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Cities in Canada

A Newcomer’s Guide to the Garden City

A Newcomer’s Guide to the Garden City

Victoria’s motto is “Forever free,” and it’s easy to see why.

Victoria is the capital city of British Columbia, the Western-most Canadian province located on the southern end of Vancouver Island. Victoria is a robust and dynamic city known for its quaint British centre and scenic harbour area. Home to many art galleries, craft breweries, and the prestigious University of Victoria (known as UVIC to locals), the city is an interesting and historic place to live and perfect for you if you like to get out into the great outdoors, stroll the beach, and set sail on the Pacific Ocean. 

A Brief History of Victoria

First Nations people have lived in Victoria (then called Camosun) for more than 10,000 years, and have a rich and important history in the area, (not to mention a vibrant contemporary culture). 

The first notable European contact occurred in 1778 when British Captain James Cook landed on shore. His contact led the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish a fur trading post here called Fort Camosun in 1843 (later named Fort Albert and then Fort Victoria, after the British Queen) on the site of the present city.

The Port of Victoria later became a vital stop of the Pacific trade routes, and was also one of North America's largest opium ports (until this was banned in 1908). It was an important stop on the gold rush routes in the middle of the 19th century. Vancouver Island and the mainland were joined together into one province in 1866, and Victoria was designated as the provincial capital in 1871 (when BC joined Canadian confederation). It had previously been New Westminster, but this was a political move to ensure that the island would feel politically and economically connected to the rest of the province.

In 1886 the Canadian Pacific Railway terminus was completed on the Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. As trade moved from sea to land (rail), Victoria’s importance was compromised. It began to promote itself as a tourist destination throughout the British Empire and beyond, a move cemented by the opening of the world-renowned Butchart Gardens (1904) and the stunning Empress Hotel (1908).

Social Demographics

According to the 2016 census, the population of the city proper is 81,650, and the Capital Regional District (which includes the suburban and rural areas around the city) is home to 345,164 people (you can find this information on Statistics Canada). This makes it the 15th largest metropolitan area in all of Canada. 

Canadians like to joke that Victoria is home to the “newly wed and nearly dead!” This joke refers to the fact that Victoria has long been a city popular with young people and retirees alike, drawn to Victoria because of its mild year-round weather (mild in Canadian terms, that is), arts scene, and high quality of life. 

While it is predominantly home to Canadians of European descent, Victoria does boast a diverse population. According to Statistics Canada, 4% of the population is Chinese, 2.1% is South Asian, 2.1% is Filipino, 1.4% is Black, and 1% is Latin American. Almost 5% of the population is First Nations (Native Canadians), and as a newcomer to Canada it is important that you learn about the history and importance of this community. Owing to its trade routes, the city also has a rich Hawaiian history, and is home to many contemporary Hawaiian residents to this day. 

Victoria Weather

Victoria is known as the mildest city in Canada, and has a Mediterranean climate. This means that the winters are rainy, and the summers are nice and sunny, while reasonably cool. While the city is technically more northerly than Ottawa and Quebec City, the Pacific Ocean current system causes the climate to be much more temperate. That said, you will need to get used to the rain — Victoria receives about as much rain per year as London, England. 

Average monthly temperatures (according to Victoria.ca):

Victoria Public Transport

Victoria is easily navigable by public transport, which consists mostly of public buses. A single journey is $2.50, and a day pass (available only on board from bus drivers) is $5.00. You can also purchase an unlimited monthly pass for $85. Remember: drivers do not carry cash, so you must have exact change. 

The Top 5 Things to Do in Victoria

  1. Spend a day at the Royal British Columbia Museum — One of the best ways to get to know your new home is to explore the Royal BC Museum. Considered one of the best in the country, the RBCM holds a massive collection of British Columbia’s history, First Nations art, and fascinating objects from around the world. Adult admission is $17, but they often host Community Days where admission is by donation. 
  2. Stop and smell the roses at Butchart Gardens — More than one million people travel from the four corners of the globe to visit the jaw-dropping Butchart Gardens, and as a local resident you can enjoy it year-round. It boasts a collection of floral gardens first planted more than a century ago, and it is a National Historic Site of Canada. While it isn’t free (adult rates are $18.75), you can purchase an annual pass ($61.75 per adult) that will allow you to visit as often as you wish. 
  3. Get out onto the sea — Victoria is a world-famous maritime city, so it makes sense that locals love to get out onto the water! From enjoying meals and refreshments along the coast to setting sail on a boat, make sure you take advantage of the ocean. If you’re on a smaller budget than a sailboat allows, you can find affordable rentals on paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes — or just jump in for a swim!
  4. Have a high tea at the Empress Hotel — It’s not exactly wallet-friendly, but we absolutely had to include this legendary experience on any list of what to do in BC’s capital. The Empress Hotel was opened in 1908, and having a proper English afternoon tea has always been a part of its charm. 
  5. Explore the past at Craigdarroch Castle — Often just referred to as “The Castle” by locals, Craigdarroch is a historic mansion located in Victoria’s Rockland neighbourhood. Especially eye-catching during the holidays, the Scottish Baronial castle is open for visitors, and admission ($14.65) includes a tour through the home and grounds. 

Immigrant Services in Victoria

As the provincial capital of British Columbia, Victoria is home to important free services and organizations that aim to help newcomers to Canada. 

  • The Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS)— VIRCS was founded in 1989 by three former refugees who wanted to give back to the community and help others. The centre works hard to help newcomers to Victoria as they settle into new lives in the area. With a multicultural staff and 30 years of experience, they can help you learn English, find a job, discover the local customs, and connect with mentors and friends. Address: 1004 N Park St, Victoria, BC V8T 1C6
  • The Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria — ICA’s Immigrant Welcome Centre welcomes immigrants and refugees arriving in BC. They provide job seeking assistance, English language classes, children’s and youth programs, and a welcoming sense of community to help you adjust to your new life on Vancouver Island. Address: 930 Balmoral Road, Victoria BC, V8T 1A8, Canada (at Quadra Street, in the lower level of the First Metropolitan United Church).
  • The Cowichan Intercultural and Immigrant Aid Society — The CIS is home to a warm and friendly Immigrant Welcome Centre that offers a wide array of programs to help newcomers to the area. They offer community outreach, language classes, and children’s activities, and they also facilitate mentorship opportunities. Duncan is only 46km from Victoria, so newcomers who live in between the two cities might find that these services are more convenient. Address: 321 St. Julian Street, Duncan, BC V9L 3S5

The Greater Victoria Public Library  

The library is a valuable resource for anyone who lives in the Greater Victoria region, and it is especially useful for newcomers. In addition to lending out books and DVDs, they also provide users with free computer and internet access. From family story time to sessions dedicated to helping newcomers to Canada, the GVPL lists a calendar of events that can really help you get settled. Unsure of how to best use this resource? Book a free one-on-one session with a librarian who will show you the ropes and get you set up online. There are 12 branches throughout the region, and the Central location is right in the heart of the city. Main Branch: 735 Broughton St Victoria, V8W 3H2

Service Canada Office Victoria

Every Canadian resident will need to make their way to a Service Canada office at one point or another. These offices are part of a federal institution called Employment and Social Development Canada, and it is where you go to access many different government services and benefits. You will need to go here to obtain your Social Insurance Number (SIN), which you must have before you can start working in any capacity. Address: 1401 Douglas Street, Victoria, BC V8W 2G2

Getting to and from Victoria

Victoria is the westernmost “major” city in Canada, and as a result it can be rather difficult to come here from other places. Since it is located on Vancouver Island, you will need to take a ferry or plane to reach the city. That said, it is connected to Vancouver via the Tsawwassen ferry terminal by more than a dozen sailings per day. It is also very accessible to Seattle by ferry. You can drive your own car on these ferries, walk on as a foot passenger, or take a coach. 

In terms of flying, you have two main choices: you can fly into Victoria International Airport (flights from many different Canadian, American, and sun destination airports), or you can take a seaplane from one of the nearby Gulf Islands, from Vancouver or from Seattle. 

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