When most Vancouverites hear “Sapperton,” they probably think of the SkyTrain station, but a new neon art installation along Brunette Avenue in New Westminster hopes to shed a little light on a lesser-known piece of the region’s history.
Titled “The Sappers Were Here,” the 133-foot-long neon sign was commissioned from Rob Shantz of Neon Works by Wesgroup Properties, the development company behind The Sapperton, one of four residential towers planned for the neighbourhood.
“I think it’s important to draw attention to why a community was formed, how it was settled,” says Beau Jarvis, Senior Vice-President of Development at Wesgroup. “The history in this area is rich and if we can help educate people, and tell them why Sapperton is Sapperton, then we’re happy with that.”
The Sapperton neighbourhood was named for the Royal Engineers that helped settle the area in 1858. They were dispatched from England in two contingents, one to survey the Canada-U.S. border to prevent an American infiltration by those wanting to be part of the gold rush and the other to construct roads, infrastructure and survey the land. Many died as they built roads in the harshest conditions. One of the roads they built, North Road, is still in existence. The Sappers are now an integral part of the Canadian military, located across Canada in both militia and regular force units and working on international peacekeeping missions.
Jim Harris, a retired Master Warrant Officer with the Canadian Military Engineers, spent 34 years living the life of a Sapper, serving in the Gulf War and being stationed in Germany, as well as various bases across Canada. According to Harris, the impact of the Sappers on New Westminster and British Columbia in general is almost impossible to fully describe.
“We’re here because they were here,” he says. “They put their blood, sweat and tears into this land and we’re reaping the benefit of it.”
Jarvis says while many developers put up properties with little concern for the history and culture of the surrounding community, Wesgroup wanted to make sure the neighbourhood residents know they really care.
“We’re redeveloping this community, and we’re a huge stakeholder in the Sapperton area in general,” Jarvis says. “We like to think that we contribute to the communities we’re building in. We’re not just running in and running out. We’re not just selling condos. We care about the community.”
With the sign planned as a permanent fixture once The Sapperton is erected, Jarvis says he hopes it will get people interested in the history of their community and get them talking about the impact one little known group had on the area.
“That’s one of the many roles offered by good public art,” he says. “To start a conversation and get people learning new things about where they live and who came before them.”