Although the City of Duncan has a population of just under 5000, it serves the Cowichan Valley which has a population of approximately 80,000, many of whom live in North Cowichan contiguous with Duncan. This gives Duncan a much larger “greater” population than that contained within the city limits. People in areas of North Cowichan bordering on Duncan usually use “Duncan” as their mailing city.
Duncan is the seat of the Cowichan Valley Regional District. The name Cowichan is an anglicization of Halkomelem Quw̓utsun̓, which means “the warm land”.
The city is served by Trans-Canada Highway which connects the city to points north/south. Highway 1 through Duncan is a four-lane street with two signalized intersections (within the city limits) and a speed limit of 50km/hr. British Columbia Highway 18 connects Duncan (via North Cowichan) to the town of Lake Cowichan to the east.
The railway continues to cross Duncan, though passenger and freight rail service on the south island corridor were both discontinued indefinitely in 2011 for safety reasons relating to long-deferred track maintenance.
Public transit is provided in conjunction between BC Transit and the Cowichan Valley Regional Transit System.
The community is named after William Chalmers Duncan (born 1836 in Sarnia, Ontario). He arrived in Victoria in May 1862, then in August of that year he was one of the party of a hundred settlers which Governor Douglas took to Cowichan Bay. After going off on several gold rushes, Duncan settled close to the present city of Duncan. He married in 1876, and his son Kenneth became the first mayor of Duncan. There is a Kenneth Street, as well as a Duncan Street, in the city.
Duncan’s farm was named Alderlea, and this was the first name of the adjacent settlement. In August 1886, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was opened. No stop had been scheduled at Alderlea for the inaugural train bearing Sir John A. Macdonald and Robert Dunsmuir. However, at Duncan’s Crossing, the level crossing nearest Alderlea, a crowd of 2,000 had assembled around a decorated arch and the train came to an unplanned halt, quite literally putting it on the map.
In the early 1900s, Duncan’s Chinatown was the social centre for the Cowichan Valley’s Chinese population. Chinatown was concentrated in a single block in the southwestern corner of Duncan. At its largest point, Duncan’s Chinatown included six Chinese families and 30 merchants who supplied goods and services to the loggers, millworkers, cannery and mine workers in the area. The city tore the buildings down in 1969 to build a new law courts complex. Some materials from the original buildings were used at Whippletree Junction.
In the 1980s, the city was noted in coverage related to the 1985 bombings at Narita Airport in Japan and aboard Air India Flight 182, Canada’s largest murder case. Resident Inderjit Singh Reyat purchased bomb parts and a radio at Duncan stores, and used the radio to conceal the bomb. Less than two weeks prior to the bombings, Reyat and suspected Air India mastermind Talwinder Singh Parmar were observed testing explosives in the woods outside of Duncan by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
Duncan’s tourism slogan is “The City of Totems”. The city has 80 totem poles around the entire town, which were erected in the late 1980s. In 2007 the city of Duncan deemed copyright privileges of the totem poles in the city. The use of the totems’ images for commercial purposes requires the City of Duncan’s approval.[full citation needed]
Duncan has a large First Nations community and is the traditional home of the Cowichan Tribes, who are the largest band among the Coast Salish people. The Coast Salish men and women of the Cowichan Tribes are makers of the world-famous Cowichan Sweaters.
Duncan is home to the BC Forest Discovery Centre. Before the Canada–United States softwood lumber dispute, Duncan and the whole Cowichan Valley were a thriving lumber centre in British Columbia.
Duncan has the world’s largest ice hockey stick, officially recognised by Guinness World Records on July 14, 2008, which is on display on the side of the local arena – formerly known as the Cowichan Community Centre. The centre is now called The Island Savings Centre (in 2008 Island Savings entered into a 10 year/one million dollar naming rights agreement with the CVRD). The stick was made specifically for Expo 86 in Vancouver, and purchased by Duncan at the end of the event.
In 1911 Norman Corfield drove the first car over the Malahat Highway, opening up vehicle traffic to Duncan. Construction of the Duncan Garage Heritage Building started in 1912 and appeared in Canadian Motorist Magazine (May 1913 issue) as “The most complete and up-to-date fireproof garage on Vancouver Island.” The Duncan Garage set a provincial record for the longest operating business in one location(65 years). It was designated a heritage building in 2002