July 25, 2017 marks 126 years since the first Letters Patent were signed, creating the Corporation of the District of Coquitlam. Since then, subsequent Letters Patent have redefined Coquitlam’s boundaries and the composition of its administration, all leading to the City of Coquitlam we know today.
This online exhibit explores Coquitlam’s administrative history and the changes to its boundaries over time. It also showcases the tremendous conservation work that has been undertaken to save one of Coquitlam’s earliest documents.
What Are Letters Patent?
The Local Government Act is the legal instrument that creates municipalities and dictates how they operate. When a community decides that it wishes to have services such as water distribution and fire protection and wants to gain control over land development in the area, it can apply to incorporate under the Local Government Act. A community is officially incorporated when the provincial cabinet approves and issues a legal document called a Letters Patent.
The Letters Patent establishes the legal name of the municipality, sets out its physical boundaries, and provides instructions for electing a mayor and council.
From Westminster Junction to the Corporation of the District of Coquitlam
In the late 19th century, Coquitlam was a sparsely populated community known as Westminster Junction, which was located in present-day Port Coquitlam. At the time of incorporation, Westminster Junction consisted of a train station, a hotel, and a handful of landowners. After successfully appealing to the federal government to establish a post office, the Westminster Junction landowners petitioned the provincial government to issue Letters Patent to incorporate the area as a municipality.
Notice of Application, March 7, 1891 (Source: City of Coquitlam Archives)
Order-in-Council, July 25, 1891 (Source: BC Archives)
The request was granted and Coquitlam was first incorporated by Letters Patent on July 25, 1891 as the Corporation of the District of Coquitlam - quite a mouthful! Unfortunately, the original Letters Patent have not survived, either with the City or the Province, but a copy was handwritten in the first book of city bylaws prepared by the first City Clerk. The Letters Patent was also later typed out, and this typed version of the 1891 Letters Patent (PDF) is used for reference.
These original Letters Patent established the name of the municipality, outlined its boundaries, and dictated that the municipality would be overseen by five Councillors and a Reeve (later called a Mayor).
The Letters Patent outlined the boundaries of the new municipality in great detail and were described in terms of the District Lots, for example:
all the pieces of land commencing at a point where the boundary line between Lots 54 and 55, Group 1, New Westminster District, intersects with the North Road; thence due south along said North Road to the Brunette River; thence following the course of the Brunette River to a point where said Brunette River intersects the boundary line between Lots 1 and 16; thence east along south boundary line of Lot 1…
Coquitlam’s original boundaries have been drawn on this map from 1892 using the descriptions found in the original Letters Patent.
Coquitlam’s Original Boundaries Drawn on a Map of New Westminster District from 1892 (Map Source: City of Vancouver Archives, AM1594-: MAP 446)
What’s in a Name?
Ever wondered why some places are called villages or towns, while others are districts or cities? It all depends on population and area. According to the Local Government Act, a village has a population of less than 2,500 people, while a town has a population of more than 2,500 but less than 5,000 people. To be a city, there must be a population of more than 5,000 people. Despite these population requirements, if an area to be incorporated is greater than 800 hectares but has an average population density of less than 5 persons per hectare, then it will be incorporated as a district municipality.
In 1894, a two-thirds majority of the residents of the western portion of the Maple Ridge Municipality petitioned to join the Corporation of the District of Coquitlam. This request was granted and new Letters Patent were signed on May 22nd, 1894.
Letters Patent, 1894 (Source: City of Coquitlam Archives)
Coquitlam’s 1894 Boundaries Drawn on a Map of New Westminster District from 1892 (Map Source: City of Vancouver Archives, AM1594-: MAP 446)
The Great Divide
By the early 20th century, excitement was growing about Coquitlam’s potential. From 1911 to 1914, hundreds of ads appeared in the local newspaper encouraging investors to buy land, promising that Coquitlam was to be the industrial centre of greater Vancouver.
Advertisement, Coquitlam Star, 1911 (Source: Coquitlam Star, available on microfilm at the City of Coquitlam Archives)
Advertisement, Coquitlam Star, 1913 (Source: Coquitlam Star, available on microfilm at the City of Coquitlam Archives)
This frenzied land speculation led members of the Westminster Junction community to question why the centre of administration and commerce was supporting such a vast area of wilderness and sparse populations in Burquitlam and Maillardville. In 1913, the land owners in Westminster Junction decided to separate and form their own city. They successfully petitioned the provincial government and the City of Port Coquitlam was incorporated by Letters Patent on March 7, 1913. This left Coquitlam with boundaries that largely resemble those of today.
Coquitlam’s 1913 Boundaries Drawn on a Map of New Westminster District from 1892 (Map Source: City of Vancouver Archives, AM1594-: MAP 446)
Coquitlam’s boundaries shifted only slightly after 1913. In 1926, new Letters Patent (PDF) were drawn up to reflect that District Lot 16 had petitioned to join the municipality. Otherwise, Coquitlam’s boundaries remained largely the same until 1971.
Amalgamation with Fraser Mills
The Corporation of the District of Fraser Mills was originally incorporated in 1913. The company town consisted of 390 acres along the Fraser River. Talk of amalgamation with Coquitlam began in 1969 but negotiations soon stalled. The matter was referred to the provincial Municipal Affairs Minister when the two municipalities could not come to an agreement on the tax rate for the mill. The province decided to force the merger, which gave Coquitlam an industrial tax base and brought municipal services to Fraser Mills.
The individual Letters Patent for both municipalities were revoked and new Letters Patent were signed on October 7, 1971. The amalgamated district was then known simply as the District of Coquitlam.
Letters Patent, 1971 (PDF) (Source: City of Coquitlam Archives)
First Meeting of Council of the District of Coquitlam, November 1, 1971 (Source: Vancouver Sun)
In 1991, Coquitlam celebrated its centennial. As part of the celebrations, Coquitlam resident Dr. J. Crosby Johnston suggested to Council that they seek city status from the Province. On December 2, 1991, Council issued a resolution to request that the municipality be re-incorporated as the City of Coquitlam; view the December 2, 1991 Council Minutes (PDF). The request was granted and new Letters Patent were issued on June 18, 1992. Coquitlam officially became a city and Johnston was honoured for his service to the community with the Freedom of the City.
Letters Patent, 1992 (PDF) (Source: City of Coquitlam Archives)
City Status Celebration, December 1992 (Source: City of Coquitlam Archives)
From the small community in Westminster Junction to the bustling urban city of today, Coquitlam’s journey can be traced through the archival documents preserved and made available by the City of Coquitlam Archives.
Preserving an Important Piece of Coquitlam’s Past
Time is not always kind to historical documents. By the time the City of Coquitlam Archives was founded in 2013, the 1894 Letters Patent had deteriorated to a point that it was no longer safe to view or handle them.
There were extensive tears and cracks, the second page had been completely torn in half, the paper had become acidic and brittle, and both pages had suffered extensive tape damage along the tears. In some cases, the discolouration from the tape stains made it impossible to read the text.
With a view to stabilizing and preserving this important document, the Letters Patent were sent to a local conservation firm for treatment. The conservators performed dry surface cleaning, tape stain reduction, washing, alkalization, humidification and flattening, and lining. Thanks to the conservation treatment, the document can now be safely stored, handled, and examined. The paper has increased flexibility and support, making it less likely to crack and break. The tears were repaired and the harmful acidity was neutralized to slow the natural aging process.
Letters Patent 1894, before treatment (Photograph by FSR Conservation)
Letters Patent 1894, after treatment (Photograph by: FSR Conservation)
Visit the City of Coquitlam Archives website to learn more about the work we are doing to preserve Coquitlam’s documentary heritage, and browse digitized images and descriptions of our holdings using Quest, our online search portal.