Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba, who escaped Auschwitz and co-authored a report saving 200,000 lives, remains unrecognized in Vancouver despite his significant historical impact. Alan Twigg (l.) seeks to change this.” FULL STORY


#197 Jan Peterson

November 03rd, 2017

LOCATION: Nanaimo Harbour Walk, Nanaimo.

While industrialist Robert Dunsmuir has long been recognized as the most important figure in nineteenth century Nanaimo, thanks in part to Terry Reksten’s The Dunsmuir Saga (Douglas & McIntyre, 1991), Jan Peterson makes a strong case that Dunsmuir must now share the spotlight in Mark Bate: Nanaimo’s First Mayor. Peterson’s  biography of Dunsmuir’s rival from the English Midlands, Mark Bate (1837-1927), the convivial manager of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company reflects Bate’s devotion to the life of his community during his remarkable sixteen terms as mayor of Nanaimo between 1875 and 1900. It is one of the many works of solid, populist scholarship by Jan Peterson who has devoted most of her writing career to Vancouver Island history.

Also in Nanaimo.


Here is a review of Mark Bate: Nanaimo’s First Mayor by Vancouver Island University professsor John Hinde, followed by more information about Jan Peterson below.

On January 17, 1857, after a grueling five-month voyage that took them from Britain, around Cape Horn, and up the Pacific coast of the Americas, the nineteen-year old Mark Bate, along with sister Elizabeth, cousin Cornelius Bryant, and aunt Maria Robinson, finally stepped ashore at the tiny settlement of Victoria on the southern tip of the Colony of Vancouver Island.

But this was not their final destination. Twelve days later, after being feted by notables of the Hudson’s Bay Company, including the young colony’s governor, James Douglas, they embarked ship once more, this time for a much shorter journey along the east coast of Vancouver Island to the small coal-mining hamlet of Nanaimo.

Watercolour of Nanaimo by Edward Parker Bedwell, circa 1858. Royal BC Museum.

Mark Bate’s later reminiscences – printed in the Nanaimo Free Press in 1907, on the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival — captured the hope of a new life and uncertainty that confronted him:

Rounding Light House Point, now known as Jack’s Point, a glimpse was obtained of the clean, whitewashed row of homes standing on a rising eminence a little way from the water front, the grassy slope between the buildings and the harbour, looking as fresh as spring, the towering peak of Wakesiah mountain under heavy cloud, and the intervening tall timber, formed a somber looking background, giving the place just then a rather weird aspect (pp. 42-43).

Bate’s story, deftly told by local historian Jan Peterson, is in many respects the story of early Nanaimo. His arrival in Nanaimo marked the beginning of a new life’s journey, one that would shape the destiny of the Island’s second city. Bate was drawn to the edge of Empire by a promise of employment from his uncle, George Robinson, with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s mining operations in Nanaimo.

The transition from the Black Country mining town of Dudley, in the heavily industrialized and populated West Midlands, to the wilderness of Nanaimo, with a population, not including the Snuneymuxw, of 132, cannot have been easy, yet the young man quickly established a place for himself in the Company and the growing community.

Hand-tinted postcard, 1890.

Work, family and community service drove him. His service to the community is rightly emphasized by Peterson. Bate was involved in a host of social, cultural, and economic organizations and, most significantly, was Nanaimo’s first mayor, serving a remarkable sixteen terms in office.

Robert Dunsmuir

As mayor, Bate played a decisive role in establishing the town’s administration and infrastructure and in guiding Nanaimo’s future development. As long-time manager of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, he also played an important role in the early industrial development of the Island. In many respects, this is Peterson’s most compelling discussion. Bate’s relationship with his friend and, ironically, arch-rival Robert Dunsmuir, stands out, and reflects the different economic and political philosophies of the two men.

Whereas Dunsmuir embraced the radical individualism of the frontier capitalist who despised unions and fought hard against his workers, Bate, accountable to shareholders in London, offered a more socially progressive vision, sought accommodation with his employees, and devoted his life to his community. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that Bate’s progressive legacy is overshadowed by that of the Dunsmuirs’.

This isn’t a narrow, parochial biography. Well known as the author of numerous works on Nanaimo’s history, Peterson deftly explores the history of Nanaimo through the lens of Bate, documenting the social, political, economic and cultural development of the region isolated by geography, and has succeeded in placing Bate and Nanaimo in the broader social and economic context of British Columbia, Canada, and of the British Empire.

This study of Mark Bate fills an important gap in the story of early Nanaimo, and Jan Peterson has done a great service to him and the region’s history.

While Peterson may be exaggerating when she claims that Bate was a “Renaissance Man,” Bate was nonetheless a man of varied talents, and he left his stamp on the young city of Nanaimo.

A well written and engaging popular history, this book is a very compelling companion to author’s many other works on the history of Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.

Nanaimo Harbour Walk statue


Jan Peterson has written extensively about Vancouver Island, including Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1886—1920. It completes her trilogy that began with Black Diamond City: Nanaimo—The Victorian Era and Hub City: Nanaimo. Black Diamond City chronicles the evolution of Nanaimo from original Native settlements to coal-company town to a diversified Victorian-era community. Peterson used original diaries, journals, letters, logs, and reports to describe incidents within Native, British, and Chinese communities. Hub City Nainamo recalls the creation of the E&N Railway in 1886, the mining disaster of 1887 and the prominence of coal baron James Dunsmuir. The third volume covers the Roaring Twenties and the Depression years when Nanaimo provided employment to hundreds of people by building the South Fork Dam which still supplies water for the city nearly a century afterwards. While overcoming two major fires and the demise of its coal industry, Nanaimo increasingly relied on forestry and transportation.

Kilts on the Coast (2012) reveals how Scottish settlers shaped Vancouver Island. Peterson examines the events and people who sparked settlement and growth in BC’s first Crown colony and delves deep into the roots of the Island’s Scottish presence. From founding father James Douglas and other HBC men to the stalwart miners from the Orkney Islands who came over to work the coal mines to independent farmers struggling to clear the land, the Scots have left an indelible mark on Vancouver Island and the province as a whole.

Born in Scotland in March 5, 1937, Jan Peterson immigrated to Kingston, Ontario in 1957, moving to Vancouver in 1965 and onto Port Alberni in 1972. As an artist she has had numerous exhibits and founded the Rollin Art Centre. She served on the BC Arts Board (1979-81) and is a lifetime member of the Alberni Valley Community Arts Council. Peterson is the author of Cathedral Grove: MacMillan Park and a series on Alberni and Port Alberni. Formerly a reporter for the Alberni Valley Times and a winner of a Jack Wasserman Award for investigative journalism on social and environmental affairs, Peterson received Certificates of Honour from the B.C. Historical Federation in 1997 and 1999.



The Albernis, 1860-1922. Oolichan Books, 1992
Twin Cities: Alberni-Port Alberni. Oolichan Books, 1994
Cathedral Grove: MacMillan Park. Oolichan Books, 1996
Journeys down the Alberni Canal to Barkley Sound. Oolichan Books, 1999.
Black Diamond City: Nanaimo — The Victorian Era (Heritage House, 2002)
Hub City Nanaimo 1886-1920 (Heritage House, 2003)
Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1886—1920 (Heritage, 2006). 1-894974-20-4. $19.95
Kilts on the Coast (Heritage 2012)
Port Alberni: More Than Just a Mill Town (Heritage House 2014) $19.95 9781927527689
Nanaimo’s First Mayor (Heritage House, 2017. $19.95. 9781772031829


One Response to “#197 Jan Peterson”

  1. Great book, great review – Congratulations Jan. Your books have done so much to ensure that the history of Nanaimo is available for us all to read and appreciate. Daphne

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