1192 The histories of Tod Inlet
Deep and Sheltered Waters: The History of Tod Inlet
by David R. Gray, with a foreword by Nancy J. Turner and Robert D. Turner
Victoria: Royal BC Museum, 2020
$29.95 / 9780772672568
Reviewed by Matthew Downey
With Deep and Sheltered Waters: The History of Tod Inlet, David Gray provides an account, both expansive and personal, of one of Vancouver Island’s most iconic yet misunderstood places. Gray explores the development of Tod Inlet, home to the globally renowned Butchart Gardens, as an area of spiritual, archaeological, and historical significance to Indigenous peoples, settlers, and later Asian immigrants alike. Gray gives equal due to Tod Inlet as the ancient hunting and fishing grounds of the Tsartlip Nation, as an important player in the burgeoning industrial history of BC, and finally as a beautiful natural site worth protecting and preserving.
Following a description of the relationship between the Tsartlip Nation and the inlet they call SṈIDȻEȽ (Place of the Blue Grouse), Gray relates the industrial development of Tod Inlet’s substantial cement plant, the BC Cement Company, around the turn of the twentieth century made possible by the local abundance of limestone deposits and the titular deep and sheltered water that allowed large ships to dock. Gray presents Tod Inlet as a significant and diverse community encompassing White farmers and workers, Chinese and Sikh labourers, and the nearby Tsartlip people. Gray’s passion for the community Tod Inlet is evident in his decades-long research process, involving interviews with residents and their descendants, small-scale amateur archaeology, and even trespassing in abandoned company buildings.
In Deep and Sheltered Waters, Gray is careful not to avoid too romanticized an image of the Tod Inlet community. Alongside charming descriptions of community life on this Edwardian industrial homestead, Gray relates the sudden deaths and disasters that could and did occur. Seemingly as many deaths occurred due to poor health conditions in the cement-making process as to hazardous machinery and workload. High mortality resulted from the exploitation of Chinese and Sikh labour employed at the cement plant. Gray’s exploration of the living spaces of these immigrant workers reveals a harsh existence in the most dangerous, demanding, and low-paying jobs. He describes how the Chinese and Sikh workers’ villages found ways to cope with exhausting working conditions, and records the wide variety of opium and liquor receptacles known archaeologically.
While relating the destitute aspects of the Asian labourers’ lives, Gray also acknowledges their agency in improving their lots. Particularly, he shows how Sikh workers — fed up with the work conditions at the cement plant, particularly the pervasive and toxic cement dust – mobilised their community and collectively sought work elsewhere. Chinese workers did not abandon the cement plant, and Gray notes their relatively neutral response during the virulent anti-Asian sympathies exhibited elsewhere in BC, for example the infamous Vancouver anti-Asian riots of September, 1907.
In short, Gray’s depiction of the Tod Inlet community provides a balanced portrayal of both the charm and danger associated with life there. To me, this balance of tragedy and community results at times in an awkwardness of tone, but nonetheless it is in line with Gray’s objective of revealing the community history truthfully and honestly.
Throughout Deep and Sheltered Waters, Gray’s personal attachment to Tod Inlet is apparent. Indeed, he displays a powerful admiration and fascination for Tod Inlet without being proprietorial. He argues that the modern inlet has more value than being simply the origin of, and then home to, Butchart Gardens. While the famous gardens and the Butchart family figure prominently, they do not dominate Gray’s focus.
Deep and Sheltered Waters is also an intellectual memoir. In the latter half of the book, Gray includes himself in his story, first as a boy on his family’s boat in the inlet, then as a young man exploring the stories behind the abandoned remains of the factory, and later as a mature adult spearheading conservation efforts. Gray is always meticulous in reporting his research, revelling in details extending from changes in cement-making technology to changes over time in the commute from Victoria to Tod Inlet by foot, buggy, and rail. He records a range of details about Tod Inlet history is his homage to a place so important in his own life and in that of the south coast of British Columbia.
As a university student in Victoria, I walked the trails of Tod Inlet and went on the obligatory date night to Butchart Gardens before I read Gray’s book. The mysterious character of the scattered cement foundations, objects, and structures provided some allure to Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, established in 1995, but as a relative outsider the wealth of local history eluded me completely. Deep and Sheltered Waters provides context to the inlet’s industrial remains and it gave me a newfound respect for the area. I now appreciate the inlet not simply as just another park with some nice walking trails, but as a natural museum with multifaceted local and regional significance.
As a spiritually significant place, sacred to the Indigenous peoples, the inlet is also inevitably part of continuing settler-Indigenous politics and treaty politics. As the former site of an industrial community where men, many with their families, lived, worked, and died, the inlet provides an important case study of early relationships between settler and Asian populations in BC. Finally, as the site of Jenny Butchart’s successful dream of turning an old quarry into a world-class estate, Tod Inlet witnessed the positive recovery of an area subject to decades’ worth of harmful toxic pollution. Indeed, Deep and Sheltered Waters reveals Tod Inlet as an ecological success story as well as a detailed study of the rise and fall of a working community.
Matthew Vernon Downey graduated in 2021 with an honours BA in History and Political Science from the University of Victoria. He will start graduate work at the London School of Economics in the fall of 2021. Editor’s note: Matthew Downey has also reviewed books by Grant Evans, Terry Reksten, and Ken Mather for The Ormsby Review.
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