drawing of Sea Island - Sea Island Heritage Society logo

Our Past is your Present!

We are a non-profit organization focused on promoting, preserving, and being a strong, active resource for all things of heritage value on Sea Island in Richmond, British Columbia. Join us to learn about the history of Sea Island and its residents, past and present.


History of Sea Island

map of Lower Mainland British Columbia including Sea Island

Map of Sea Island in the GVRD
(TastyCakes via Wikipedia)

About Sea Island

Sea Island is an island in the Fraser River estuary, part of the City of Richmond, in the Province of British Columbia in Canada. It is located south of the City of Vancouver and north and west of Lulu Island (the main island, part of the City of Richmond). Present-day Sea Island is home to Burkeville - the only remaining residential area on the island, the Canadian Coast Guard Station Sea Island, a nature conservation area, some commercial venues and Vancouver International Airport (YVR). A small part of the island on the island’s northwest side is under the administration of the Musqueum Band (Sea Island IR3).

Sea Island Before It Was

Seventy million years ago the delta of what is now the Fraser River was a low-lying coastal plain traversed by large, sluggish meandering rivers. The sub-tropical climate encouraged the growth of dense broad-leafed forest. The lush growth was lost during the ensuing Palaeocene and Eocene periods, emerging as a coastal swamp with a forest cover of cedar and swamp cypress.

Glaciation followed with the last advance less than 25,000 years old, leaving a delta plain which extended across the entire Strait of Georgia. As the last glaciation receded 13,500 years ago, the land of the delta had been depressed far below sea level. While world sea levels rose over the following centuries, the uplift of the land was greater leaving deep water delta deposits in the Fraser River subject to water erosion. The sea level of Richmond's islands including Sea Island was achieved as late as 2,500 years ago.

Sea Island in pre-European settlement had a large patch of spruce trees on the south side of the island and a small copse on the north side. The island may have formed while Daniel’s Arm, a northwest distributary channel which once split Lulu Island in two, was still active. The Musqueam Slough complex drained the northern half of Sea Island and consisted of the Musqueam, MacDonald, Grauer and Shannon sloughs flowing into the North Arm of the Fraser River. These sloughs were a natural transportation route for canoes and other craft. Most of the natural sloughs were drained and had disappeared by the end of World War I. The sloughs were fresh water and would have been ideal spawning habitat for chum and pink salmon and probably coho salmon. The early settlers built dikes and drainage systems and therefore eliminated many of the spawning grounds.

As the island was regularly subjected to flooding especially during the late autumn and early spring storms, diking became necessary to preserve the viable land.

The Indigenous peoples of the Fraser River, from the Musqueam Band at its mouth to their Salish tribesmen upstream have always depended on the river. The Coast Salish people used Sea Island as a fishing and hunting preserve for centuries as well as summer camping grounds for salmon and other fishing. They were once the largest group of indigenous peoples north of California but were devastated by smallpox epidemics in 1781 and 1782.

Although European settlement of Sea Island did not begin until the 1860s, the Musqueum Indigenous peoples had year-long dwellings on the Richmond islands which may have been moved from year to year, but it was more common to see temporary dwellings to house the fishermen during the summer months of fishing and berrying.

Hugh McRoberts Settles on Sea Island

In 1859 Sea Island was a sparsely vegetated, sea washed island. With the advent of colonial governments, Joseph William Trutch of the Royal Engineers was commissioned to survey the area known as the New Westminster District (present-day Greater Vancouver Regional District). He was assisted by his brother John. Not long after the survey by Trutch, properties on islands 1 and 2 (Lulu and Sea Island) were purchased and settled.

Hugh McRoberts, the first settler of Richmond, purchased 1,640 acres on Sea Island and in 1862, began farming. Sea Island was originally known as McRoberts Island before being named Sea Island. The McRoberts family built their homestead on the northeast corner of Sea Island. Following Hugh McRoberts, many of the early settlers staked out farms on Sea Island.

It is unknown how Sea Island was named. However, the name appeared on a British Admiralty map in 1860.

Corporation of Richmond

Early in 1879, the settlers and landholders of Lulu and Sea Islands met to draft a petition to the Lieutenant Governor in Council to request the incorporation of Lulu and Sea Islands as a municipality. On November 10, 1879, Lulu and Sea Island became the Corporation of Richmond by Letters Patent under the Public Seal of the province of British Columbia. On January 5, 1880, the first Council of Richmond was elected. The election took place at the home of Hugh Boyd and Alexander Kilgour on Sea Island. Boyd was elected Warden (Reeve) and Alexander Kilgour, James Miller, Robert Wood, William Scratchley, Manoah Steves and Walter Lee were elected councillors. The final meeting of the first Council was held on January 3, 1881. Hugh Boyd was the Reeve of Richmond until 1886. The second Council moved the government of Richmond from Sea Island to Lulu Island.

Dikes and Bridges to Vancouver and Lulu Island

The first dike on Sea Island was constructed by Hugh McRoberts in the winter of 1861-1862. The second Richmond Council brought in a system of roads for Richmond. The original roads were numbered and often ran north/south. The roads for Sea Island were numbered 11, 12, 13 (became Miller Road) , 14 and 15 (became Grauer Road). The proposed road system was the beginning of the initial diking and ditching for all the islands.

The construction of roads on Sea Island made it easier to move around the island but to travel easily to Lulu Island and the mainland, bridges needed to be built. The first bridges connected Marpole (in the city of Vancouver) with Sea Island and Sea Island with Lulu Island.

It took six years of meetings, discussions, and arguments between the different levels of government before the bridges were completed in November 1889. The bridges were not opened as the Municipal officials felt they looked unsafe and were unsure of their reliability in winter river conditions. The officials were proved right on the morning of January 3, 1890, as a large sheet of ice carried away the swing span between Sea and Lulu Islands. It took several months for the bridge to be repaired, and shortly after the bridge opened, the same span fell into the river. In 1921 the provincial government took over the maintenance of the bridges. The bridges became more and more inadequate over the years but this fragile link from Sea Island lasted until 1957 when the Oak Street Bridge was completed.

When the flood of 1948 hit the Lower Mainland – the second-largest-ever recorded in its written history – it devastated huge stretches of the Fraser Valley, but Sea Island avoided almost all flooding because it was entirely surrounded by dikes.

In 1957, the original Marpole Bridge closed creating a more circuitous route between Vancouver and Vancouver International Airport. After years of debate on building a new bridge, the Arthur Laing Bridge opened to traffic on August 27, 1975, connecting Grant McConachie Way on Sea Island to SW Marine Drive in Vancouver.


The Marpole Bridge brought increased traffic and ease of movement to Sea Island. The bridge spans over the North and Middle Arms of the Fraser River converged in the area of Sea Island called Eburne.

The Eburne area was named after Harry Eburne who came to British Columbia in 1875 with his foster parents Mr. and Mrs. Charles Cridland. After two attempts at farming, Harry Eburne opened a store on the North Arm opposite the east end of Sea Island. This store eventually became the North Arm Post Office. In 1891, Harry Eburne moved his store to the central location of Sea Island between the bridge spans and in 1894 the post office in the store was officially known as Eburne Post Office. In 1898 Harry Eburne sold his store and became a chicken farmer in the area.

Jacob Grauer opened one of his butcher shops in Eburne in 1895. Eburne became a thriving community, a way station between Vancouver and Richmond.

The building of the Arthur Laing Bridge eventually took traffic away from the Eburne area. The last remaining store owned by the Grauer family since 1912 closed in 1975. Almost nothing remains of the Eburne area except a sign and the Richmond Chevron Marina. The rest has been replaced by the McArthur-Glen Designer Outlet.

Iona Island

At the mouth of the North Arm of the Fraser River, off the northwest tip of Sea Island, lies what used to be the small island of Iona (now linked by a causeway). Henry Mole took up the original Crown Grant of Iona Island, and in 1885 Donald A. McMillan purchased the island from Henry Mole. The land was still in its wild state and measured approximately 150 acres.

In 1886, Mr. McMillan moved a four-room house on a large scow to Iona Island where he had hired Chinese men on contract to dike approximately 80 acres of the island for farming. By the 1940s the homesteads on Iona Island were mostly used as summer homes.

In 1913, the Canadian government passed the North Fraser Harbour Commissions Act, which gave settlers the right to control the 17-kilometre stretch from New Westminster to the Salish Sea. The Fraser River was dredged and the first version of the North Arm Jetty was built. By 1918 the last of the sloughs on Sea Island had been drained and a wealthy farming community had sprung up. The North Arm Jetty, which extends from the western part of Iona Island, was completed in 1935.

In 1957, the Greater Vancouver Regional District was searching for somewhere to build a sewage treatment plant as the existing facilities were overloaded. Although Iona Island had been chosen for the site of the sewage treatment plant, few environmental tests were done and there was considerable opposition from the residents of Sea Island. Despite protests the plant was built along with a causeway from Sea Island to Iona Island and the Iona South Jetty, a sewage pipe draining the treated water directly into Sturgeon Banks. The plant was completed in 1963.

Recently, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation has been working on punching holes in several Fraser River jetties, including the North Arm Jetty, to reintroduce fresh water, nutrients, sediments and juvenile salmon to the tidal flats that stretch out from the shore. The jetties were originally built to control the flow of the Fraser River to allow large commercial ships to navigate its murky, shallow waters.

The Canneries of Sea Island

sign about the canneries of Sea Island

City of Richmond sign at Terra Nova
(Karen Tourangeau)

The Fraser River canning industry began in the early 1870s. The canneries were heavily dependent upon manual labour, as was the fish catching industry that provided the salmon. Many fishermen emigrated from Japan at the turn of the century. Quite a few lived in bunkhouses and houses on the south shore of Sea Island. Several Japanese families also lived in cannery-owned houses. Chinese manual labourers worked on contract, and also lived in the bunkhouses. The seasonal work also suited First Nations workers who followed the canning and fishing seasons from employer to employer.

In 1890, the Sea Island Cannery was built by Alexander Ewen and Company. It was originally named Bon Accord but was renamed Sea Island to avoid confusion with the Bon Accord Cannery in Port Mann. This cannery was located on Swishwash Island just off the southwest corner of Sea Island.

In 1894, the Dinsmore Cannery was built on Dinsmore Island which became part of Sea Island through infill.

The Canadian Canning Company built the Vancouver Cannery in 1896, and Acme Canning on the Middle Arm of the Fraser River on Sea Island in 1899.

The fortunes of the canneries and their owners fluctuated with the supply of salmon and unstable foreign markets. In 1902 the British Columbia Packers Association of New Jersey took over many canneries in Steveston along with the Dinsmore, Sea Island and Acme canneries.

The Vancouver Cannery was the more prosperous and longer lasting of the canneries. It closed in 1930 and was dismantled in 1935. The net building served as a warehouse and fishing camp for BC Packers until sold to the Department of Transport and torn down in 1955.

On September 10, 1939, Canada declared war on Germany during World War II. Enlistment in the military soared, and manufacturing grew, in particular shipbuilding and aircraft construction. Indigenous peoples, along with Canadian residents of Asian descent and recent migrants, all enlisted to fight in the war, even though many were still not allowed to vote.

On December 8, 1941, one day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, wartime blackout measures went into effect all along the coast of British Columbia. Canada declared war on Japan shortly after and there was widespread fear that anyone of Japanese descent, in particular the coastal fishermen who made up the majority of British Columbia’s fishing fleet might act against Canada’s interests. Canada began seizing some 12,000 fishing boats belonging to Japanese Canadians and selling them off to mostly white fishermen. In 1942, British Columbia's Japanese population of approximately 22,000 were forced into internment camps throughout the interior. More than half were Nisei, born and raised in British Columbia. In 1943, the Japanese homes at the Vancouver Cannery on Sea Island were burned down.

Story Map of the Canneries

In partnership with staff at the City of Richmond Parks Department, Sea Island Heritage Society volunteers worked to develop and install a sign about Sea Island canneries on the south side of the Middle Arm of the Fraser River at Terra Nova (on Lulu Island). Looking north across the river, one can envision the area where most of the canneries were located. There is a QR code on the sign that, when scanned with your cell phone, will take you to a story map. Discover stories including a young girl's recollections of the Cork Mill run by her grandfather, experiences of Japanese Canadian families living in the Acme Cannery on the southwest shore of Sea Island, and more!

Click any of the buttons below to read more about each subject.

On July 22, 1931, the Vancouver Civic Airport and Sea Plane Harbour was officially opened on Sea Island, altering the community irrevocably. Commercial air transportation service commenced in 1934.

The outbreak of World War II meant great changes at the airport. As the only established air base on the West Coast available to the Canadian armed forces it became a defence zone operational base of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

The Federal Government purchased more and more land to expand the airport. In November 1942 the farms belonging to W.A. Hayward, James Williamson and Mr. McDonald were absorbed into the airport holdings and some roads were closed. Mud-coloured shacks and barracks were hastily thrown up to house the air force personnel while abandoned farmhouses waited for the wrecker’s ball to clear the way for more building.

During World War II, the airport and its original terminal, now the South Terminal, were leased to the Federal Government and operated by the Department of National Defence and the Department of Transport as RCAF Station Sea Island. Established on July 22, 1940, RCAF Sea Island Station was used for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The station remained opened after World War II and was renamed RCAF Station Vancouver. It closed in 1964.

The present main terminal of the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) was completed in 1968 and has since expanded to include separate domestic and international terminals.

In 1941, the Wartime Housing Limited - the government owned building company, was preparing plans for a Sea Island community to house 300 families. This housing became necessary due to the establishment of the Boeing Aircraft factory at the Vancouver Airport.

The building of this new community, soon to be called Burkeville after the President of Boeing Aircraft, Stanley Burke, meant that the federal government expropriated more land. Farmland owned by Ernest Cooney, James Erskine and Robert Boyd was used to build Burkeville.

In 1945-1946, the Cora Brown subdivision was built in the northeast area of Sea Island. Cora Brown was a Veterans Land Settlements subdivision.

Fifty families were housed in the first construction phase and eventually there were more than 200 households in the subdivision. Cora Brown was in existence for less than 30 years.

A small area known as the Tapp Road subdivision and the homes to the south fronting on Ferguson Road was built on land sold by Ralph McDonald, the son of Duncan McDonald. In 1949, families moved into homes fronting on Ferguson Road, and the first family arrived on Tapp Road in 1958. The families of this small thriving community and the surrounding farmers were served by a transit system, a corner store and later, the Duncan McDonald Elementary School.

In 1974, the idyllic lifestyle came to a crashing end when both the Cora Brown and Tapp Road subdivisions were taken over for the expansion of Vancouver International Airport. In 1972, the residents of both subdivisions received expropriation notification and the community was tossed into turmoil. It seemed like forever, but it took little time for the Government of Canada to finalize agreements with almost everyone and demolish or move their homes.

There were two holdouts, the Jackson family of Tapp Road and the Les Grauer family. The Jackson family refused to leave and after years of painful negotiations, they were pressured to take the government offer. The Grauer family took the government to court as their property had been resold to DeHavilland Aircraft, which was not allowed according to expropriation rules. The Grauer family eventually won their court case.

At the same time, the Hugh McDonald family was also in negotiations with the government. They were presented with the Crown’s Notice of Intention to Expropriate published in the Canada Gazette on Saturday, November 4, 1972. The McDonald family lawyers sent a Notice of Objection the next day. There was also concern that accreted lands outside the dike were not being included in the proposal.

Hugh Lawrence McDonald (Lawrence McDonald), the grandson of Hugh McDonald was born on the property and found it very stressing to negotiate with the Crown over property that had been in his family for five generations. Lawrence McDonald contracted cancer and died of a broken heart at the age of 61 on May 30, 1961, just seven months after the fateful letter arrived. The government had successfully removed all signs of human existence of pioneer families, WWII veterans and their families and a life that now only exists in history books.

It seemed that after everyone was expropriated, including the McDonald family, security became a problem on the vacant lands with trespassers, 4-wheel vehicles riding all over, criminal elements and just normal trash. The government decided to put the land out for “tender”. Rather than pay for security they opted to lease the land.

Sharon Bordeleau, the great-granddaugther of Hugh McDonald and one of the Sea Island Heritage Society’s directors, felt that it was not right for the tenders to just go to anyone. A letter campaign was initiated to remind parliamentarians that previous owners should have first chance. As a result, in April 1980, the descendants of Hugh McDonald were given a farm lease. The government issued three leases in total, the others going to members of other Sea Island families.

Sea Island was once again Sharon Bordeleau’s home with her husband and their three sons. Sharon’s brother, Reg McDonald, also made Sea Island his home with his family of three for a few years. Sharon’s youngest son Ron, his wife and their daughter, sixth generation Sea Islanders, joined the family farm.

Well, the inevitable happened ...

In the early 2020s, it was again time for more progress on Sea Island. After building many memories on the island, Sharon Bordeleau's family, the last holdouts on Ferguson Road, had to move.

In 2023, it had been almost fifty years since the families of the Cora Brown and Tapp Road subdivisions and the last farmers were expropriated losing everything they had worked for and not much had changed.

There has to be a lesson here ...

Going, going, gone!