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dave obee When two Albernis became one

By Dave Obee

Every now and then, those of us who live in Greater Victoria hear the A-word, as in amalgamation. More specifically, how amalgamation would either be the best thing that ever happened to us, or the worst, depending on who is talking.

Another A-word is Alberni, as in Port Alberni, the name that prevailed when two communities became one back in 1967. There had been talk for years that Port Alberni, incorporated in 1912, and Alberni, incorporated the following year, should amalgamate. It seemed to make sense, because one could not survive without the other. Port Alberni had the industry, while Alberni had the residential area and the Gateway shopping centre and motel area.

In the early 1960s, the Twin Cities were booming. In 1961, for example, the Daily Colonist reported that Port Alberni had the highest average annual income -- $4,697 -- in all of Western Canada. It was fifth in the nation.

The prosperity was fuelled by the pulp mill, but that was not the only positive factor in the Albernis. The port at the end of Alberni Inlet was the third busiest in British Columbia. Times were good, and there was little impetus to turn the talk about amalgamation into action.

Then came the wave. A tsunami, we would call it these days. Triggered by an earthquake in Alaska, the tidal wave swept up the inlet in March 1964, destroying homes and businesses in both communities. It took teamwork and co-operation to get the Twin Cities back on track, and as residents saw the benefits of working together, the urge to merge grew stronger.

A few months after the wave struck, voters were asked to decide on amalgamation. It was no contest. Port Alberni was 75.52 per cent in favour, while in Alberni, the final tally for the Yes side was 93.6 per cent.

Once they agreed to be married, there was no rush to get it done. It took three years to become a reality.

Fred Bishop, the first elected mayor of the new city of Port Alberni, felt that the slow approach had been the best approach. "If I have any advice for other areas planning amalgamation, it is this," Bishop said in an interview in 1968. "Take it easy, lay your groundwork well and plan amalgamation between two and three years after your people have decided that is what they want."

The two councils started working together long before the amalgamation. They synchronized their union contracts, for example, and combined their public works yards.

Amalgamation did not result in job losses among Twin Cities civic workers. After all, the same area had to be covered, the same number of people had to be served, and the amount of equipment needed remained the same.

Bishop had been the mayor of Alberni before the merger. He defeated Les Hammer, who had been Port Alberni's mayor, in the first election for the new city council.

Both Bishop and Hammer had been strong advocates of amalgamation, although they had never tried to sell the idea as a cost-saving move. That was wise; in the first few months after amalgamation, it was noted that some costs had dropped, and others had risen. The merger made no financial difference.

Still, as a young Times reporter named Jim Hume pointed out, there were advantages to the merger. He noted that the government structure in the valley had become more streamlined, that it was easier to administer one area rather than two, and there were the obvious advantages of co-operative development.

The amalgamation -- the Times referred to it as "the most natural civic marriage in British Columbia" -- took place on Oct. 28, 1967, when Premier W.A.C. Bennett handed over the letters patent for the new city. More than 1,300 invited guests were on hand, including the mayors of Kamloops and North Kamloops. The two Interior communities were also amalgamating, and had delayed their ceremony by a week to avoid a conflict with the Island's twins.

Two days earlier, Lt.-Gov. George Pearkes had been given the freedom of the city by both Port Alberni and Alberni, a move that would make him the first freeman of the combined city.

Bishop said Pearkes deserved the honour because he had long shown an interest in the Alberni area, especially its veterans, Indians and old people. Hammer hailed

Pearkes as a soldier, parliamentarian, government minister and in his vice-regal position.

The freedom of the city meant Pearkes had the right to vote in Port Alberni's civic elections. He assured Bishop and Hammer, though, that he would spoil his ballot rather than choose between them.

While in Port Alberni, Pearkes planted a blue spruce tree in front of city hall, chatted with about 100 First World War veterans at the Royal Canadian Legion, laid a wreath at the cenotaph, and made a stop that was not on the official itinerary. He dropped in at the Port Alberni Indian Centre, much to the delight of the sole person in the building at the time.

The weekend also saw the opening of Echo '67, the community centre and swimming pool that had been a joint project of the two cities. The name, a play on Expo 67, had been suggested for 10-year-old Jane Hanson. She received $100 for her idea.

The amalgamation made Port Alberni, with 18,825 people, the largest city north of the Malahat, and the third-largest on Vancouver Island. It could not hang on to that honour, though. In the 40 years since its amalgamation, Port Alberni's population has been stable, while the numbers in Nanaimo, Courtenay and Campbell River have soared.

Still, the city named after Don Pedro Alberni, an 18th-century gold seeker, remains a prime example of how two cities can become one.

Posted March 2, 2008


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