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By Goody Niosi

It's known as "The Little Town That Did."

Mural of Billy Thomas, the first European born in the Cowichan Valley

Chemainus earned that name by turning a dying community into one of the biggest outdoor art galleries in the world.

Every year 400,000 tourists turn off the highway that runs up the eastern shore of Vancouver Island to marvel at the 33 works of art that cover the downtown buildings. But they come for more than that. They come to see what can happen when one man has a vision so strong that nothing can stop him.

About 25 years ago, when the local sawmill had closed down one more time, the community decided to take advantage of a provincial grant to revitalize the downtown.

Maybe they could attract a couple of dozen tourists to keep things going - a little bit of fresh paint, some new sidewalks, haul away the old garbage - that should about do it.

Carl Schutz had a different idea. On a trip to Romania he had been impressed by the beautiful wall murals he'd seen in towns and villages across the countryside. Why not try it in Chemainus?

There was more than one businessman on the revitalization committee who thought Schutz was quite mad. But Schutz was adamant. He steamrollered his way past all opposition and in 1982 the citizens of Chemainus whitewashed the sides of five downtown buildings in preparation for their first paintings.

Artists from as far away as Scotland came to work on the largest canvasses they'd ever seen.

Schutz's next job was advertising. He was a force that couldn't be stopped. He talked to newspapers, television, radio, tourist offices… He gave tours, he sent photographs - he wined and dined and schmoozed.

Meanwhile, artists painted more murals, shop owners painted and gingerbreaded their stores, businesses began investing in the little town and Chemainus started bringing home awards.

Chemainus Theatre

In 1992, The Chemainus Theatre went up, a cream-and pink Victorian building whose dinner theatre productions gave tourists one more reason to turn off the highway.

Today Chemainus doesn't mind very much when the sawmill shuts down. On Willow Street and in the old town, antique shops do a roaring trade - so do the ice cream parlours, chocolate shops, art galleries and gift stores with quaint names like Toad Hall Emporium.

"The Little Town That Did" is still doing it. The community's latest project is a Marina that will take advantage of one of the prettiest waterfronts on Vancouver Island

Chemainus started off as one man's dream but it's a success story that was created by the faith and work of a whole community.


"Chemainus is a small town with small town thinking and behaviour which is totally different from large cities. Here, everybody knows everybody. The people are very friendly.

The visitors who come are just stunned by all the pictures and by the small-town friendliness. That's what's special about this town.

To see Chemainus, we usually tell them to follow the yellow steps - not the yellow brick road, the yellow footsteps - they'll take you everywhere."

- Les Poloskey
Chemainus resident and owner of The Simply Super Coffee Bar.

Written by
Goody Niosi
Freelance Writer
Nanaimo, BC

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