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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A Year in Five Minutes: Vancouver 1981

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Kwantlen University College’s Richmond campus. Photo by Arnold C, wikipedia.

As the city’s population dipped in 1981, most of the suburbs were seeing a huge increase in their number of inhabitants. This year also saw the death of a Canadian hero.

Compiled by John Calimente (with permission from Chuck Davis)
Photos compiled by Leszek Apouchtine

Kwantlen College takes over Douglas College campuses south of the Fraser

On April 1, the Fraser Valley college district served by Douglas College was divided into two smaller regions, one on the north shore of the Fraser River another on the south shore. Douglas College retained its campuses in New Westminster, Coquitlam, and Maple Ridge, while the newly-named Kwantlen College took charge of the campuses in Langley, Surrey, and Richmond.

A contest had been held to find a name for the new South Fraser region college. From over 200 names suggested—including Tillicum, Dogwood, Surdel-Langrich, and Salish—Kwantlen was the clear winner. The winning entry was submitted by Stan McKinnon, news editor of the Surrey Leader. The name Kwantlen means “tireless runners” and refers to the native people who lived in the South Fraser region. Today, it’s known as Kwantlen University College, a degree-granting undergraduate university college with four campuses.

Terry Fox dies

Terry Fox died at dawn on June 28 in Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, one month before his 23rd birthday. His family was at his side. Canada mourned a genuine, and a beloved, hero. Flags on all federal buildings were flown at half-mast all across Canada. Terry’s campaign had raised $23 million for the fight against cancer. His dedication, courage and selflessness are perpetuated through the annual Terry Fox Run and the Terry Fox Foundation. His parents, Betty and Rolly Fox, work today to keep the Marathon of Hope alive. On September 13 the first Terry Fox Run was held, with over 300,000 participants in more than 880 Canadian communities raising a total of $3.5 million. Still an annual event almost 30 years on, the Run has raised millions of dollars for cancer research in  countries around the world.


The Cave, photographed in 1948. Photo by Jack Lindsay. Item # CVA 1184-3470. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Archives.The Cave, photographed in 1948. Photo by Jack Lindsay. Item # CVA 1184-3470. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Archives.

The Cave is demolished

A fixture on the Vancouver club scene for decades and famous for its papier-mache stalactites, The Cave closed its doors on July 20 with a farewell performance by the Bobby Hales Orchestra. The club was demolished the next day. Actually, the demolition started early: “Before the day dawned,” Joy Metcalfe wrote, “every mirror, stalactite, showcase, sink and toilet that had not been auctioned off earlier had been demolished by the mob.” The Cave was a setting for acts ranging from Mitzi Gaynor, Milton Berle, Mel Torme, Lena Horne, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman and Louis Armstrong to Eric Burdon and the Animals and The Doors.

Mike Harcourt elected Vancouver mayor in upset win

Elected as mayor of Vancouver on November 17 was a 38-year-old Edmonton-born (January 6, 1943) lawyer named Mike Harcourt, who defeated the incumbent, Jack Volrich of the Non-Partisan Association with 50,203 votes to 47,107. “Vancouver,” wrote the Province’s Jan O’Brien, “will never be the same after the weekend’s upset civic election. A ward system in 1982, more housing and an immediate push for light-rail transit are on the agenda of the new city council . . .” Harcourt later became the leader of the New Democratic Party in B.C. and then premier in a landslide victory over Social Credit.

Downtown Convention Centre runs over budget

Pier B-C, on the city’s central waterfront, was being prepared as a downtown convention centre. The facility, to be funded by three levels of government, was initially projected to cost $25 million. By 1980, with construction not yet begun, it had soared to $52 million, then, within months, $80 million. By November 1981, it was $135 million and politicians were panicking. On Dec. 8, 1981, Premier Bill Bennett postponed construction indefinitely.

Also in 1981


By 1981 two-thirds of Greater Vancouver’s population lived outside the central city. The 1981 census was sobering for Vancouver: it showed a drop in absolute numbers, with 12,000 fewer people in the city since the 1971 census. That was only a three per cent drop, but it was a drop. In contrast, most of the suburbs were leaping ahead: Langley Township had more than doubled in population in a decade, Surrey had grown by more than 50 percent, Richmond by more than 55. Delta was now five times bigger than it had been 20 years earlier. Only New Westminster joined Vancouver in bucking the trend: its population dropped 10 per cent during the 1970s.

A deep and protracted recession began in BC. The recession made it clear, wrote economist Michael Goldberg, that British Columbia “had to diversify its resource-based economy.”

A decline in house values began and would continue into 1982, until home owners started to get help from the Local house valuation experts based in Melbourne. Chartered accountant Don Young comments: “House values in Vancouver declined by 30 per cent or more and many people were hurt, some bankrupted, because they were caught with two homes (bought one and couldn’t sell the one they owned) when interest rates were at an all time high—first mortgages at 20 per cent and more—and the demand for new and used homes plunged from the unrealistically high levels achieved by the end of 1980.”

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members went on strike in the spring, leaving garbage piled up at tennis courts and other makeshift sites throughout Greater Vancouver.

On June 2, 300 inmates seized control of Abbotsford’s Matsqui Institution and set fire to seven prison buildings causing millions in damages. Actions taken by Corporal Patrick Aloysius Kevin McBride during the riot to rescue eight staff members from a burning roof led to his receiving a second medal of honor for heroism in the same year from the Governor General.

A 1981 peace march against nuclear arms in Vancouver was a success, drawing nearly 10,000 participants. The march would attract 35,000 the next year, and more than 100,000 in 1983. The annual event grew to become the largest of its kind in North America.

Clifford Olson, 41, a self-employed contractor from Coquitlam, was arrested  on August 14 and soon charged with the murder of 14-year-old Judy Kozma. On August 31st he was charged with nine counts of murder in a Burnaby court. The charges include the murder of Judy Kozma and eight other children.

Poland’s Communist government began its crackdown on the Solidarity trade union and more seamen jumped ship in Vancouver in December. About 1,000 demonstrators, chanting “Solidarity Forever” marched from Robson Square to Pier B.C.


Nanaimo-born (1902) band leader Charlie Pawlett died on August 21, aged about 79. Constance Brissenden has written that he began playing trumpet and violin in Vancouver clubs in the 1920s, and from 1936 to 1939 was band leader at the Commodore Ballroom. His shows were broadcast on CJOR radio. He played in the RCAF band during the Second World War. Pawlett played at the Strand Theatre, Howden’s Ballroom, Arcadian Ballroom and Narrows Supper Club.

Chief Dan George's star on Granville Street, Vancouver. Photo by Joe Mabel, wikipedia.Chief Dan George’s star on Granville Street, Vancouver. Photo by Joe Mabel, wikipedia.

Chief Dan George died in Vancouver on September 23, aged 82. He was born July 24, 1899 in North Vancouver. At age five, he entered a mission boarding school where his surname was changed to George. He worked as a longshoreman and logger. He was the chief of the Squamish Band from 1951 to 1963, and honorary chief of the Squamish Nation. In 1959 he began his acting career, appearing to great acclaim in the first production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga (1967). His films included an Oscar-nominated performance in Little Big Man (1970) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1975).


The Knowledge Network, a B.C. government-funded educational channel, made its first broadcast in January.

The Hongkong Bank of Canada, a wholly-owned subsidiary of HSBC Holdings, based in London, England, received its federal charter on July 1. On November 27, 1986 it would buy substantially all the assets and liabilities of the Bank of B.C.

The national edition of the Globe and Mail is extended to Vancouver in October, via its satellite printing network.

Julia Levy formed biotechnology company Quadra Logic Technologies, now QLT Inc., in 1981. It was while teaching microbiology at UBC that Dr. Levy first became interested in the idea of using photo-sensitive drugs to treat diseases. Dr. Levy served as the company’s president and CEO from 1995 to 2002.

Former Quintessence Records staffer Grant McDonagh opened Zulu Records, in the same location at 4th and Burrard.

The Port of Vancouver processed 22,800 cruise passengers. The total will pass 170,000 in 1981; 423,000 in 1991 and 600,000 in 1995.


The Vancouver Indian Centre Society opened its new centre at 1607 East Hastings on May 29, with Chief Simon Baker officiating. Today it’s known as the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre. Established in the early 1950s as the Coqualeetza Fellowship Club, it then moved from West Broadway to 1855 Vine Street in 1970. After a City of Vancouver survey found that most of the aboriginal population of 40-45,000 lived between Cambie and Nanaimo streets,  the current location was chosen to be more central to the community.

June 5 was the opening date of the UBC Asian Centre, devoted to promoting and encouraging greater awareness and understanding of the many Asian cultures represented in Canada and  particularly in the Lower Mainland. Its web site relates its fascinating backstory: “A UBC Religious Studies Professor, Shotaro Iida who went to Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan thought the Sanyo Electric Company Exhibit building would make a great Asian Centre for UBC once the fair was over. He asked Sanyo for the donation of the building, and succeeded! The building was donated to the people of the province of British Columbia in honor of B.C.’s Centennial. In addition to the Sanyo Corporation, sponsors for the Asian Centre included the Canadian and Japanese governments, business, industry and private individuals, many from Japan.

“Since the cost of shipping the entire dismantled building would have been astronomical, only the supporting beams and girders were sent. UBC, however, did not know about the shipment and only learned of it when Canada Customs called saying they had some ‘white pipes’ waiting to be picked up by UBC! Construction started January 8, 1974, and the building was officially opened June 5, 1981. The Centre’s distinctive roof shape is inspired by a traditional Japanese farmhouse. The huge white beams from the Sanyo Pavilion are immediately noticeable as one enters the building.”


The Devonshire Hotel opened at the northeast corner of Georgia and Hornby Streets in 1925. It took two years to put the building up. It took just 6.5 seconds to bring it down on  the morning of July 5. Hundreds of people crowded (prudently distant) onto adjacent streets and waited for Arrow Demolition’s big bang. At 7:05 a.m. Chris Charles, the wife of Arrow’s Brian Charles, pushed a delicate finger down on a button and, with a muffled crack from a hundred kilos of dynamite, the hotel’s central elevator shaft began to collapse. The rest of the seven-storey building fell inward, and a vast cloud of white dust rose up as the crowd cheered. Not long after the dust settled, work began on building the HSBC Bank Canada building. read more

A new courthouse opened on Begbie Square in New Westminster on September 25.

The theatre in the Surrey Art Centre, built in Bear Creek Park in 1967 as a federal Centennial project at a cost of $225,000, was rebuilt by the municipality and the province.

The Bentall IV office building opened at 1055 Dunsmuir. The 36-storey building is 137 metres high. Another lofty structure, the Stock Exchange Tower at 609 Granville, opened this year. Its 24 storeys top out at 100.2 metres.


The Burlington Northern Railway (originally the Great Northern Railway, now the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) discontinued passenger service. The line went through White Rock, but passenger service ended there in 1975. The railway gave its station to the city of White Rock that year. Passenger service between Vancouver and Seattle would be restored by Amtrak in 1995. Amtrak’s trains pass by the old station’s door, but the train doesn’t stop there anymore. In 1991 the station would become the White Rock Museum and Archives.

Arts & Culture

The Vancouver East Cinema opened on January 12.

George Wainborn, former Vancouver Park Board Commissioner, started the Stanley Park Christmas Train, with strong support from the Mt. Pleasant Legion.

Now a Canadian classic, Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan appeared. It was the first novel to deal with the internment by Canada of its Japanese citizens during and after the Second World War.

Writer William Gibson, who had come to Vancouver from North Carolina in 1972, sold his first science fiction story to Omni magazine. There was much more to come.


The late Chuck Davis was a Vancouver writer who wrote, co-wrote, and/or edited 15 books. Most of them are on local history, and he described his yet-to-be released book, The History of Metropolitan Vancouver, as the capstone of his career. Chuck’s passion for history was contagious and all the information he gathered and wrote about is the priceless gift he has left the citizens of Vancouver.

John Calimente is the president of Rail Integrated Developments. He supports great public transit, cycling, and walking + transit integrated developments + urban life lived without a car.

Leszek Apouchtine is one of the founding editors at re:place.