Nanaimo | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Nanaimo, BC, incorporated as a city in 1874, population 83 810 (2011c), 78 692 (2006c).

Nanaimo, BC, incorporated as a city in 1874, population 83 810 (2011c), 78 692 (2006c). The City of Nanaimo is located on the east coast of VANCOUVER ISLAND, 113 km north of VICTORIA and 23 km west of Vancouver, across the Strait of GEORGIA. Nanaimo is situated on a narrow coastal plain and is surrounded by good agricultural land and rich timber resources. It is the largest city on Vancouver Island (at the 2006 census) and has the second biggest harbour, which has made it an important distribution and regional centre. Nanaimo was dedicated as the "Harbour City" by Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1986. The city is the axis of several transportation routes: the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (now Southern Railway Vancouver Island); the TRANS-CANADA and Island highways; and ferry services to and from mainland British Columbia. It is governed by a mayor and 8 councillors, but shares some responsibilities with the regional district of Nanaimo, established in 1967.


The Snuneymuxw of the Central Coast SALISH were the region's first inhabitants. Nanaimo is the corruption of the name they gave the area, meaning "gathering place." During 1792 the Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspina dispatched the gallettes SUTIL AND MEXICANA, under the command of Alcalá-Galiano and Cayetano Valdés, to explore the Strait of Georgia. The HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY (HBC) established a fortified post in 1849, and the discovery of COAL in 1852 led to permanent settlement. In 1854, 24 families arrived from England to settle in Colvile Town, the name first given the settlement, after Andrew Colvile, governor of the HBC. The name was gradually discontinued and was little used after 1860.

In 1862 the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company bought out the HBC mines and expanded operations. Completion of the Esquimalt to Nanaimo Railway (1886) spurred development. The city grew with its increasing coal output. Production from the 3 main seams in the area reached its peak in 1923 when more than 1 million t were mined. Once the easily accessible coal was mined, however, it became increasingly dangerous and expensive to extract the fuel and by the early 1950s the city turned to forest products. A pulp and paper mill was built in 1950 at Harmac outside the municipal limits.


Central Nanaimo's street pattern is based on a century-old radial pattern of streets converging on the waterfront and central business district. Until the 1950s Nanaimo was a city of contrasts - coal mine officials and entrepreneurs built large homes in certain areas while the miners lived in "stark frame company houses" on the waterfront or on company lands outside the city. The city's waterfront and central core have been extensively rebuilt and have emerged as a lively tourist area.

Nanaimo Harbor Waterfront
Waterfront condominiums overlook the harbor and marina in downtown Nanaimo, British Columbia. Photo taken on: November 20, 2013


Nanaimo has used its excellent harbour for trading, servicing and distribution industries. Fishing and lumbering have also grown since the 1950s. The port of Nanaimo has 4 deep-sea berths, and the provincial ferries have docks at Nanaimo Harbour, Departure Bay and Duke Point. Duke Point Industrial Park focuses on forest products and related industries. Nanaimo's economy has moved from a base largely dependent on the forestry sector to a diversified base including retail and wholesale trade, construction, manufacturing, knowledge-based and technology companies and government services. Malaspina University-College has its main campus in Nanaimo. With its beautiful natural setting, mild climate and beaches, parks and nearby camping sites, the city is also an important tourist centre.

Cultural Life

Nanaimo's most noted annual event is the "bathtub weekend" (during its Marine Festival), when "tubbers" from around the world race in motor-powered bathtubs from Nanaimo Harbour to Departure Bay. The Bastion, a HBC fort built in 1853, is the oldest preserved HBC fort in Canada. The Nanaimo District Museum displays the culture and history of the area. Parks in or around the area include Petroglyph Provincial Park, so named because of the 1000- to 2000-year-old carvings in sandstone; and Newcastle Island Provincial Park, which can only be reached by ferry.

Nanaimo Bar
Closeup of section of nanaimo bar with fork marks - a Canadian specialty originating from Nanaimo, British Columbia. Photo taken on: July 28, 2010

Further Reading