Virtual tours offer glimpse of Island now and then

Three former University of Victoria classmates have come up with a way to make Canadian history more accessible and engaging for families unwilling — or unable — to travel this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On This Spot is a digital walking-tour app that includes hundreds of then-and-now photographs that give users a tangible connection with the past.

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Users can take virtual tours or view side-by-side photos that showcase the rich history of more than 20 cities and towns across Canada, including Victoria, Esquimalt and Nanaimo.

“We call ourselves a history company with a tech side,” said Andrew Farris, co-founder of the Vancouver-based company. “We have partnered with cities across Canada to take photos from exactly the same spot where a historic photographer was standing. It is as if we could look through their eyes more than a hundred years ago.”

He said the pictures show how cities have evolved — what has changed, the extent of the change and what has been lost. The company has partnered with heritage, tourism and business organizations across the country to search local archives for digitized content.

So far, the company has covered more than 20 cities in seven provinces. People can use the app while walking the city or take a virtual walking tour from home.

On Vancouver Island, you can explore the history of Victoria, Esquimalt, Nanaimo and Ucluelet. Vancouver and Abbotsford are the only other cities included in British Columbia.

Last month, the company launched tours in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.; Okotoks, Alta.; Quebec City and Montreal. The latter two include French translations — a feature that will soon be expanded to all existing tours.

Although the tours are written to be engaging to the layperson, the content is academically rigorous enough, with in-depth footnoting, to serve as an educational tool, Farris said.

He said the company’s goal is to expand coverage to every community in Canada. What ends up being included depends on the city and how much it has changed.

“In every community we’ve worked in, there are fascinating stories worthy of their own Hollywood movie, but many of them are half-forgotten and known only to local history buffs,” Farris said.

The app is free to download and available for both iOS and Android devices. The content can be accessed from any location.

The company partners with business improvement associations, museums and tourism associations to produce the content for the app. To pay the bills, it applies for grants and charges $7,500 and up for each city featured.

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