The Comox Valley: Courtnay, Comox, Cumberland, and Area
November 4, 2013
Review By Jamie Morton
In the publisher’s promotional sheet, this attractive book is described as “an intimate portrait of an incredibly beautiful and special place.” This sense of affection for the region comes across strongly in the course of reading The Comox Valley and viewing the photographs that illustrate it. The majority of these are contemporary views by Boomer Jerritt, with some historical images inserted to support themes raised in the text. The choice of photographs used to represent the beauty and unique identity of the region is interesting. Following the traditions of North American landscape art, a few of them present the “sublime” natural features of the region – for instance, the Comox Glacier and various beaches – emphasizing the transcendent power of nature and the environment. However, most of them seem to have been chosen to portray the “picturesque” nature of the region. In other words, they focus on how people, and the cultural manifestations of human occupation, make the region “home.” The intent appears to be to celebrate how people have transformed the region into a pleasant place to live rather than the splendour of the environment.
The Comox Valley is organized into seven chapters, with the first, “Origins,” dealing with the physical environment and first Nations heritage. The stereotypical linking of indigenous populations with “wilderness,” the past, or “prehistory,” is mediated by the authors’ introduction of some contemporary issues and initiatives of the K’omoks Nation. In this chapter, as in the rest of the book, a summary narrative provides context, which is augmented with anecdotes and information that illustrate what is distinctive or special about the region – curious animals, from elasmosaurs to marmots and lampreys – and exceptional cultural features, such as the huge system of precontact fish traps in Comox Bay.
The next four chapters follow a similar pattern, dealing with the geographic subregions of the Comox Valley. Summary narratives, often dealing with historical development, “pioneers,” and ghost towns, provide contexts in which to emphasize anecdotes, special events, buildings, or districts, and particularly local characters who have contributed to the distinct character of the Comox Valley. For instance, Chapter 2, dealing with Courtenay, focuses on (among other things) the “crusty pioneer” Eric Duncan, the Native Sons Hall (“the largest free-standing log building in the world”), and thespian/city councillor Sid Williams. Other “regional” chapters likewise summarize the development of the districts, towns, and settlements, with a strong emphasis on inhabitants – from the elites that shaped industry and settlement to the characters who symbolize local identity. These chapters also link macro-level socioeconomic changes in British Columbia and on Vancouver Island to the rise and fall of communities in the Comox Valley.
This leads neatly into the last two chapters, “Working the Land” and “Paradise in the 21st Century,” which summarize the region’s shift from an economy based on agriculture and industry to a postindustrial economy focused on service industries, recreation, and tourism. “Working the Land” describes the agricultural and forest industries of the Comox Valley, and it ends by noting that the major employers in the region today are all in the service sector: the Canadian Forces Base, the local school district, the local hospital, and Mount Washington Alpine Resort. The final chapter focuses on ongoing struggles between recreational and environmental interests in the Comox Valley, using anecdotal examples including Mount Washington Alpine Resort, the Vancouver Island marmot, and the long-time environmental activist Ruth Masters.
The Comox Valley closes with a three-page guide to “Discovering the Comox Valley” and a two-page bibliography. The former summarizes what a visitor might see, while the latter provides an overview of the literature about the valley (much of which was used in the book’s preparation). As a photo essay that summarizes the natural and human history of the Comox Valley, this book provides an appealing and effective introduction to the region. It is an affectionate “insider’s” view, emphasizing those aspects seen as making the valley a special place to live, hence the reliance on anecdote, distinctive natural and cultural features, and remarkable inhabitants past and present.
The first and last chapters may be the weakest because they fail to examine the way the region has been conceptualized and reconceptualized by indigenous populations, by Euro-North American resettlers attracted by agriculture or industry, and, finally, by postindustrial populations. The recreation versus environment issue is one manifestation of the larger issue in the Comox Valley – rapid growth and resultant pressures. This issue is driven by “lifestyle” or “equity refugees,” mostly from other parts of Canada, looking for the archetypical West Coast experience in a less urban and less expensive setting than Greater Vancouver or Victoria. Inexpensive direct flights from Alberta have linked the Comox Valley conceptually to Prairie cities. In many respects the valley provides a laboratory for the overall “Whistlerization” of British Columbia, with an economy driven largely by real estate and banking and a population living in attractive planned communities and generously provided with recreational opportunities such as skiing, golf, watersports, restaurants, and shopping. Not only is the Comox Valley a “beautiful and special place” but it may also provide us with a glimpse of the future of postindustrial British Columbia.