The commercial fishing industry on the coast was in the odd position of relying for its success on three groups of people – First Nations, Japanese and Chinese – who were the victims of increasing racial discrimination in the province. Asian-Canadians were virtual pariahs. Their numbers were limited by restrictive immigration; they could not vote, hold professional jobs, or live in certain neighbourhoods. First Nations were equally marginalized without the rights of full citizenship. Yet these groups provided the majority of the fishers for the canneries – in the mid-1920s the fleet numbered 6,000 boats, both trollers and gillnetters, of which Aboriginal fishers operated 1,200, White fishers 2,200, and Japanese 2,600 – and the overwhelming majority of the inside workers (see photo above). As cannery pioneer Alexander Ewen observed, it was “impossible to put up a large quantity of fish…unless you have Indian labour. And the same was true of Japanese fishers and Chinese cannery hands.
Cannery operators, with the help of government, took steps to lessen their dependence on Aboriginal and Asian workers. Following World War One a variety of measures reduced the number of licenses available for fishers of Japanese ancestry. Meanwhile, the owners insisted that the Aboriginal right to catch salmon for their own use was depleting the resource and should be curtailed. In the competition to see who would get the lion’s share of the salmon – the traditional Aboriginal food fishery or the industrial fishery – the government sided with the industry. Generations of Aboriginals had been catching salmon in the headwaters of the major rivers as the fish returned to the interior lakes and streams to spawn. The catch, plentiful as it was, had never wiped out the salmon. If anyone was overfishing, it was the canneries. “Our history proves that we do not destroy the fish,” wrote the Cowichan people in a letter to the federal government in 1895. “On the other hand, it is evident that the white population does destroy it.” Yet industry and government convinced themselves that the First Nations posed the greater threat to the survival of the fishery.
On the north coast, the canners focused their sights on the so-called Babine Barricades. This was a complex system of traps and weirs built in the upper reaches of the Babine River, a tributary of the Skeena, near Babine Lake. The barricades produced hundreds of thousands of salmon each season and the people relied on them to provide food for the year as well as to sell to other tribes. But Ottawa had banned traps and allowed First Nations to catch fish only for their own consumption. In the summer of 1904 fisheries officer Hans Helgesen travelled to the Babine where he supervised the destruction of the barricades. Not surprisingly, the result was starvation for the Babine people, and in 1906 the traps were back in place. A party of five fisheries officers and police constables arrived on the scene determined to enforce the law. Since the Babine were equally determined to protect the barricades, the two sides came to blows. When word reached Helgesen back on the coast, he hurried to the site of the standoff and eventually a compromise was found. That autumn two of the Babine chiefs travelled to Ottawa where they met with the fisheries minister and the minister of Indian Affairs. The politicians would not agree to the reconstruction of the barricades. In the end an agreement was hashed out that provided nets for the people and gave them the right to sell some of their catch. It was a victory for the canners, a victory that was replicated at several other sites upriver from the coast where First Nations traps and weirs were destroyed.
The aboriginal fishery was struck a further, and near fatal blow, in 1913. During the previous winter, construction crews for the Canadian Northern Railway had been blasting a right-of-way through the Fraser Canyon. Tonnes of rock and dirt tumbled down the steep canyon sides into the river until eventually the flow of water was reduced to a trickle. Nothing could get through, including the sockeye salmon on the way to their spawning grounds in the interior. In early August John P. Babcock, BC’s deputy fisheries commissioner, arrived at the scene. He found a huge school of sockeye packed tightly together in the river stretching fifteen kilometres downstream. It was an incredible sight, but one that predicted disaster. The way forward was blocked by rubble and impassable rapids. With nowhere to go, the fish would die by the millions without spawning, their corpses piling up on the sandbars and gravel banks of the river. As Babcock wrote during another tour of the area in October: “The living were not spawning and the dead were unspawned.” An entire season’s salmon run was being destroyed, imperilling not just the industry at Steveston but the First Nations tribes for whom the salmon provided the main source of food.
It would take a few years before the industry understood the depth of the crisis. The canners at the mouth of the river experienced 1913 as the best year in their history, processing an astonishing thirty million salmon for export. They had little inkling that in the interior a whole generation of fish was dying off. It was the First Nations who felt the immediate impact of the blockade. Crews finally arrived to open channels for the trapped fish and Aboriginal volunteers used their dipnets to carry salmon past the obstructions. But only a fraction of the fish population made it back to their spawning grounds. Which meant that only a small number was available for the traditional Aboriginal food fishery above the canyon, resulting in widespread famine for the people living throughout the Fraser watershed. And, in defiance of the law, the railway continued to blast and dump rock into the river for another year, further depleting the stocks. In the words of one historian of the fishery, it was “the greatest single environmental disaster in the province’s history”. Inevitably the Fraser River sockeye fishery went into decline. Four years after the Hells Gate catastrophe, when another peak season was due, the canneries packed 75 percent less salmon than in 1913. It took decades for the runs to recover.
Once the magnitude of the disaster became clear, the industry responded in several ways. First of all, canneries increased their pack of coho, pink and chum salmon, types they had earlier disdained as not being up to the quality of the favored sockeye. Where canners paid between 25 and 35 cents for a sockeye, a coho went for as little as four cents, a pink for a nickel. But the lesser breeds had the advantage of being plentiful, so by the 1920s they accounted for between seventy and ninety percent of the industry’s exports depending on the season.
At the same time the fishery saw a sudden expansion in the seine fleet, from a mere 92 seine licenses in 1912 to 445 licenses by the middle of the next decade. Sockeye were best caught by gillnets but purse seiners scooped up huge quantities of the other types. Rather than deploying their nets in a straight line, seiners encircled the fish with a large net which they closed at the bottom (like a purse) and hauled on board. (Drag, or beach, seines were set from shore, usually at the mouth of a river where fish were schooling. The net was deployed in a large circle around the fish, then dragged ashore. Most beach seiners were Aboriginal fishers and government regulation largely eliminated this fishery.) According to one estimate, the growing seine fleet harvested six times as many fish as the gillnetters.
This development led in turn to an acceleration of the pace of northward expansion as more canneries opened to exploit the new stocks. By the middle of the 1920s there were seventy-six canneries operating on the coast. At the same time as the number of canneries proliferated, their ownership consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. This trend intensified dramatically in 1928 when several owners amalgamated their assets into one company, BC Packers Ltd., which ended up with forty-four canneries and a dominant position in the industry. The future development of the industry was set: fewer canneries in fewer places in fewer hands.
Next time: Going for the fur seal