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History on the Port of Vancouver

Vancouver’s long history of exporting bulk goods can be traced back to the latter half of the 19th century. Lumber exports ruled supreme during this time as sawmills began popping up on both the North and South shores of Vancouver Harbour. Exports increased significantly with the development of the transcontinental railway and later on the opening of the Panama Canal. Low freight rates in the early 20th century resulted in Vancouver becoming a more feasible shipping hub to Europe and Asia for various commodities including grain. The Port of Vancouver eventually thrived large in part due to the abolished differential rates placed on goods travelling through the Rocky Mountains by rail. With this hurdle out of the way, the quantity of goods exiting the country from the West Coast greatly increased.

The Vancouver Harbour Commissioners was established by the Government of Canada in 1913. The role of the newly founded board was to “administer the infrastructure of the Port of Vancouver. The Commissioners had the power to regulate navigation in the port and operation of port facilities.” Furthermore, under their oversight was the development of port infrastructure including “Ballantyne Pier, Lapointe Pier, the Canadian government grain terminal and elevators” (visit the City of Vancouver Archives for more details). It was around this time that the 1st grain terminal in Vancouver was built and helped to propel the city to the 2nd largest port in the country (behind Montreal).

Grain really entered the picture in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to the success of the Panama Canal the “enlargment of the market for Canadian grain in the Orient aided Vancouver. On the Prairies there was a westward and northward expansion of wheat cultivation, placing more of the output in a favourable position for rail transport to Vancouver” according to an article titled The Development of Canada’s Five Leading National Ports. In 1936 the Vancouver Harbour Commissioners was replaced by the National Harbours Board. The Board took over responsibilities as the “administrative body that controlled the business and service operations in major Canadian ports in the years 1936 to 1983 and was also responsible for coordination and determination of policy, and planning and engineering of capital works.” During this period Vancouver surpassed Montreal as the leading port in Canada and the production/export of other bulk commodities (i.e. sulphur, coal, potash) increased.

The National Harbours Board was replaced by the Canada Ports Corporation in 1983 which was eventually phased out by the Canada Marine Act. The Act which was adapted in 1998, largely influenced the port regulation system currently in place allowing for individual bodies to govern specific ports. In Vancouver, this role is the responsibility of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.