The little seaside village of Tofino lies within the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht, the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe after whom Clayoquot Sound is named. The principal Tla-o-qui-aht village of Opitsaht that greeted the first European explorers hundreds of years ago and has been occupied for thousands of years before that, lies just across the harbour from Tofino. It is home to about 150 Tla-o-qui-aht today.
The original Nuu-chah-nulth name for the site that Tofino occupies today is “Naachaks,” which means “lookout.” The high rocks by the First Street dock were a place to stand watch for invading tribes or other visitors.
The first white settlement here was not Tofino itself, but rather was across the water on Clayoquot (or Stubbs) Island – the sandspit that you can see from the Tofino docks. A trading post called Clayoquot was established on the island in 1855. That little settlement gradually became the main services centre for the hundreds of people who lived and worked up the more remote inlets of Clayoquot Sound: loggers, mill workers, miners, fisherman, and homesteaders. The hotel at Clayoquot was the receiver of British Columbia’s very first liquor license.
Through the early 1900s, numerous families cleared patches in the rainforest to try their luck at farming, but very few of these pioneers had any success. Their old abandoned homesteads form the base for most of what is private land today.
By 1912, the population on Clayoquot Island was outgrowing their tiny land area. The homestead on the adjacent peninsula was purchased from owner John Grice, and the townsite of the new village of Tofino was surveyed. Main Street was a muddy track along the water, and what is now the main entranceway to Tofino (Campbell Street) was still impenetrable rainforest. A year later, little St. Columba Church was built on the corner of Third and Main, where it still stands today, from an endowment from a family in England.
As in Ucluelet, during the 1920s Japanese fisherman moved into the area and became an important part of the community, but were removed by the federal government to internment camps inland during the Second World War. The town continued as a small boat-accessed community through the 1950s, surviving mainly on the proceeds of fishing and logging, and rejoiceful when a road connecting to Port Alberni was finally constructed in 1959.
This new road allowed for a new kind of settler: hippies and draft-dodgers who migrated west during the 1960s and 70s, many of them living as squatters on the beaches. The liberal views that Tofino is known for can trace their origins to this wave of “settlers,” many of whom remain in the community to this day.
Environmental protests during the 1980s and ’90s spawned a tourism industry with a strong base in ecological values and consciousness about the environment. Clayoquot Sound itself was declared a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2000. Today this little village, with a permanent population of about 1800, welcomes about one million tourists every year, and is known as the Gateway to Clayoquot Sound.
This article was written by Jacqueline Windh.