From Indigenous Trail to Wagon Road: Kingsway before the kings
The road we now know as Kingsway has a long history of connecting Lower Mainland communities. It was a centuries-old Indigenous walking trail before it was paved over and eventually named for the British monarchy.
Kingsway, one of the longest and busiest routes through the Lower Mainland cutting from East Vancouver through to New Westminster, is also one of Burnaby’s largest roads and commercial hubs.
But the route itself was well-trodden for centuries by local First Nations, before the road was officially paved and opened in its current form in 1913.
“Kingsway is a centuries-old walking path that had been established by several Salish peoples that interacted—including the Skwxwú7mesh, that Tsleil-Waututh, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, the Qayqayt, the Kwantlen, the Katzie, the many nations using the Sto:lo, also known as the Fraser River,” said artist and ethnobotanist T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss.
“[It had] eventually become a main mode of transportation between several—what are now cities, but previously were different gathering grounds, different hunting grounds, different summer camp areas that Indigenous people from these different nations used for harvesting and for living basically.”
Wyss, who has Skwxwú7mesh and Sto:lo ancestry, told the Beacon that before the road was paved over, there were remnants of temporary villages along the route. When Europeans arrived, they too recognized the route facilitated quick transit between Vancouver’s Gastown and the then-capital, New Westminster.
They made it into a wagon road in 1860, calling it Westminster Road, before widening it in 1872 and changing its name to Vancouver Road. Burnaby was incorporated in 1892, but it wasn’t until September 30, 1913—exactly 108 years ago tomorrow—that the route was paved over and officially named Kingsway.
And it’s not the only major road in Burnaby that has a similar history.
“All of the major roadways that you think of that frame out Burnaby today are well-travelled, established transportation networks. Marine Drive, down in South Burnaby; or along the Hastings corridor; or Douglas Road; North Road that sort of bisects Burnaby from the other local communities nearby—these were all very well-known transportation networks for First Nations prior to contact,” said City of Burnaby Indigenous relations manager Fancy C. Poitras.
“And it just so happened that Sir [Robert] Burnaby’s engineering crew that he was out with just happened to follow the First Nations guides they were with, and that’s how we ended up with these major roadways being claimed by colonial governments.”
Where we stand
Kingsway, Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, British Columbia—those are all, of course, overtly colonial names for places that long preceded European contact.
Wyss said those names have been imposed upon the land where her ancestors lived, and have masked its true identity.
“A lot of these places, and [the] names that are attached, come from family stories that come from events that mean a lot to us—whether they’re glorious, happy events, or tragic events. And all of those have been erased,” she said.
She called place names a “touchy topic” for Indigenous people, saying that on one hand, Indigenous communities have been asked their opinions on the topic and welcomed to give input on whether we should revert to calling places by their original names—and on the other hand, they’ve been mocked, harmed, and discriminated against when they do give their opinions.
The stripping of traditional names has in turn stripped a connection to the sites themselves, and Wyss sees it as deeply connected with the racism of colonization itself.
“My work is actually all about decolonizing earth. … Earth is rich with nutrients and mycelium and mycorrhizae that feeds the earth and helps the plants communicate. And dirt has nothing, it’s been stripped of everything. We’re seen as dirt, or worse than dirt, to settlers. And that is still a real thing. We still have to hold our head above all of that criticism. And when we say our traditional names, people are offended, and they get defensive, and they say really arrogant, harmful things to us,” she said.
She said while Vancouver and its surrounding regions are actually very young cities, Indigenous people have lived here for centuries upon centuries and continue to do so—leaving “our stories deeply embedded into the land, and in sediments and rivers and the flows of waterways, that have been buried since colonization.”
Wyss said she lives just a few blocks away from the traditional village sites where her ancestors would have lived, where Vancouver stands now. She thinks about the building where she lives—the materials and the foundation came from the land itself.
“Those rocks and earth are my ancestors’ bones. So I’m really encased in the DNA of my people. It’s a really big, resounding thing to think about, that we have a responsibility to care for our loved ones who have passed on in order to make way for a fruitful life for our loved ones to come in the future generations.”
The written European histories of Kingsway and Burnaby mention next to nothing of their ancient, Indigenous origins.
In the 1977 book Bygones of Burnaby, you can find plenty of anecdotes of when the Kingsway area was full of farmland, creeks, and even bears in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1994 book Burnaby Centennial Anthology: stories of early Burnaby, which contains personal retellings of life in Burnaby from more than 200 people, similarly shares stories of folks building new homes and lives along the historical arterial route.
The books don’t show what happened to the Indigenous people who originally lived here. In reality, as a resource guide Indigenous history in Burnaby created by the city shows, “Over a relatively short period of time, hənq̓ əmin ̓ əm̓ ̓ and Sḵwxwú7mesh ̱ access to their traditional territories was restricted.”
“During this same period, the Canadian government adopted countless measures to control the daily lives of Indigenous Peoples through the Indian Act. … All of these changes contributed to dislocating local First Nations from their ancestral lands in Burnaby, and required them to travel elsewhere to access key resources. It made the sharing of traditional knowledge more difficult, especially when young people were being removed from their families to attend residential schools at this time.”
Nowadays, driving through the busy hub, the only inkling you would get that Kingsway was a historical walking path for centuries are several unobtrusive art pieces in the shape of regular highway route signs posted at intervals along the Vancouver portion of the road.
“INDIGENOUS TRAIL / WAGON ROAD,” read the signs.
Artist Sonny Assu, who created the piece for Vancouver’s 125th anniversary in 2012, said the intent of the art was to recognize the many thousands of years of Indigenous history on the land.
“In a project to acknowledge Vancouver’s 125 years, I recognized the inequality in that conception of history. Hidden in plain sight, it seems we forgot to acknowledge the first 9,000 years,” he said on the city’s website.
Kingsway now has the reputation of being one of the most racially diverse pockets of the Lower Mainland.
Part of the road, between Fraser and Knight streets in Vancouver, was designated “Little Saigon” in 2011 to pay homage to the many Vietnamese restaurants that call it home. In Burnaby, you’re hard-pressed to walk a block without passing 2 or 3 bubble tea shops—and, of course, it’s the location of Crystal Mall, that iconic hub of the Chinese-Canadian diaspora.
Wyss said that reputation is simply a continuation of Kingsway’s culture of connecting people—staying true to its historical roots.
“What began as a trail that connected many villages and many people continues to actually do the same thing. It’s connecting many people, but for many more cultures, and it’s bringing people the places they need to go,” she said.
“And it’s still a really important pathway. It might be considered a highway in some regards now, but its roots go back to this ancient system of connecting people.”