A new meaning to ‘prison food’
By Craig Allan, Staff Writer
For years while riding on the SkyTrain, I would look out the window between Sapperton Station and Columbia Station and see a series of townhouses and condominiums. This sight is no different than any other neighbourhood in the Lower Mainland, but for this certain development, there’s an architectural feature that I haven’t seen anywhere else. In the middle of the sprawling residences sits a castle. It looks like something out of a fantasy storybook. Obviously, it could not be a real castle, because unless New Westminster is home to the most modest royal family ever, there is no way I would not have heard about it.
It wasn’t until recently that I found out that this castle is not a castle for the affluent, but instead a prison for the wicked. The towers and design are the remnants of the New Westminster Penitentiary. It’s not just a structure however, as a restaurant resides inside. Intrigued, I put on my orange jumpsuit (not literally) and headed down for some gruel.
The British Columbia Penitentiary resided on this site from 1878 to 1980. It was the first federal penitentiary west of Manitoba. Some of the famous (or maybe infamous) residents that occupied one of the bared rooms include train robber Bill Miner, and the Doukhobors, a group of Russian dissenters who would protest against the government by committing acts of public nudity and arson. Because they were often convicted en masse, they would overrun the prison so much to the point that they had to be held in a separate cells that were fire resistant due to many instances of setting the prison on fire. In the 1970s, the prison became known for being the site of many riots and hostage-takings. It can’t be a coincidence that the prison would close in 1980. The prison was dismantled, but the turrets and the main façade remain. Now the site is the location of a Montessori preschool and daycare, and a neighbourhood pub. Since I have already graduated, the pub it is!
The building itself is quite impressive. Walking into it is certainly unique compared to many other restaurants. The walls are white with gold trim, and there’s an old saloon bar in the lobby. I only wish I had gone in the daytime, as the view from the south side of the building is a fantastic vista. You can see the Fraser River and Surrey Central.
In terms of the meal, I ordered the Classic Chuck Burger. The burger was nothing special, but the fries were something to write home about! They were steak fries, and they were nicely seasoned. Though there were only a few patrons in the bar, they seemed happy and animated—engaged in a discussion about the recently aired English language debate for the upcoming federal election. For myself, the journey to the castle on the hill was not about the food, but about the history. This site was the location of very little happiness but was nonetheless an important in Canadian history. The bartender told me that she had heard that there are tunnels under the building that lead directly to the courthouse, and what I wouldn’t give to take a walk in those halls.
The historic Government of Canada plaque outside the restaurant states that “union with Canada was advocated for to solve the town’s fiscal problems,” so the prison may have been built due to the financial instability brought on by New Westminster losing the right to be British Columbia’s capital to Victoria in 1868. Just looking at the area, you can see how much times have changed it. A prison right in the middle of a residential area reflects a merging of histories. The prison was built in the economic struggle, but now it resides around a view of widespread success, with a side of steak fries.