David Whitley takes a walk around the parts of Vancouver that have a dodgy past – and learns an awful lot about Canada’s present in the process.


Vancouver, it seems has a bit of a reputation. And it’s not an entirely unjustified one. The general stereotype of an average Vancouverite is someone who is sickeningly sporty, yet suspiciously relaxed. It’s generally a happy, smiley place that regularly tops lists of cities with the best living standards. It’s pleasing to know, therefore, that Vancouver has its faults and problems. The Vancouver Police Museum is, you’d think, the place to find out about them. There are plenty of displays of guns, banned weapons and illegal drugs, while the mock-up crime scenes and the mortuary room add an unexpected element. But there’s very little about crime in the city itself, and the rest is an excruciatingly tedious trawl through the history of police officers in Vancouver and their various sports days.


The museum redeems itself, however, by running a Sins Of The City walking tour through the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and Gastown neighbourhoods. It is, I’m promised, all about drugs, prostitution, alcohol and gambling. I’ve done this sort of tour before elsewhere, and they’re usually camped-up trawls through century-old murders and crime gangs that used to rule the roost in the 1920s. And there’s an element of that in the Vancouver grot and vice tour – but it’s done in a very different way. It’s more of a history lesson than a morally dubious “look at these loveable gangsters” romp. We learn how the city grew up from what was essentially an extended sawmill. 


A town full of men sawing wood is always going to have a certain need for company of the opposite sex, and soon enough, that demand was sated by ladies plying the oldest profession in the world. We walk along the street that was always the red light district and learn about various crackdowns. But it’s when things move on to current laws on prostitution that things get interesting. Our guide tells us that prostitution – having sex for money – is perfectly legal, but soliciting – asking for sex for money – isn’t.


The same theme emerges with drugs. And there are clearly a fair few shouty people shambling around Downtown Eastside who are more than acquainted with this subject. We get the history – in the city’s early days, opium was perfectly legal and regularly used for treating all manner of ailments. It was criminalised in 1908, with marijuana and cocaine only added to the statute book later on. But it was only with World War II that port security tightened up, prices rocketed and people with previously manageable habits started getting desperate.


Again, it’s thrown into the present day, with the guide recounting his university friend’s experiences in giving up heroin and UN-backed stats on drug use across the world. Apparently, dope is the big thing in Canada while the US is more heavily skewed towards crystal meth and cocaine.


This surprisingly candid, yet unhyped, ancient and modern theme continues throughout a thoroughly absorbing hour and a half. We learn how Cantonese people regard Vancouver’s Chinatown as more Chinese than China – in the same way that Irish theme pubs are actually more ‘Irish’ than real pubs in Ireland or how Scandinavian-settled towns in the US hang on to the old country while Denmark, Sweden and Norway move on. We also get a glimpse into Canada’s cultural clash, and how Quebec shot down plans for national prohibition in the early 20th century.


And you know what? A wholesome city like Vancouver needs something like this. The honesty, relevance and the way everything ties together make it a treat way above the usual Krays and Capone cheese.


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Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism Vancouver ( and stayed at the art-packed Listel hotel (