New Westminster is an historically important city in the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia, Canada, and is a member municipality of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. It was founded as the capital of the new-born Colony of British Columbia in 1858, and continued in that role until the Mainland and Island Colonies were merged in 1866, and was the Mainland's largest city from that year until it was passed in population by Vancouver during the first decade of the 20th Century.
It is located on the right bank of the Fraser River as it turns southwest towards its estuary, on the southwest side of the Burrard Peninsula and roughly at the centre of the Greater Vancouver region.
Before Canada was a country, Britain recognized that aboriginal people living here had title to land: the Royal Proclamation of 1763 declared that only the British Crown could acquire land from First Nations, and that was typically done through treaties. In most parts of Canada, the British Crown established treaties with First Nations before Confederation. The new Dominion of Canada continued this policy of making treaties before the west was opened for settlement, but in BC, this process was never completed. Section 25 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that it does not abrogate or derogate "(a) any rights or freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763; and (b) any rights or freedoms that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired." Further, Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, affirmed that aboriginal title, and the rights that go along with it, exist whether or not there is a treaty. Aboriginal rights refer to practices, traditions and customs that distinguish the unique culture of each First Nation and were practised prior to European contact. Aboriginal title is an aboriginal property right to land.
The discovery of gold in B.C. prompted fear amongst the settlers that Americans may invade to take over this land. Without a treaty in place with the Coast Salish people,* In 1859, New Westminster was recommended as the first official capital of the new Colony of British Columbia by Richard Moody, the Lieutenant-Governor, because of its location farther from the American border than the site of the colony's proclamation, Fort Langley. New Westminster, at a defensible location on the north bank of the Fraser River, possessed, according to Moody, "great facilities for communication by water, as well as by future great trunk railways into the interior". Governor Douglas proclaimed "Queensborough" (as the site was initially called by Moody) the new capital on February 14, 1859. "Queensborough", however, did not appeal to London and it was Queen Victoria who named the city after Westminster, that part of the British capital of London where the Parliament Buildings were, and are to this day, situated. From this naming by the Queen, the City gained its official nickname, "The Royal City". A year later New Westminster became the first City in British Columbia to be incorporated and have an elected municipal government. It became a major outfitting point for prospectors coming to the Fraser Gold Rush, as all travel to the goldfield ports of Yale and Port Douglas was by steamboat or canoe up the Fraser River.
The location of New Westminster, at the edge of the forest, necessitated a large amount of labour and money to clear trees and lay out streets, which became a significant burden to the colonial budget when the imperial government shackled the colony with half of the cost of the Royal Engineers. Governor Douglas spent little time in New Westminster and had little affection for the city; and the feelings were amply repaid by the citizens of New Westminster, who avidly supported Colonel Moody's city-building efforts and castigated the governor, who preferred to remain for the most part isolated in distant Victoria. In contrast to Victoria, where settlers from England had established a strong British presence, New Westminster's early citizens were largely Canadians and Maritimers, who brought a more business-oriented approach to commerce and dismissed the pretensions of the older community. Despite being granted a municipal council, the mainlanders in New Westminster also pressed for a legislative assembly to be created for British Columbia, and were infuriated when Governor Douglas granted free port status to Victoria, which stifled the economic growth of the Fraser River city. Moreover, to pay for the expense of building roads into the Interior of the colony, Douglas imposed duties on imports into New Westminster.
In 1866, the colony of British Columbia and the colony of Vancouver Island were united as "British Columbia". However, the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island, Victoria, located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, was made the capital of the newly amalgamated Colony of British Columbia, following a vote in the House of Assembly. On the day of the vote one member of the assembly, William Cox (one of the colony's Gold Commissioners and a Victoria supporter), shuffled the pages of the speech that William Franklyn from Nanaimo (a New Westminster supporter) intended to give, so that Franklyn lost his place and read the first paragraph three times. Cox then popped the lenses of Franklyn's glasses from their frames so that the Nanaimo representative could see nothing at all of his speech. After a recess to settle the resulting uproar and allow the member from Nanaimo a chance to sort out his speaking notes and his spectacles, on the members' return to the House of Assembly, the Speaker John Sebastian Helmcken (from Victoria) refused to allow Franklyn a "second" chance to speak. The subsequent vote was 13 to 8 against New Westminster.
With the entry of British Columbia into the Dominion of Canada in 1871, as the sixth province, New Westminster's economic prospects improved, but the Royal City would lose out again, this time to the new railway terminus town of Vancouver, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was extended to the shores of Burrard Inlet, even though a spur of the railway did reach New Westminster in 1886. In 1879, the federal government allocated three reserves to the New Westminster Indian Band, including of the South Westminster Reserve, on the North Arm of the Fraser River, and on Poplar Island. A smallpox epidemic devastated the New Westminster Band, reducing the band members from about 400 people to under 100. Many of the remaining Qayqayt were assimilated into other local reserves, such as the neighbouring Musqueam Indian Band. Their reserve on Poplar Island was turned into an Aboriginal smallpox victim quarantine area. For decades, the Poplar Island reserve was designated as belonging to "all coast tribes". In 1913 the federal government seized most of the New Westminster Band's reserve lands. In 1916 the remaining land on Poplar Island was turned over to the BC government. Eighteen years earlier, in 1898, a devastating fire destroyed downtown New Westminster.
In 1991, the New Westminster Armoury was recognized as a Federal Heritage building on the Register of the Government of Canada Heritage Buildings.