From just five murals and lots of spirit in the summer of 1982, Chemainus has struggled, grown and succeeded in literally putting itself on the map. In 1983, it won the prestigious New York Downtown Revitalization Award for redevelopment of its core. It has since gained world-wide acclaim for the integrity and superb artistry of its huge depictions of the community’s history.
Forty-four larger-than-life murals in this open air gallery now greet the gaze of thousands of visitors each year. Chemainus thrives as a result, but remains a small community, with just over 4,000 residents. These welcoming people still dish out island hospitality, along with ice cream and afternoon tea, just as they always have. Chemainus really is “The Little Town That Did” ©.
The coastal community of Chemainus has a rich and varied history. Beginning thousands of years ago with the Coast Salish Native peoples, that history has flourished through a century and a half of industry and labour. With a mild climate and a great abundance of natural resources, the surrounding area became home to many hardworking settlers. Side by side, these people hewed a place of substance from the majestic forests.
These same forests have provided the lifeblood of the entire valley for more than a century, but to Chemainus, this has sometimes been a painful reality.
In 1981 Chemainus benefited from a province wide redevelopment fund, and initiated a Downtown Revitalization Project to give a face lift to a tired looking main street. Planters overflowing with fresh flowers, new benches, improved public spaces and better parking facilities all resulted from this initial project. Suddenly though, the community faced much graver problems than a lack of fresh paint along its thoroughfares. After more than 120 years, the sawmill shut down in 1983.
Without waiting to hear if the mill would reopen, residents rallied to hold on to the roots they had established here. They continued the beautification of the central core. But more was to come. With the remarkable energy and creative vision of resident and businessman Karl Schutz, and the committed support of then Mayor Graham Bruce and the municipal council, the Chemainus Festival of Murals was born. The painting of murals on some of the outside walls of local buildings was the Municipality of North Cowichan’s colourful investment in a livelier looking community.
Those early years of redevelopment now seem part of history, too. More than $350,000 has been invested in the mural project by private, corporate, federal, provincial and municipal investors. As a direct result, Chemainus has attracted numerous new businesses, many thousands of visitors a year, a $3.5 million dinner theatre and a first-class hotel. From a dependence on a single industry, it has broadened its economic base to offer a range of services and tourist related activities. To everyone’s relief, the mill was rebuilt and modernized, and reopened in 1985. By that time, residents and visitors alike felt that they had proven they could survive the worst of times through their spirit and determination.
Chemainus now has a new look. It is one that is reminiscent of past glories, and the result is a pleasing mixture of designs, with a real down home feel. Chemainus welcomes you to a feast for all the senses. Come and feel the magic! You’ll never experience history quite like this again.