The first self-governing nation (1986) in Canada, the Shishalh First Nations were the original residents of the Sunshine Coast. Their tenure is measured in thousands of years. Their history and current day culture is displayed in the their museum shíshálh Nation tems swiya Museum in Sechelt and is visible in (protected) petroglyphs and middens along the shorelines.

The Sechelt or Shíshálh people, (in their language spelled Shishá7lh) are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. At the time of the first European contact the Sechelt had a population of close to 26,000. Sechelt women were famous for their beautiful cedar woven baskets, which were made using materials such as cedar tree roots, cannery grass and birch bark.

The Sechelt First Nations settlement included four villages in the area now called British Columbia, on the Sunshine Coast, two in Jervis Inlet, and one each on Pender Harbour and on Sechelt Inlet.

The language of the Sechelt is called sháshíshálh. “Shashishalhem” is considered the most practical English spelling of this word. Sháshíshálh is part of the Coast Salish language group. 

Basket weaver Ellen Paul
Basket weaver Ellen Paul, 1962.
Photo by Denis Gray

After Europeans came to the area, the First Nations members left more than 30 villages spread throughout the Sunshine Coast to settle in Sechelt. The Tsain-Ko mall at the entrance to Sechelt and the large sand and gravel operation on Sechelt Nation land are testaments to their ever-growing partnerships on and off the Coast with major companies.

Captain W.S. Jemmett conducted the first legal survey in the Sechelt area in 1875 and in 1891, John Scales, formerly a Royal Engineer, received and paid for his military land grant — 150 acres comprising today’s village of Sechelt. He soon sold them to the Hon. Hugh Nelson whose widow in turn sold them to recent English immigrant Herbert Whitaker in 1895.

In 1894, Thomas J. Cook, also from England, his wife Sarah and infant daughter Ada were the first European settlers to take up permanent residence in Sechelt. Today four generations of their descendants live on the Sunshine Coast.

Herbert Whitaker saw the potential for Sechelt as a resort and a resource for lumber and fish. He built two hotels, a series of stores, two wharves and a group of revenue cottages as well as owning two sawmills, five logging camps and a steamship company, all before he was 40 years old.

Cook family's first Sechelt home
Cook family’s first Sechelt home, 1894.

One of his revenue cottages is still occupied today on the Boulevard. Many descendants and extended members of the Whitaker family still reside and run businesses in Sechelt. Other pioneer settlers came either to work for Herbert Whitaker or to establish their own farms, logging or fishing businesses. Their descendants continue to live on the Sunshine Coast.

As access to the Sunshine Coast was by water, Herbert Whitaker started the Sechelt Steamship Company to bring tourists to his hotel and cottages, supplies to his stores and workers to his logging operations. After his death in 1925 (at age 50), the Union Steamship Company, which had already acquired the All Red Line’s ships and tourist resort at Selma Park just east of Sechelt in 1917, bought the Whitaker properties and added a dance pavilion and tea room. The Sechelt

Steamship at Sechelt dock
Steamship at Sechelt dock, 1914.

Union Steamships brought large parties of tourists for day trips to Sechelt and Selma Park or to spend the summer months in its campgrounds, cottages and hotels until, in 1944, its Selma Park properties were sold. In 1956 its Sechelt holdings were relinquished and the Village of Sechelt was incorporated. The District of Sechelt was incorporated in 1986, taking in the surrounding communities of Selma Park, Wilson Creek, East Porpoise Bay, Tuwanek and West Sechelt.

Logging and fishing may have declined in importance in the economy of the Sunshine Coast but the holiday atmosphere of Sechelt continues to this day: cottages, cabins, lodges, motels and campgrounds are run by many Sechelt residents and attract growing numbers of tourists.

One of the most attractive lodges, built in 1936, sits high above the west end of Cowrie Street — Rockwood Lodge. After almost 45 years of providing holiday accommodation, it closed in 1980 and reopened, thanks to the efforts of local author Betty Keller and other interested residents, in 1983 as the site for the very successful Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts.

Rockwood Lodge, 1948
Rockwood Lodge, 1948.

Today Rockwood Lodge is open to the public and is the most important heritage landmark. Plaques depicting local history can also be seen at various locations.

(Photographs provided by Sechelt Community Archives)