As European settlers began to arrive on the Canadian west coast, the more entrepreneurial among them recognized the profit potential of the fish that lived in the region’s waters. Starting around 1870, salmon canneries began springing up along the coast, allowing BC-caught fish to be sold wherever the rapidly expanding rail and sea transport network could take them. Those early canneries have long been silent. But many are finding new life as tourist attractions and testaments to a brief but important period in Canada’s history.
A LIVING MONUMENT
Clad in red-and-white siding, the Gulf of Georgia Cannery building pushes out into Steveston Harbour on wooden pilings. When the tide rises, the water comes right up to the floor of the 122-year-old structure.
The building is a living monument to what was once a vibrant industry on the British Columbia coast. At the height of BC’s fish-canning industry in the first half of the 20th century, there were up to 15 canneries in Steveston alone. The village was nicknamed Salmonopolis. Many of today’s residents of Steveston, which is now part of the city of Richmond, have family histories tied to the canning industry.
Those families were among the many who lobbied to save the Gulf of Georgia Cannery from demolition after it shut down in 1979. The effort was successful; Parks Canada took over the cannery in 1984, and the site opened as a museum in 1994 — the building’s centennial year.
Like most cannery buildings, it was built in an L shape. The short section of the L was where whole fish were brought in, cleaned and had their heads and tails removed. The long section is where the canning line ran — or, at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, three parallel canning lines. The canning process began at a “sliming table” and ended in a pressure oven called a “retort” at the far end. Between these stations were slicers, seamers and patchers.
The village was nicknamed Salmonopolis.
Today, visitors to the cannery see a reconstructed 1930s-’50s era canning line. It’s detailed, complete — and tidy. The museum’s marketing and visitor services manager, Mimi Horita, says the scene would have been a little different a century ago.
Back then, fish spilled in a shimmering wave across the wooden floor. Butchers’ knives moved in a blur and everything was damp and slick. The air was dense with steam and the smell of machine oil and fish. Machines clattered, retorts hissed and wet rubber boots squeaked.
If you worked the sliming table, your hands froze in icy water. If you worked the retorts, you sweltered in steam. “Probably the only comfortable spot was right in the middle,” Horita says. “You’d want to be at the patching station,” where the amount of fish in each can was checked and adjusted. Not that you got to choose. And no matter where you stood, you went home each day smelling like fish.
About 200 salmon canneries once operated on the BC coast from Steveston to Prince Rupert. The industry thrived from the 1880s until the 1950s, packing sockeye, coho, pink, chum and spring salmon hauled from the mouths of the Fraser, Skeena and Nass rivers, at Rivers Inlet on the central coast, and along the Inside Passage.
Canning villages like Steveston, and the communities that formed seasonally in remote cannery sites farther north, brought people from diverse cultural groups into close quarters. They lived separately but worked together: expert fishers from coastal First Nations communities and Japan, skilled butchers from China, overseers from Norway and Europe. Women worked the sliming tables, packed and patched cans and repaired nets. Men caught, cut, seamed and steamed.
By 1950, fish stocks were depleted and salmon canning was becoming expensive. Meanwhile, improved refrigeration and transportation eroded the need for coastal canneries. By the 1970s, BC canneries were almost gone — but not entirely.
“THINGS HAVE CHANGED”
In the city of Nanaimo is a low blue-and-white building that looks like a warehouse and smells like smoked fish. In front of the building is an enormous fish can, which is itself a small building containing a meeting room and a tiny visitor’s centre. It’s the headquarters of St. Jean’s Cannery & Smokehouse.
St. Jean’s got its start in 1961, just as most traditional canneries were shutting their doors. It began as a backyard operation that sold smoked oysters. General manager Steve Hughes says St. Jean’s diverse product line — which includes albacore tuna and specialty food items as well as salmon — has helped it weather some of the challenges that contributed to the decline of the old cannery industry.
The company also processes catches for sport anglers, and the ability to sell products online helps too.
“Those old canneries were high-volume, lower-quality, and depended primarily on a regional resource,” Hughes says. “We’re higher-end and selective with the fish — it’s more of a niche market.”
The St. Jean’s canning line uses 1950s and 1960s-era seamer machines to vacuum seal the cans. Hughes takes pride in the fact that St. Jean butchers and packs cans by hand, but he laughs at the idea of cleaning fish with water pumped straight from a river delta. St. Jean’s is a place of sterile containers and stainless steel. “There’s no fish on the floor,” Hughes says. “The fish are treated with ozonated water, and there are fridges and freezers everywhere. Things have changed.”
OLD CANNERY, NEW LIFE
The Tallheo Cannery Guest House sits near the mouth of the Bella Coola River on the North Bentinck Arm, part of a Pacific inlet that reaches deep into the mountainous wilderness of northern BC. In the 1940s, it had about 300 employees, many of them Nuxalk First Nations people from nearby and Chinese workers brought up from Vancouver.
Now, it plays host to tourists and nature lovers who rent rooms in its restored bunkhouse. Managers Garrett and Skye Newkirk have added some modern amenities to the 12-room facility. “It’s a rustic, cozy experience,” says Garrett, whose father bought the cannery in 1980. “We’ve tried to keep everything as original as possible.”
The location is remote; northern cannery sites were built where fish, not people, naturally congregated.
Newkirk believes the industry’s history is worth preserving. “Many parts of it are disappearing. It should not be forgotten.”