Malaspina Galleries c. 1920

People and Community

History of Gabriola

Gabriola through the Times

First Peoples

(8000 BCE or earlier)

First Peoples Petroglyph found on Gabriola

  • Gabriola is part of the unceded, ancestral territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, encompassing the mid-Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Fraser Valley.
  • The Snuneymuxw are a Coast Salish people ethnically connected to Indigenous people living in the Pacific Northwest Coast from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon to Bute Inlet in British Columbia.
  • At one time, thousands of people lived on Gabriola in coastal summer villages, the largest near False Narrows on the southwest shore (see Burley, David, 1989, Senewelets, Museum copy or Vancouver Island Regional Library).
  • Across the island we can find more than 100 archaeological sites including shell middens, petroglyphs and burial sites, believed to be thousands of years old.
  • more info

Early Explorers

(1791 to 1792)

Part of a chart of the Strait of Georgia by Galiano showing the Northumberland Channel (Boca Wenthuisen), Pilot Bay (Cala del Descanso), and Porlier Pass (Bocas de Porlier).

  • In the late 1700s, the Spanish explored and charted the Strait of Georgia.
  • In 1791 Spanish explorer José María Narváez landed his ship, the Santa Saturnina, on Gabriola.
  • In 1792 Spanish explorers Galiano and Valdés moored for several days at Pilot Bay, which they called “Cala del Descanso” (small bay of rest). In the same year, Britain’s George Vancouver may have also visited the island briefly. These explorers left no permanent settlements.

More: Where did the name Gabriola come from?

  • Gaviola is the family name of aristocrats from the Mendaro Valley in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa in northern Spain. It was practice in the Spanish Navy to select the names of eminent officers as place names.
  • It was a British cartographer’s copying error that changed the name from gaviota to gabriola, and the name stuck.
  • Gabriola historian, Nick Doe, determined there’s no support for the notion that gaviola is a corruption of the Spanish word for seagull–gaviota.

Early Settlers

(1850s to 1860s)

Grand March of the Gabriola Pioneers

Elizabeth and Alexander Hoggan, c. 1880

Rollo Family, c. 1904

  • In the 1800s, the Hudson’s Bay Company founded posts in the West.
  • In 1852 a post was established in Nanaimo, after the discovery of coal that brought Europeans, often at 16 to 18 years old, from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales to work in the coal mines.
  • In the mid-1850s and 1860s, coal miners and ex-gold miners left the mines and moved to Gabriola. They started farms to supply the growing population of Nanaimo.
  • They raised sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens and turkey, and grew potatoes, turnips, beets, and apples, pears and peaches. Original orchards can still be seen on the island.

MORE: In those days, cattle ran free in the bush, and like deer, could come crashing toward you while you’re taking a walk. (Not so funny if it was a bull.)

MORE: Prior to settlement, wolves, elk, pheasants and quail lived on Gabriola. Farmers killed the wolves to protect agriculture and hunted the other species for food.

  • It is not certain who the very first settler was or even who all the settlers were. (The Museum lists Degnan as its first registered pre-emptor of Lot 1, Gabriola Island and Gray immediately after.)
  • Some lived here for a short time and moved on or died without descendants willing to live and work here. Some left when BC became a province in 1871. There were few public records and no local newspaper (the Nanaimo Free Press started in 1874). Many settlers didn’t know of the others even when they farmed nearby!
  • By 1874, we know 17 hard-working settlers were working the land and transporting meat and produce to Nanaimo using their own boats. Two-thirds of the settlers married Indigenous women and most had large families (by today’s norms) of nine or more children.

MORE: Degnan, an innovative settler, built his first wagon for ploughing, with oxen, from the salvaged iron bands of the masts of wrecked ships, forged into wheel rims.

MORE Portuguese settler John Silva, for whom Silva Bay was named, married “Louise,” the daughter of a Cowichan chief in 1873.

  • Three of their sons volunteered to fight in World War I; one was killed, another wounded.[ “Portuguese Pioneers of BC“. Retrieved 2 July 2020]
  • The name of Frank Silva, missing in action on Vimy Ridge in 1917, is inscribed on the Vimy Memorial in France. [Doe, Nick. Family histories of early settlers on Gabriola Island”(PDF). Retrieved 2 July 2020]

June Lewis-Harrison in her 1982 book The People of Gabriola, wrote about these settlers of the 1800s:

  • Barratt
  • Chappel
  • Degnan
  • Easthom
  • Edgar
  • Elgie
  • Foster
  • Gray
  • Griffith
  • Hoggan
  • Law
  • Lewis
  • Manley
  • Martin
  • McClay
  • McConvey
  • McGuffie
  • Peterson
  • Rollo
  • Shaw (Alexander)
  • Shaw (William)
  • Silva
  • Taylor (David)
  • Taylor (William)

The Next Wave and Early Industry

(1890s to late 1950s)

Brickyard Factory Site

Gabriola millstones being loaded for export

  • The early settlers and their many descendants continued to farm on Gabriola and supply produce to Nanaimo, a growing coal-mining town. However, as farms developed in Nanaimo, Gabriola farmers found it hard to compete because of transportation costs.
  • Still, more people were attracted to the island to live and work, especially in the late 1920s, when it was difficult to find work in Vancouver and Nanaimo. The families farmed, fished, logged and built ships in Silva Bay.

MORE: As the loggers were cutting trees for the first time, the timber was massive—2 metres across—making logging very difficult and dangerous.

  • On Gabriola settlers also started industry early, which was unique among the Gulf Islands.
  • A new Gabriola Brickyard was built in the 1890s on 20 acres at the bottom of the current Brickyard Hill. Up to 80,000 bricks a day were pressed from the plentiful shale on the Island.
  • The operation continued until 1952, when the start-up of other nearby operations (East Wellington, Burrard Inlet, Pender Island and Hillbank) made the Brickyard unprofitable.

MORE: The Brickyard site was dismantled in 1960s; in 1974, the strip between the beach and the south road was designated Crown land.

  • A sandstone quarry, the Gabriola Millstone Quarry, operated from 1887 to 1936. It supplied dimension stone for major buildings in Victoria and Vancouver. Later in the 20th century, the quarry was used to produce millstones for pulp mills locally and in Finland.

MORE Gabriola’s Millstone Quarry. Gehlbach J., Gabriola’s millstone quarry, SHALE 19, pp.25–41, Nov. 2008.

  • The former quarry is now under protective covenant. .
  • After the government ferry started in 1931, some Gabriolans worked and ran businesses in tourism.
  • Several small stores on the island—in the Silva Bay area and at the Coats’ house near the ferry dock—provided basic supplies.
  • In 1950, Gabriola had fewer than 400 full-time residents.

Japanese Canadians

(1900s to late 1942)

Japanese Sawmill in Silva Bay 1923

  • In the late 1800s, Japanese began immigrating to BC, mostly to Vancouver. Many worked in the fishing industry.
  • In 1911, eight Japanese lived on Gabriola as loggers and fishers. Subsequent census records show none continued to live on the island.
  • In 1918, Yoshimatsu Schinde moved his family to Silva Bay from Stevenston, BC, and built the Sunrise Sawmill on land leased from early settler John Silva. The sawmill was a major employer until 1925 when fire destroyed it, and Shinde moved back to Steveston.

MORE: In these times of discrimination and anti-Asian sentiment, Japanese establishments often “caught” on fire.

  • In 1934, Kanshiro Koyama ran a general store and a floating fish-buying camp (complete with living quarters) with his brother and the Haminakas on Silva Bay’s southwest shore.
  • In 1942, the Canadian government forcibly removed all BC people of Japanese origin to internment camps in interior BC because of the Second World War. The Page brothers bought the property in 1943 and new owners still operate a marina in the same location. Little remains of the original structures.

MORE: Reeve P., Japanese-Canadians in Silva Bay, 1918-42, pp.3–8, SHALE 25, March 2011

Chinese Canadians

(1940s to 1950s)

Shovelling Shale at the Brickyard

  • Chinese Canadians lived on Gabriola when the Brickyard was operating. They did much of the hard physical labour. They were likely recruited from the approximately 1500, mostly male, Chinese who lived in Nanaimo’s Chinatown.
  • The Chinese Canadians lived near the site and had their own cook and manager who interpreted for them. Unfortunately, little is known about individual Chinese workers as staff referred to them only by number not by name. When the Brickyard was not busy, the Chinese Canadians worked in the logging business.
  • After the Brickyard closed, the workers did not settle on Gabriola and likely returned to Nanaimo, Victoria or Vancouver.

Land Development and Hippies

(1960s to late 1970s)

Surf Lodge 1958

  • The 1960s and 1970s were a period of rapid, intense and concerning change for the Gulf Islands — including the 3200 people who lived on Gabriola.
  • The changing social values brought hippies and back-to-the-landers to enjoy the simpler rural life and slower pace. Also, the improved BC Ferries service made the island more accessible to summering families from Vancouver and Victoria.
  • Although small-lot subdivision for cottages started in 1920s, development surged with the demand and opportunity. As the island had no municipal status and few land use regulations, land developers eagerly sought cheap island farmland to convert to suburban housing developments and malls.
  • Accompanied by flamboyant promotion, in the early 1960s one developer bought Gabriola farmland for an initial seven subdivisions and then, in 1972, land for a further 550 lots. Another developer, Nanaimo’s former mayor, bought 120 acres to build Whalebone Beach Estates.
  • From 1960 to 1969, more than 3000 lots were approved for subdivision across the Gulf Islands.
  • The hippies together with long-term islanders were very concerned about this uncontrolled growth. They urged the government to limit and manage development.
  • In 1969 the BC Government imposed a 10-acre minimum parcel size on any island in the Strait of Georgia.

BC Premier Dave Barrett in 1974 announcing creation of Islands Trust to protect rural nature and environment of Gulf Islands.    Credit: Island Trust.

Governance and Infrastructure

(Mid-1970s to now)

  • In 1974 the government enacted the Islands Trust Act with the mandate to “preserve and protect the gulf islands’ unique amenities and environment” in the Trust area.
  • The signing of the 1974 Islands Trust Act clarified and strengthened governance of island land use and community priorities.
  • Legislative amendments over time furthered this. For example, the Islands Trust Council increased local representation in 1977, improved local autonomy in 1989, introduced open meetings in 1998 and approved the first Official Community Plan in 1998.
  • Against the background of this structure, the provincial and regional governments and the local government govern Gabriola.
  • Also, grassroot community volunteers step up—as they always have on Gabriola—to improve the community. Each of these organizations has its own unique history.
  • In 2022 just over 4000 people of people of diverse ages, incomes, educational background and national origin live on Gabriola.
  • Many creative people have made their home here, and the arts and artists are an important part of life on Gabriola.
  • Farming and market gardening continues to be a significant part of the island’s economy. These small-scale market gardens provide produce locally for freshness, reduction in environmental impacts and support of local economies.
  • The community also supports other local cottage industries, brick and mortar retail shops, personal services, construction and tourism to build a sustainable society.

Example Island Organizations


(2015 to now)

Mary Bentley, author (left) and Geraldine Manson, Snuneymuxw elder, (right) cutting the ribbon at the Park’s Opening Ceremony, 1996.

  • In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued its summary report. 
    more info
  • The same year, the Islands Trust Council adopted a declaration of commitment to the principles of reconciliation, and in 2019, passed a four-year reconciliation action plan.
  • As well, the Snuneymuxw and the Islands Trust Council have a signed Protocol Agreement for a government-to-government relationship of mutual respect and cooperation re planning, land use management and heritage conservation in the land trust area.
  • The Museum and Gabriola’s community groups agree with to the Calls to Action #67 to 70 in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.
  • Museum volunteers, board and staff work closely with Snuneymuxw Elders and Knowledgekeepers to nurture positive community and individual relationships.
  • The Museum presents materials and events on Snuneymuxw culture and history. It also recognizes and honours reconciliation events on Gabriola such as Indigenous People’s Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
  • When published, the Museum will also follow the Canadian Museum Association’s guidance on the inclusion and representation of Indigenous communities within museums and cultural centres.