The History of Hostelling on Canada’s West Coast: How it all began

This is the first installment of our new series on the history of our region’s hostels. The goal of this series is to help people better comprehend Hostelling International’s mission, to see beyond the cheap sleeps and to understand the greater ideals behind hostelling.

Excerpted from HI’s book History of HI-Canada-Pacific Mountain Region- Celebrating 75 Years of Hostelling in Canada, by Jon Azpiri.

 If Catherine Barclay's essay contest had gone a little bit better, hostelling in Canada might have been totally different. Today, Hostelling International-Canada has developed a network of hostels that span coast to coast and helps thousands of travellers to enjoy the people, places, and cultures of one of the world's largest and most diverse countries. But this all may not have happened if Catherine Barclay had a little better luck and that tour company in Calgary hadn't gone out of business.

In 1933, Catherine, a French-language teacher in Calgary, convinced a local tour company to sponsor a high-school essay-writing contest. The big prize: a free trip to Europe. Caught up in the midst of the Great Depression, the tour company went out of business and returned all of the essays back to Barclay unopened.

Instead of giving up, Catherine Barclay decided to go through with the contest and fund the winning trip on her own. After finally choosing a winner, she faced another problem. How could she send a young woman out to Europe unsupervised? In 1933, it was unthinkable to send an 18-year-old to Europe on their own.

Catherine and her sister Mary Belle Barclay came up with a solution. They had read an article in Christian Science Monitor about the Youth Hostel Association of England and Scotland, a network of hostels where young people could stay throughout the English countryside and meet other young travellers all under the watchful eye of a hostel “houseparent.”

The idea struck a nerve in the Barclay sisters, so they decided to start an outdoor group of their own. Their first trip was to Bragg Creek, where they stayed at a nearby lodge. They returned to Bragg Creek, located 60 km east of Calgary, on the May long weekend of 1933. This time Mary Belle decided to set up a tent in Bragg Creek.

That first night in the tent, Mary Barclay didn't sleep well. It may have been the sound of birds chirping outside or it may have been an idea that she couldn't get out of her mind. She spent the night tossing and turning, thinking about the possibility of setting up a permanent hostel in Bragg Creek.

Barclay approached Ida White, the owner of Wakesiah Lodge, and asked if she could rent a patch of land to build a hostel. White accepted, charging Mary 50 cents a year for rent. Mary and Catherine's father George Barclay got a local awning company to rent them a large canvas tent. He also let his girls transport materials using his trusty 1918 Ford Model T, which Mary named “Faith” because it required “a lot of faith to drive her.”

The Barclays also managed to get a few pieces of lumber that member and master carpenter Joe Clitheroe turned into furniture. They also built mattresses out of donated straw, and cupboards out of apple crates. On July 1, 1933, the Barclays and a few friends packed all their donated material into old Faith and drove to Bragg Creek. They ultimately set up Canada's first hostel, charging travellers 25 cents a night to sleep in their tent. By 1935, the Barclays set up hostels at Jumping Pound, Morley, Canmore, Banff, and Priddis.

In effect, the humble tent in Bragg Creek was the beginning of the Canadian Youth Hostel Association. The CYHA was founded mainly to promote and establish a network of Canadian youth hostels that would provide simple, inexpensive overnight accommodation for people who wanted to explore their own country. By 1937, the association had less than 100 members and 10 hostels. Nevertheless, that year, the CYHA became the 20th member of the International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF), the body through which all youth hostel associations worldwide are affiliated.

In 1978, the association shifted from the Canadian Youth Hostel Association to the Canadian Hostelling Association and then in 1995 to Hostelling International-Canada. The intention is to encourage people of all ages (not just the young) to use hostels and to maintain a consistent worldwide image with all HI affiliates.

The creation of Bragg Creek also set up a blueprint that fellow hostelling groups in Alberta and BC used to a build a network of hostels created by volunteer labour. For years after Bragg Creek opened, volunteers used hard work and ingenuity to make the most out of limited resources. Over the years, groups would set up weekend “work parties” where volunteers would build or renovate a hostel, usually with materials that were either donated or discarded. By 1939, there were 16 hostels in the province of Alberta alone. “We had day jobs, but they were incidental,” says Don Campbell, who was President of CYHA Southern Alberta in the 1960s. “They didn't really count. It was that other thing [hostelling] that counted. We never ever looked on it as work. We had a lot of fun. We climbed a lot of mountains together and did other things like build buildings. There wasn't a carpenter among us, but there was still a lot of talent.”

Mary Barclay's ideals spread across the country as several different hostelling regions formed around the country, eventually evolving into Hostelling International-Canada. CYHA in Alberta had two distinct groups, the provincial Mountain Region based in Calgary and the Edmonton-based Northwest Region of the CYHA, which was incorporated in 1963. From this point on, there would be two separate associations, one based in Calgary and one in Edmonton.

In British Columbia, hostel development began under the Department of Education, with a Provincial Recreation organizer. They did not have a central executive, but still were part of the CYHA. Eventually, the Pacific Region was formed, which looked after hostels in British Columbia and the Yukon. Over the last decade, all three regions in BC and Alberta merged into Hostelling International-Pacific Mountain Region, which owns and operates 21 hostels as well as nine affiliate hostels.

Odds are, if Mary Belle and Catherine Barclay hadn't started Canada's first hostel, then someone else would have. The idea of hostelling—like-minded travellers sharing economical lodging—had been a mainstay in Europe for years and no doubt would have made its way to Canada's shores one way or another. Fortunately for us, hostelling efforts in Canada were spearheaded by the Barclays. Their unwavering hard work and energy inspired a generation of volunteers to build a strong network of hostels that has helped countless travellers experience Canada's magnificent landscapes. The Barclays' generous spirit could best be summed up by a simple motto that was used for years throughout the organization: “not for me, but for the group.” That commitment to sharing influences Hostelling International-Canada – Pacific Mountain Region to this day. In a way, Catherine Barclay's bit of bad luck was the best thing that ever happened to hostelling in Canada.

Check back next month for our second installment, the history of HI-Banff Alpine Centre.

Author: Backpacker Buzz


john melling's picture
Hello Just found this site regarding the book celebrating Hostelling in Canada joe clitheroe was a Grt Uncle of mine, so it good to know he's still well known Thanks john melling
HI-Membership's picture
Hi John, good to hear from you! Glad you liked the post.

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