Serving Community

By Vernice Shostal

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Author Jan Peterson is always looking for ways to contribute her talents to her community.

“The greatest reward for me is having people read and learn about their history,” says Jan Peterson, artist, historian and author of Kilts on the Coast – The Scots Who Built BC.

A member of the Nanaimo Historical Society, the Nanaimo Museum and the Nanaimo Community Archives Society, Jan has received many awards for her work both as an artist and a writer.

Born in Scotland, Jan’s first success was winning the Bryson Art Prize at Strathaven Academy while she was still in school. In 1957, at age 20, Jan immigrated with her family to Kingston, Ontario where she attended Kingston Business College and then took a job as secretary at Queen’s University. She attended her first formal art lesson at the University’s summer school.

In 1963, Jan married Ray Peterson, a graduate engineer from UBC. When the couple moved to Vancouver two years later, Jan further pursued her interest in art with classes from Ladner artist Michael Duncan.

Three children and nine years later, Ray’s job took the family to Alberni Valley where Jan found an opportunity to attend more art classes from professional artists brought in by the Port Alberni AV Art group, which “added to my knowledge,” says Jan.

In Alberni, Jan became president of the Alberni Valley Community Arts Council and, during her tenure, oversaw the renovation of a heritage house that became the Rollin Art Centre. In 1979, she was appointed to the B.C. Arts Board, representing Central Vancouver Island and served a three-year term- one year as the regional chairman of the board.

She was also part of a three-man committee that studied visual arts in the province.

“Painting and writing have been lifelong interests,” says Jan. In addition to several one-man exhibits in Port Alberni, she participated in group exhibitions in the Echo Centre Lounge, the Rollin Art Centre and several juried shows and exhibitions in Nanaimo and Victoria.

Jan was writing about the arts, issuing press releases promoting the arts and publishing newsletters for the Alberni Valley and Regional Arts Councils when, in 1981, the publisher of the Alberni Valley Times asked her if she would be interested in working full-time as a reporter.

“Since I loved writing, I jumped at the chance,” says Jan. “I loved every minute of my work there. There I discovered researching! I loved interviewing some of the old-timers in the valley and I had the opportunity of writing about people and events in the community.”

Her first year on the job, Jan received a Jack Wasserman Award for investigative journalism on social and environmental affairs, an award given annually to a reporter with no more than three years’ experience. “The other two recipients were college graduates,” says Jan. “Mine was ‘the University of Life.’”

A board member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Alberni Valley Museum Advisory Board, the Alberni District Historical Society, the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce, Presidents of the Friends of North Island College, Jan also worked with the Alberni Clayoquot regional District and the Community Events committee promoting tourism in the region. “I have always been interested in serving the community,” says Jan, “something I learned from my parents.”

In January 1987, without warning, Jan suddenly collapsed at work and was rushed to emergency, then to intensive care at UBC Hospital. A year later, diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, she thought her life as she knew it was over, but, determined to recover, she decided to do something to keep her mind active and let her body heal.

That determination led her to expand her interest in history and she began researching the history of Port Alberni. Twice a week, she went to the Alberni District Historical Society archives in the Alberni Valley Museum and started writing her first book, The Albernis: 1860-1922. The book, published by Oolichan, was launched in 1992. “This was one of the most exciting nights for me,” says Jan. “I still had little strength, so a friend helped me with the reading.

We sold all the books the publisher had brought to the launch.” All proceeds from the sale of the book were donated to the Historical Society.

Jan’s next book, Twin Cities: Alberni-Port Alberni, which took the valley’s history up to 1967 when the two cities amalgamated, was published in 1994. Proceeds from that book were donated to the Rollin Art Centre. Cathedral Grove: MacMillan Park (1996), and Journeys down the Alberni Canal to Barkley Sound (1999) followed.

In 1996, Jan and her husband retired to Nanaimo and Jan wondered about the history of Nanaimo. She was quickly informed that the research on Nanaimo had been done and several books, especially related to the coal industry, had been published, but Jan’s curiosity was about the people who made things happen in the community. Once again, she began researching. Her effort netted her the Nanaimo trilogy, published by Heritage House: Black Diamond City (2002), Hub City (2003) and Harbour City (2006).

In 2004, Jan self-published her first Scottish book, Listen Tae Yer Granny, a mix of her own family history, Scottish folklore, proverbs and rhymes. “The book has been very rewarding personally for me,” says Jan, “for I have found relatives I didn’t know existed and friends from my hometown in Scotland have become reacquainted.”

Always looking for something to contribute to the community, when the new Nanaimo Museum opened, Jan wrote A place in Time: Nanaimo Chronicles (2008), and presented the book to the museum to raise money for its new endowment fund. All proceeds from the book go to the museum.

Jan’s most recent book, Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built BC (Heritage House), another book written out of curiosity, tells the story of the Princess Royal pioneers from the Black Country in England who arrived in Nanaimo on November 27, 1854 to be welcomed on the shore by a group of miners. Each year this event is celebrated in Nanaimo with the ringing of the bell at the Bastion.

Jan wondered who these people were. She began researching the Nanaimo Archives, reading through the Hudson’s Bay Company letter book and daybook that recorded the work and daily activity in the small mining village between the years 1852 and 1854. From a list of workers, she researched where they came from, their family history and interesting incidents in their lives. That led her to become curious about the time period in Fort Victoria. She soon found a common thread – most of the new settlers came from Scotland.

“I could identify with the miners in Ayrshire for it was not far from where I lived in Scotland and I knew many of the places these new settlers had left behind. Kilts became a labour of love!” says Jan. “I was particularly happy when I found descendants from the original settlers and could help them relate to their own place in history.”

Jan holds Honourary Life Memberships in the Alberni District Historical Society and the Alberni Valley Community Arts Council. She was awarded a Canada 125 medal for community service. The City of Port Alberni awarded her a certificate of Appreciation for historical research and the Alberni Valley Museum & Heritage Commission recognized her contribution to the awareness and preservation of Port Alberni and Nanaimo Heritage.

“My health has greatly improved,” says Jan, who has started painting again, something she put on hold in favour of researching and writing about history. Wife, mother, writer, painter and historian, Jan is thankful for a circle of like-minded friends who are also interested in history. “Now,” she says, “I have a good balance in my life,”

Kilts on the Coast is available in most books stores including Chapters, Coles, independent bookstores, BC Ferries, BC Museum, Nanaimo Museum, McLean’s Specialty Foods in Nanaimo and Nanaimo Maps & Charts. E book version can be ordered from Heritage House. For copies of Listen Tae Yer Granny, contact Jan directly at



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