What does it mean to become the City of Maple Ridge? In British Columbia, municipalities are classified at the time of incorporation into basic size categories. Communities of no more than 2,500 people are incorporated as Villages; those of 2,501 to 5,000 become Towns; and if population is greater than 5,000 people, Cities.
District Municipalities, like our dear town, appear wherever the area proposing to incorporate exceeds 800 hectares (imagine a rectangle of two by four kilometres) and population is less than 4,000. (Fast math: that’s a population density of about two persons per acre). District municipalities like ours are a common feature of sparsely-populated BC, and often have historically strong connections to the rural economy, including agriculture and resource extraction.
Since changes to the classification of municipalities begin only with some form of local approval and council initiative, the naming system doesn’t always reflect the present state of the community. Drastic changes in municipal boundaries and populations can make the labels seem arbitrary. Today, Maple Ridge’s population is roughly 80,000, although its large land area means that our population density is still lower than the two per acre standard.
Incorporation is the legal process which allows a community to elect its own local government and raise money through taxes for services and infrastructure. If there is approval among eligible voters for incorporation, the provincial cabinet can prepare to issue letters patent. Letters patent is a type of legal document that confers rights and status, and contains a description of the new municipality’s “metes and bounds”, or borders. Historically, letters patent are orders released by the monarch or their representative in British Columbia, the lieutenant governor. As such the creation of new municipalities is never subject to a vote in the provincial legislature.
Letters patent were issued for the incorporation of Maple Ridge on September 12, 1874, and published shortly thereafter in the British Columbia Gazette – a public record for government matters, printed in Victoria. At the time, local approval for incorporation considered only the opinions of “at least two-thirds of the male freeholders, householders, free miners, pre-emptors, and leaseholders, for a term of not less than two years, being respectively of the full age of twenty-one years […]”. This explicitly excluded women, renters, and recent migrants from participating in the petition for incorporation, and also had the effect of excluding any non-white ethnic groups whose ability to own property was restricted under the law.
On October 3rd, 1874, George Howison, Wellington Harris, J. Bell, John McKenney, Henry Dawon, Thomas Henderson, and John Hammond were elected councillors by a gathering of peers at John McIver’s farm. Harris was elected as the District’s first warden. Mary McFarlane, daughter of John McIver, later suggested that incorporation had been pursued to fund road and bridge construction. She delighted in retelling a story of McKenney’s, reporting that the Fraser’s north bank was scandalized when $1000 dollars of provincial money was squandered by an ad hoc citizens’ committee on “building a road to the Cariboo”. The track would become Maple Ridge’s first east-west land route, River Road. Harris quickly arranged for Council to meet on October 7th, to agree on rules of decorum and accountability that would allow them to conduct business with the public’s good faith.
Maple Ridge was only the sixth of 161 local governments incorporated to date in British Columbia, which reminds us of the track of history and population across our province. The city of New Westminster incorporated in 1860, followed by the city of Victoria in 1862. These two cities were the major entry points to the western portion of British North America, and supplied people and trade materials to settlement areas in their hinterlands. At the time, New Westminster and Victoria were the seats of separate British colonies on Vancouver Island and the mainland; they would be united together in the colony of British Columbia in 1866. The city of Chilliwack and township of Langley, upstream from New Westminster, were incorporated on the same day, April 26, in 1873, followed by the district of North Cowichan, up island from Victoria, later that spring.
In the future, amateur historians might use the renaming of Maple Ridge as shorthand for this time when we rapidly developed. Let’s hope they find nothing arbitrary about our becoming a city.