Canada 150, British Columbia

Reaching the west coast at last, here are some excerpts from the chapter entitled “Looking For Utopia”:

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, British Columbia has been a magnet for groups seeking a new and better life, one that is isolated from the materialism and decadence of modern society. The most remote and least populated of the British colonies, it was, as British Columbia author Justine Brown has written, “a blank page” on which outsiders could inscribe their fantasies.”…It was Sir Thomas More who in 1516 developed the notion of Utopia…a state of being in which there is harmony among people, and between society and nature…nineteenth- and twentieth-century Utopians sought a similar kind of separation from the norms of mainstream society… More often than not, however, their dreams turned into nightmares, and their communal ventures crumbled in scandal and disillusionment…

The Utopian who intrigues me most…was Edward Arthur Wilson, who chose De Courcy Island, near the port city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, to establish his Colony of Truth in 1927.

In 1995, our daughter, Deb, and her husband, Tad started teaching high school in Nanaimo…later they bought a house at Nanoose Bay, north of the city…I was not aware of the area’s proximity to so much of British Columbia’s Utopian history, and especially to Wilson’s infamous colony of truth…Believing that the world would come to an end on January 1, 1934, he led the chosen few to his islands off Nanaimo in 1927, where they expected to survive the Apocalypse and usher in the age of Aquarius…He deified himself and then appointed a number of “High Priestesses,” with whom he engaged in ritualistic orgies on the beach. One of them…was  chosen to bear the holy child of Brother Twelve, who now saw himself as the god Osiris…Wilson was eventually purported to have murdered her… She was replaced by a lithe black-haired dominatrix from Florida called Madam Zee…When the expected calamity of 1934 failed to occur, Wilson’s colony collapsed, like so many other ill-fated communities, and he and Madam Zee fled on a yacht with much of the colony’s wealth…Nothing was ever heard of either of them again…

A stone’s throw from Deb and Tad’s house is the entrance to the vast Fairwinds development, a 1,350-acre astute investment in the long-term promise of the leisure industry…As I climb the highest peak…in the development I reflect on how far British Columbia has come from the time of Brother Twelve’s Colony of Truth and the other, less sinister Utopias, and yet how actively the search for the ideal community goes on…Fairwinds is…isolated from the violence, poverty, and crime of so much of North America. But there is at the same time an unreality about it, as there was with the experimental communities of old. I wonder if it will last. Will the developers eventually hack down the remaining forest in order to build more homes and more golf courses and other amenities to fill the leisure hours of the community’s wealthy residents? In the course of time will the current balance between society and nature that was central to More’s concept of Utopia, and to Fairwinds as well, be destroyed, and will the development as a result lose its appeal? In the end will Fairwinds, too, crumble… in this case as a victim of its own success? Will the original developers have vanished to other ventures by then, as Brother Twelve did, their pockets well lined with the hard-earned savings of those they have left behind?

I descend from my perch to share these thoughts with Dot, Deb, and Tad over dinner…and to discuss the plans for our impending trip to Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands). Our aim is to check out another contemporary version of Utopia.

The first leg of the journey from Nanaimo to Haida Gwaii is a seven-hour drive through thick forest to Port Hardy,…the second stretch…is a fifteen-hour ferry ride to Prince Rupert on board the ill-fated Queen of the North…The route passes close to some of the historic Utopian communities, and deepens our understanding of the extent of their isolation and the dedicated commitment required of their residents…

The next day we have an eight-hour ferry ride, largely through the open Pacific, to Skidegate Landing…It has taken us three days to reach Haida Gwaii, but our voyage is not yet over. From Queen Charlotte City on Graham Island…the only paved road on the islands winds eastward and then north 103 kilometres to Masset…so, armed with the tourist office’s “check list” of things to see and do, we proceed along this route in search of the soul of this particular British Columbian Utopia.

Although we discover that Graham Island has no structured Utopian communities, we find plenty of people apparently living simple lives, in harmony with nature and largely unencumbered by material needs..communities (that) are not driven by ideology or commanded by charismatic leaders with one or two loose screws, yet their residents clearly share some of the traditional Utopian values…

Still, not everything is quite as it should be in this northern Shangri-la. North of Tlell, we take “a wonderful hike” to the wreck of the 200-foot-long Pesuta. The shore runs to the horizon in both directions without a soul in sight. You are, as the guidebook says, “alone on the beach, with only the sounds of nature as company.” We are marvelling at this enormous emptiness…when we suddenly spot a black smudge crawling towards the water’s edge. At first it appears to be a bear that has lumbered out of the woods, but then we realize that it is moving towards us at an improbably fast pace, even if it has mistaken us for a school of beached salmon. It turns out to be an elderly couple on an ATV searching for agates to polish and sell. ATVs in Utopia?…

On our drive back to Masset from North Beach, Tad and I spot a sign on the right side of the road…”Dixon Entrance Golf and Country Club…only four or five people appear to be out playing, so Tad and I decide to look into the possibilities of having a round. The clubhouse is an old trailer, and when we go inside we discover that the course is run by volunteers and operates on the honour system. If no one is around, you just sign in–no reservations necessary–and drop your money in a box.

Some clubs are lying around that a Haida member tells us we are free to borrow. With a bit of loose change we buy some used golf balls from the pop machine, drop our ten bucks in the box, and head out to the first tee…there are no groups of four in front slowing us down, no one sitting impatiently in a golf cart behind us…making us anxious and prone to slice or top the ball. We can take as many Mulligans as we like, search for wayward balls in the tall grass for as long as we like, pause to admire the view across the rolling Pacific, follow the flight path of a tern, or search the horizon for a breaching wale…The Dixon Entrance Golf and Country Club. Utopia at last!

The recipe accompanying this chapter is for grilled salmon. It’s heaven!

Roaming the Big Land: Flavors of Canada is available in full by going to: or by contacting the author for a personally autographed copy:

About t. a. keenleyside

author of travel/food books and popular fiction
This entry was posted in British Columbia, Canada 150, Canadian travel, contemporary culture, family literature, food literature, golf, Haida Gwaii, travel books, Utopian communities and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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