Gulf of Georgia Cannery
Tin Cans and Iron
Canned salmon took the world by storm in 1894.
That's when the Georgia Cannery opened and stood
the fishing industry on its head with this brand
new system of preserving the local salmon catch.
But the cannery made another claim to fame. It
spawned one of the first multi-ethnic community
in Canada. The diverse workforce of Japanese,
Chinese, and First Nations people were imported
for their skills with the gutting knife. They
were strictly segregated along cultural lines..both
at work and in their bunkhouses in the cannery
Working conditions were grueling. Temperatures
in the cannery were either very cold or very hot
and always the stench of fish. Women worked with
the babies strapped to their backs. And many workers
lost fingers as they toiled for long hours gutting
the salmon catch.
In its heyday, the cannery was one of 17 along
the waterfront of Steveston. In the fishing season
the population ballooned from 400 to 10,000. But
in 1906 everything changed with the arrival of
the first mechanical gutting machine known at
the "Iron Chink" which did the work
of 30 people. Automation was a boon to productivity
but it also forced massive layoffs among the cannery's
But the cannery industry now had to contend with
a rapidly dwindling salmon fish stock that had
slumped from 40 million fish to only one million.
This coincided with the economic downslide of
the 1930s Depression. Canada's bedrock industry,
wheat farming, saw its income drop from $620 million
to $177 million-a year. Unemployment in industry
leapt from three to 20 per cent of the workforce.
Canned salmon was a luxury that many people just
could not afford and many canneries closed down.
The Gulf of Georgia only survived the decade
by closing its canning plant and converting space
into a raw fish station and fishing net storage
loft. The canning lines only re-opened in 1939
with the outbreak of World War II. Canned fish
were needed to supply allied troops. But wartime
also brought with it the darkest chapter for the
The Canadian government deported all Japanese
people to the interior as a security risk.. Fishermen
lost their boats, families were uprooted and moved
without any possessions. One third of those uprooted
were children who were in fact Canadian-born.
After the war repaid decline of all the fishing
grounds spelled the beginning of the end. In 1979
the Cannery was saved from the wreckers' ball
by local conservationists. Today its machinery
hums again, but as a museum offering a snapshot
of a life that was both hard and unremitting.