Why Does Vancouver Have So Many Sister Cities?

... and what is our civic policy around sharing clothes?

I learned recently that the city of Vancouver has not one, not two, but five sister cities. While I don’t have a sister, I am a sister (to my brother), which means I am well within my rights to say five is too many. It’s an enthusiasm for civic sorority that borders on hoarding.

If all of these sister cities were as hot and full of drama as the Kardashians, then maybe there would be a good reason to collect so many. But the truth is, they’re all just pleasant, non-confrontational towns that give each other exchange students and commemorative statues. None of these cities would dream of spicing up Thanksgiving dinner by revealing that their bestie city kissed another sister city’s ex-boyfriend city. Boooooring! May as well have five brother cities!

But much like you don’t have any say about who your human siblings are (as I learned back in 1990 when I asked my mother to give birth to Winnie the Pooh’s Piglet instead of a little boy), Vancouverites simply have to accept the family we’ve been given. Odesa, Ukraine, was the original sister, coming into the Vancouver family back in 1944. Yokohama, Japan, was next in 1965, before the middle child (Edinburgh, Scotland) was added in ’78. Guangzhou, China, joined in the mid-’80s, followed by Los Angeles (U! S! A!) in 1986—the Irish Twins in the family. Each was added for a specific reason, in the context of their time. The sisterhood with Odesa, for instance, was born when Vancouver agreed to provide humanitarian aid during the Second World War, while L.A. was presumably onboarded because the Lakers were really sizzlin’ at the time.

Having a sister city is ultimately like having a sister-sister, but instead of pretending you didn’t spill mustard on the sweater she told you not to borrow or fighting over whose turn it is to use the computer, sister cities swap civic information and embark on feel-good joint ventures. For cities to become official sisters, the respective civic officials have to sign a memorandum of understanding—the municipal version of a blood pact. It’s not clear what happens if one of the sisters breaks the MOU, but I imagine the other city would be well within its right, legally speaking, to Go Tell Mom. (In this context: the United Nations?)

These sister city relationships were initially driven by local community groups that have all now shuttered (except for the ride-or-die Vancouver-Guangzhou Friendship Society), so in recent decades the City of Vancouver itself has had to take the lead in nurturing its relationships with its little siblings: coordinating official correspondence, responding to requests for information or assistance and organizing protocol meetings and special events where required. For any eldest sister reading this, these are tasks that likely feel hauntingly familiar. And perhaps city council is also fed up with carrying the emotional load of the family, because it recently set a dramatic boundary (someone’s been to therapy!), recommending that sister cities be reclassified as “friendship cities.”

This new Friendship City program is intended to facilitate city-to-city partnerships that are time limited, with measurable objectives. These programs are also intended to be run by nonprofits in both cities. All in all, the vibe may be less “BFF matching heart necklace” and more “we should definitely get coffee sometime,” but the tangible outcomes will hopefully make these relationships more beneficial than the bland, ceremonial sisterhood ever was. And with the success of this program, we can dream of the next great geo-municipal initiative, one that could finally deliver us the inane drama we crave in these troubled times: Frenemy Cities.

Got a question for City Informer? stacey.mclachlan@vanmag.com

This story was originally published in the December/January 2024 issue of Vancouver Magazine.