This Week In History: Over a century of B.C.’s modern stories are free to discover at the Archives


The B.C. Archives is home to millions of pieces of our province’s modern history and is the oldest archival institution west of the Great Lakes, tracing its roots back to 1894.

Archivist, Kate Heikkila works at The Royal BC Museum, home of the B.C. Archives. She and other staff help guide anyone who wants to delve into the past, or even pursue more practical pursuits.

“Surprisingly the most common thing that people ask for is their divorce records. So if you’re looking for your divorce record, we’re your place,” says Heikkila.

Archivist reading a passage from an 1891 edition of the Chilliwack Progress.

The B.C. Archives started out small.  At the turn of the 20th century, it was simply a department in the Legislature library but expanded exponentially as the colonization of the coast continued.  The archives ultimately moved across the street into a large, purpose-built building on museum grounds.

Heikkila says, “I would like to see more people using this space. We have photographs, maps, newspapers court cases, land claims cases. There are these incredibly lovely stories and you just have to find them.”

Stories like that of ‘Yukon Joe’, an enigmatic prospector who lived in the remote areas throughout Northern British Columbia and the Yukon.  The B.C. Archives is home to Joe’s diary which he bound himself. It’s an often incoherent read, but Heikkila says it’s a unique glimpse into Joe’s adventures, “[He] prospected well past the gold mining time period into the sixties and he lived this very secluded, impoverished life selling art and selling, trying to find gold.”

‘Yukon Joe’s’ diary at the BC Archives.

There are dozens of file cabinets full of old newspapers illustrating the most mundane goings-on in countless small communities throughout the province.  Heikkila reads from an 1891 edition of the Chilliwack Progress, “Ms. McCutcheon is, at present, visiting her many friends at new Westminster.”  Heikkila says the newspapers of the time were not unlike social media  status updates, “So you know she’s not in town for that week.”

The public is welcome to come into the archives in-person, but for COVID-19 safety, it’s currently by appointment only.  It’s free to browse and even take photos on your smartphone.  There is only a cost if you need a physical copy of an item.

Heikkila adds, “We have a large platform online so you can do some of that background work from home.  We don’t want to hoard these records. We want them to be accessible to people. So we want you to see them. We want them to be relevant for you and useful.”

RELATED: Museum has plans for a new archive and collections facility in Colwood

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Brad MacLeodBrad MacLeod

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