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Opinion: History is a work in progress

'You heard it here first: Pemberton was founded by aliens.'
Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman shows off a Coat of Arms supposedly belonging to the town's namesake, Joseph Despard Pemberton, in September 2015. But is it the right one?

In Pemberton’s municipal hall, there is a Coat of Arms, supposedly representing one Joseph Despard Pemberton—the Irish surveyor for whom the town is named.

It was gifted to the town in 2015 by Ivan Moldowan, from Vancouver, who became interested in Pemberton’s history through his work with a company called Pemberton Securities (also named after Joseph Despard Pemberton, or JDP).

In a time long before the internet, Moldowan spent hours in Vancouver libraries researching his company’s namesake, eventually coming across the Coat of Arms in question, and commissioning the plaque.

When Pemberton Securities folded, it went into storage, until Moldowan rediscovered it, dusted it off, and decided to gift it to the Village of Pemberton.

Mayor Mike Richman presented the plaque and shared Moldowan’s account at a council meeting in September 2015.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Shortly after that presentation, Pique heard from a man named Richard Holmes—a direct descendant of JDP—who revealed the Coat of Arms was not, in fact, that of JDP.

The Coat of Arms presented to Pemberton’s council featured three griffin’s heads, Holmes pointed out in an October 2015 meeting at Pique’s office; JDP’s true Coat of Arms featured buckets.

“Different Pembertons have different things … and it gets quite complicated,” Holmes said at the time.

“And of course it’s all deadly serious. In the 1500s, 1600s, if you used the wrong arms, you would be accused of stealing. You would be killed. There would be no discretion about it.”

Let me tell you, dear readers: the Coat of Arms kerfuffle of late 2015 sent this reporter down an endless rabbit hole of regional history, with immediate (and exciting!) plans to turn the whole thing into a massive, satisfying cover feature that straightened it all out.

It never materialized.

In October 2015, I made the shift to the Whistler council beat, which diverted much of my attention down the road to the resort. But I kept plugging away on my history project in the background. I visited the Pemberton Museum and Archives. I compiled a robust research file with help from Holmes. I had an outline and I thought I could see all the pieces, if only vaguely.

Month after month—and soon, year after year—I assured myself my Pemberton history feature would not be relegated to the proverbial dustbin.

But one pressing task after another delayed it; pushed it further down the list. The grind of the weekly newspaper life dictated my progress, and, like all good stories, the more I pulled on the ends of the threads I could see, the longer and more tangled they became.

Like any town, Pemberton’s history is rich—and complicated.

It’s also not definitive.

According to former Pemberton Museum curator Niki Madigan, it’s not at all uncommon to stumble across gaps in the town’s historical record, or questions that simply cannot be answered.

“One hundred and fifty years is a long time in the modern age, and it’s a really long time in the mountains, so evidence disappears,” Madigan told me during my visit all those years ago. “The soils are acidic, so wooden evidence just lying on the ground is gone. You also had the drainage and diking of the Pemberton Valley in the ’50s, that really changed the layout of the valley. New lands, new roads.”

This is to say nothing of the history of the Lil’wat Nation, who have resided in the valley since time immemorial.

The main takeaway from this exercise? Documenting our collective history takes a massive effort, and it’s a neverending work-in-progress.

“It’s also not absolute, right? Each researcher brings new information,” Madigan said, noting the museum often hears from people looking to correct information attached to donations.

In those instances—say, a disagreement over the name of a bridge shown in a historical photo—the “museum standard” is to simply add to the record.

“But we’d leave the original description, because this is what the donor thought it was, whether or not they were right, right? That’s part of the record,” she said.

“So there’s no erasing of the record, and there’s no real ‘wrong’ fact, unless it was like, ‘aliens landed and Pemberton [was founded by] aliens.’”

You heard it here first: Pemberton was founded by aliens.

Jokes aside, as I revisited my old research file for the purposes of this column, I felt a familiar rush of excitement—the one you get when you know you’ve got a great story on your hands. But there are only so many hours in a day, and biology dictates that we must allocate a set number of those to sleep, for some God-forsaken reason.

How annoying is it that we have to spend such a large chunk of our existences unconscious? Just lying there for hours on end, doing nothing but dreaming and maybe snoring, when we could be doing something fun or, better yet, productive?

If I could only forego this pointless exercise, my Pemberton history feature would have published back in 2016. Alas, I am stuck sleeping several hours every night like a big dumb log, and my history project remains my white whale. The one that eluded me, no matter how far I pursued it.

There are still only so many hours in the day, but soon, Pique will have a new reporter to help maximize the productive waking hours.

The new role is thanks to the federal government’s Local Journalism Initiative program, which provides one year of grant funding to hire reporters to cover areas of Canada that aren’t quite getting the attention they deserve—places like Pemberton, and throughout the Lil’wat Nation, which is where the new reporter’s loyalties will exclusively lie.

Are there other Pemberton-centric stories falling through the cracks? Most certainly. But with a new set of eyes on the beat, there will be fewer moving forward.

And maybe, just maybe, my comprehensive history of Joseph Despard Pemberton and his early exploits in Canada will one day see the light of day.

But I’m not making any promises—until someone develops the cure for sleep.

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