This Week in History


Fishy Business

For the week of Monday November 23, 1998

On November 28, 1888, the North Pacific Canning Company received a government charter. Soon afterwards, the owners built their salmon cannery in Port Edward, a small town 740 km (460 miles) north of Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), at the mouth of the Skeena River.

At this time, there were close to 1000 salmon canneries from the Sacramento River in California to the Yukon River in Alaska! More than half of these were rural canneries operating in isolated areas of northern BC and Alaska. These small rural canneries distributed salmon to families across Canada and Great Britain.

Label from a North Pacific can

Label from a North Pacific can
© British Columbia Archives / I/BA/SCR I #42

It was not until 1914 that the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTR) reached the Skeena River, creating a direct route for east-west trade. Before the GTR arrived, the cannery could only be reached from the ocean. This meant that all supplies, materials and staff arrived at the cannery by steamer. Completely isolated, the cannery and surrounding buildings grew as a self-contained seasonal community.

From May until September each year, the North Pacific employed 400 people of various cultures. Each racial group lived separately and worked in different areas. Among the earliest employees of the cannery, First Nations fishermen were heavily relied upon. These fishermen brought their families with them and the cannery hired the women to construct and repair the fishing nets. Fishermen rented their nets from the company. While both the Aboriginal people and the Japanese fished, Chinese employees worked mainly inside the cannery cleaning and canning the salmon.

Fishing Boats on Skeena River

Fishing Boats on Skeena River
© British Columbia Archives / B-02300

Asian labour worked under the Chinese and Japanese contract systems. Under these systems, a Chinese or Japanese "boss" provided room and board, and negotiated contract prices for the men. The Japanese fishing "boss" agreed to supply fish to the cannery at a designated price per pound. The Chinese "boss" agreed to pack cases of salmon at a set price per case. The division of labour and housing changed after the Japanese were interned by the government in 1942, and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union organized workers in the plant in 1945.

After four changes in ownership, the North Pacific plant closed for good in 1981. In 1985, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized the North Pacific Cannery as a national historic site. Unusually well-preserved, the cannery is open to the public as a museum.

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