 people (the number remains disputed) and leave 3000 homeless.


Granville Island is developed from a grungy industrial wasteland, where tracking down artisan cheese was always a challenge, into one of the city’s most popular hangouts. A cement factory stays behind to keep the faith.


BC Place Stadium inflates its Teflon roof and opens for business. Non–sports fans instead head to the old courthouse building, now transformed into the new Vancouver Art Gallery.


The first SkyTrain line opens, linking the communities of New Westminster and Vancouver. New Westminsterites flood into town and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Within hours, reconstruction was underway. But this time the buildings were constructed from stone and brick. By 1887, when the first CPR passenger train pulled into the city, Vancouver was back in business. Within four years the city grew to a population of 13, 000, and between 1891 and 1901 the population skyrocketed to more than double that.

Growing Pains

The railway was responsible for shaping much of the city as it exists today. The CPR built Granville St from Burrard Inlet to False Creek, cleared and paved Pender and Hastings Sts, and developed the land around False Creek for railway yards and housing. The company also developed residential areas like the West End, Kitsilano and Shaughnessy Heights in South Vancouver. Shaughnessy Heights, once known as ‘CPR Heaven, ’ was the home of Vancouver’s new upper classes – just so long as they weren’t Jewish or Asian, since both groups were forbidden from owning in the area.

Anti-Asian feeling was not new to Vancouver. Between 1881 and 1885 more than 11, 000 Chinese arrived by ship to work on the construction of the railroad. In many respects they were treated as second-class citizens. They were paid $1 per day, half of what white workers were paid (but almost 20 times what they were paid at home). Government legislation denied all Asians the right to vote in federal elections, and did not allow Chinese women to immigrate unless they were married to a white man. In 1887 a white mob destroyed a Chinese camp in False Creek, and in 1907 an anti-Asian riot ripped through Chinatown and Japantown.

It was an issue the city would have to remedy, because by 1911 the census showed that Vancouver was a city of immigrants, with most people born outside of Canada. Indigenous rights were also taking a beating during this time. In 1901 the local government displaced a First Nations community from Vanier Park, sending some families to the Capilano Indian Reserve on the North Shore and others to Squamish.

During the first 30 years of the 20th century, all the suburbs around the city grew substantially. By 1928 the population outside the city was about 150, 000. When Point Grey and South Vancouver amalgamated with the city in 1929, bringing in a combined population of more than 80, 000, Vancouver became Canada’s third-largest city – the ranking it retains today.

While the 1930s Great Depression saw the construction of several public works – the Marine Building, Vancouver City Hall, the third and present Hotel Vancouver, and Lions Gate Bridge, to name a few – many people were unemployed, as was the case throughout Canada. This marked a time of large demonstrations, violent riots and public discontent.

WWII helped to pull Vancouver out of the Depression by creating instant jobs at shipyards, aircraft-parts factories and canneries, and in construction with the building of rental units for the increased workforce. Japanese Canadians, however, didn’t fare so well. In 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were shipped to internment camps in the province’s interior, and had to endure the confiscation of all their land and property, much of which was never returned. Chinese, Japanese and First Nations people were finally given the provincial vote in 1949.

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Expo-sing the city

By the start of the 1950s, Vancouver’s population was 345, 000 and the area was thriving. The high-rise craze hit in the middle of the decade, mostly in the West End. During the next 13 years 220 apartment buildings went up – and up – in this area alone.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Vancouver was known for its counterculture community, centered on Kitsilano. Canada’s gay-rights movement began here in 1964 when a group of feminists and academics started the Association for Social Knowledge, the country’s first gay and lesbian discussion group. In 1969 the Don’t Make a Wave Committee formed to stop US nuclear testing in Alaska; a few years later, the group morphed into the environmental organization Greenpeace.

But as the years passed, revolutionary fervor dissipated and economic development became the region’s main pastime. Nothing was more important to Vancouver in the 1980s than Expo ’86, the world’s fair that many regard as the city’s coming of age. The six-month event, which coincided with Vancouver’s 100th birthday, brought millions to the city and kick-started a rash of regeneration in several tired neighborhoods. New facilities built for Expo included the 60, 000-seat BC Place Stadium, currently being spruced up for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

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Multicultural milestones

The brewing issue of First Nations land rights spilled over in the late 1980s, with a growing number of rallies, road blockades and court actions in the region. Aside from a few treaties covering a tiny portion of the province, land-claim agreements had not been signed and no clear definition of the scope and nature of First Nations rights existed. Until 1990 the provincial government refused to participate in treaty negotiations. That changed in December, when the BC Claims Task Force was formed among the governments of Canada, BC and the First Nations Summit with a mission to figure out how the three parties could solve land-rights matters. It’s a slow-moving, ongoing process that in Vancouver’s case involves the Tsawwassen, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Squamish and Musqueam nations.


The international spotlight shines on Vancouver as the Expo ’86 world’s fair dominates the summer, bringing Sheena Easton and Depeche Mode to local stages –although sadly not on the same bill.


With the Hong Kong handover to China imminent, Vancouver sees a massive influx of Asian immigrants into the city. Richmond is transformed from a farming backwater into the region’s new Chinatown.


The city erupts into cheers – and a few rueful shrugs from those worried about the cost – as Vancouver is awarded the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. T-shirt sellers rub their hands in anticipation.

Prior to the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, tens of thousands of wealthy Hong Kong Chinese migrated to BC’s Lower Mainland area, boosting the area’s permanent Asian population by about 85% and creating the largest Asian population in any North American city. Real-estate prices rose, with Vancouver’s cost-of-living figures suddenly rivaling those of London, Paris and Tokyo. Many of the new arrivals shunned the city proper in favor of the suburbs, especially Richmond. By 1998 immigration had tapered off but the city’s transformation into a modern, multicultural mecca was already complete. By then, about 40% of Vancouver residents were foreign-born, and an ethnic smorgasbord of restaurants, stores and cultural activities had emerged, solidifying the worldly reputation the city earned by hosting Expo ’86.

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Downtown desolation

An ever-present forest of cranes – plus the attendant soundscape of construction noise – shows that development is continuing at an extraordinary pace in Vancouver. Downtown is where much of the action is, but as space becomes scarce, new Yaletown, Coal Harbour and South Main (SoMa) developments are enticing the moneyed young to once bleak or nondescript neighborhoods. One area – just steps from these aforementioned successes – is a tougher nut for the developers to crack. Although a giant flagship housing, college and shopping complex is being developed on its old Woodwards department-store site, the Downtown Eastside (centered on Main and Hastings Sts) remains the black heart of the city.

Once a thriving business district, the area began its graceless decline in the 1940s, when city and provincial policies started concentrating the destitute here. It’s since become a breeding ground for tragedy, exponentially increasing its population of poor, vulnerable and mentally disturbed residents. The area’s squalid rooming houses reside above sketchy pawnshops and dodgy pubs, where the cheapest beer is always the most popular. Drugs are offered openly on the streets and prostitution is a way of life: bone-rack women with heavy make-up loiter in short skirts on the coldest nights. HIV is rampant (the neighborhood has North America’s highest infection rate), while estimates of the junkie population here range from 5000 to 10, 000 at any given time.

While a safe injection site initiative was introduced here in 2003, its effectiveness is still being debated and the program is under threat from a conservative federal government. As the global spotlight turns on the city again in 2010, questions are increasingly being asked about how latter-day Vancouver will finally deal with its biggest social challenge.

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Going for gold

The turn of the millennium saw rapid development, as the transformation kick-started by Expo ’86 saw the ‘reforesting’ of Vancouver with hundreds of glass-tower office and apartment buildings. For the first time in its history, the coastal metropolis began to be regularly recognized as one of the planet’s ‘most livable’ cities. Seizing the initiative, the region again looked to the future. In 2003 GM Place stadium was packed to the rafters as the announcement that Vancouver had been awarded the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games was made via satellite link from Prague.

While area developers are rubbing their hands in glee, not everyone is happy with the way the city is progressing. Older locals say its history as a counterculture leader is being forgotten, while many just moan that the boom times are making it too expensive to live here. Either way, Vancouver is again at a crossroads: young enough to change its identity and forge a leadership role on the world stage, yet old enough to have a past – complete with a few skeletons in the closet.


Ask around and many locals will tell you that Vancouver doesn’t even have an arts scene. It’s the knee-jerk reaction from those who think that art only means blockbuster gallery shows, stadium-sized music concerts or visiting Broadway musicals that have absolutely nothing to do with the city. These are usually the kind of people who wouldn’t know an artist from a hole in the ground (otherwise known as an installation).

In fact, Vancouver is crammed with galleries, authors, musical groups, film auteurs, theater companies and dance troupes. But reflecting a kind of citywide parochialism, these creative types often operate in isolation – rarely is Vancouver’s true abundance of artists and activities counted together and regarded as a ‘scene.’

For visitors, this means that if you want to tap into Vancouver’s artistic side, you’ll have to go looking for it. In the same way that exploring the separate, distinctive neighborhoods here reveals the city’s true nature, so Vancouver’s artistic soul is uncovered only if you scratch beneath the surface. If you’re prepared to make the effort, you’ll be rewarded with an artsy output that’s authentically West Coast.

Luckily, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Visual art – particularly photography – is a local specialty that attracts international recognition. The city’s live-music scene is bursting with activity and ranges from hot local rock bands to an astonishing array of classical recital companies. Literature is another key area, with some world-renowned authors calling the city home (and often using it as a ‘character’ in their novels). Long regarded as ‘Hollywood North, ’ Vancouver is also a major movie production site as well as a center for independent filmmaking. In performance arts – especially dance and theater – Vancouver has a depth and diversity that rivals much bigger cities.

And if you time your trip well, you can dip into festivals that cover film, music, fringe performance and just about everything in between. Check out the queues snaking around venues at these fests and then make up your own mind about whether Vancouver has an arts scene.

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Cinema & TV

The film industry has a starring role in Vancouver’s ‘Hollywood North’ economy, and the city ranks third in North American film production (behind the obvious hot spots, Los Angeles and New York). True, not many stories are set in Vancouver, and not many mainstream filmmakers are based here, but the industry was home to more than 200 productions in 2005, pumping more than $1.2 billion into the local economy and greasing the palms of 30, 000 local workers. Although with the recent rise of the Canadian dollar, the local industry is holding its breath on the future of US-funded movie production.

Home of the influential Vancouver Film School, which serves up courses on movie-making skills from makeup to directing and counts director/actor/screenwriter Kevin Smith (of Clerks and Dogma fame) as its most famed alumnus, the city is also a burgeoning center for animation. One of North America’s largest fully computerized animation studios, Rainmaker, is based here, along with dozens of smaller operations and an equally impressive array of computer-game development companies.

You can mix with the local auteurs at screenings and industry events at the 17-day Vancouver International Film Festival, held annually (beginning late September). It’s even more grassroots at the many smaller movie showcases scheduled throughout the year.

But it’s as a TV and movie set location that Vancouver has earned most of its cinematic brownie points. While the locally shot X-Files TV series was notorious for retaining Vancouver visuals in its supposedly US locations – watch for the SkyTrain sliding blithely past in some shots – recent shows such as Smallville and Stargate SG-1 have made more of an effort to disguise their Vancouver backdrops. Canadian shows like Da Vinci’s Inquest have also called the city home, although it’s fair to say that US TV dominates almost all production here.

As for movies, with its mountain, ocean, forest and urban settings, Vancouver is a vast set for directors. It has stood in for everything from the North Pole in Will Ferrell’s Elf to Tibet in director Martin Scorsese’s Kundun and back-alley New York in Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx. The area’s mild climate allows for year-round filming, and with an army of skilled industry professionals and facilities, it’s easy to see how the city slides so easily onto the silver screen.

Recent Hollywood titles shot in the area that you may have heard of (for better or worse) include X-Men 2, Catwoman, Firewall, I Robot, Chronicles of Riddick, Scooby-Doo 2 and Fantastic Four. However, big-budget movies are more the exception than the rule. What are most commonly filmed here are Movies of the Week and B flicks that go straight to DVD. Keep your eyes peeled: wherever you wander in the city, it’s common to come across lines of white trailers marking the latest shoot.

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Vancouver is home to one of Canada’s most energetic independent theater scenes, with more than 30 professional performance groups. The Arts Club Theatre Company and the Playhouse Theatre Company hog the main spotlights. Both companies were formed in the 1960s, making them the city’s oldest, and both stage classics and new works by Canadian playwrights, often starring a recognizable name or two from the national theater scene.

The real excitement lies in emerging companies and their creation of new works. A shortage of mid-sized venues (those in the 100- to 250-seat range) means groups have to be creative. The Firehall Arts Centre is in an old fire station, while Performance Works occupies an old machine shop. Smaller companies without a permanent home often use these spaces.

Veteran leading lights of the theater scene here include actors such as Christopher Gaze and Bernard Cuffling. You can also catch the up-and-coming next generation of thesps at several local colleges; each produces several full (and highly professional) stage productions every year.

One of the city’s most popular annual events, the Vancouver International Fringe Festival attracts more than 100 smaller companies to the region each fall, many performing site-specific works everywhere from garages to dance clubs to a moving miniferry. This event is Canada’s third-largest fringe fest, after Edmonton and Winnipeg.

Outdoor theater is also a hit in Vancouver, which is no wonder given the environs. Bard on the Beach is Shakespeare performed in a waterfront park against a backdrop of mountains and ocean. The outdoor Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park has been around since 1940 and is currently home to the Theatre Under the Stars troupe.

Amateur community theater groups, which come under the umbrella organization Theatre BC (250-714-0203; www.theatrebc.org), stage productions at venues around the region. In addition, the Playwrights Theatre Centre (604-685-6228; www.playwrightstheatre.com) chooses from about 250 scripts submitted by aspiring playwrights, and eight productions are staged annually.

For more information on Vancouver’s theater scene.


Vancouver is second only to Montréal as a Canadian dance center. The city’s dance scene is as eclectic as its cultural makeup, and ranges from traditional Japanese and Chinese dance to classical ballet and edgy contemporary. There are more than 30 professional dance companies and many more independent choreographers in the Vancouver area. The Scotiabank Dance Centre is the main resource for dance in the province and its range of activities is unparalleled in Canada, including support for professional dance artists, operation of Western Canada’s flagship dance facility and presentation of programs and events for the public.

Until the 1960s Vancouver’s dance scene was represented by those who trained in the city before leaving for greater things. The creation of the Pacific Ballet Theatre by Maria Lewis in 1969 saw the first permanent ballet company take hold in Vancouver and, now renamed Ballet British Columbia, it has become one of the country’s top ballet companies.

One of the first modern dance companies to emerge was the Western Dance Theatre in 1970. It inspired a generation of Vancouver dancers to form companies, including Karen Jamieson. In contrast, Experimental Dance and Music, founded in 1982, is an internationally respected company taking a multimedia-meets-improvisational approach. It inspired key dance companies such as Mascall Dance and Lola Dance.

Many of Vancouver’s top dance companies converge at Vancouver’s annual dance festivals, which help foster the city’s reputation as a dance stronghold. The three-week Vancouver International Dance Festival is held during spring, and the 10-day Dancing on the Edge is in July.

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