Home    Recent Issues    Comments    Advertising   Library Index


Steveston Swarms With People Preparing To Catch the
Sockeye – Orientals Displace White Men in the
Canneries – Scarcity of Labor

STEVESTON, June 22 – Once each four years, on the point of Lulu Island that projects into the Gulf of Georgia, there springs into being a city, its inflated population flooding its streets and its thousands of boats transforming waters of the Fraser from a quiet stream into a scene of great activity.  For this transformation, surprising even to the resident of the coast, the much prized “sockeye,” smallest of the salmon of the Pacific, is responsible.  For three years in each quartette Steveston is content to slumber, while its residents make a comfortable living by fishing for the various kinds of salmon.  Four or five of the long row of canneries are then operated, and only a sufficient number of people remain in the town to keep these running.  But with the fourth year, when the sockeyes come into the river in their millions, there comes a change.  Preparations are made for a year before, and as the season of the expected big run approaches, canneries, boats and nets are overhauled, and from all parts of the coast men forsake their ordinary work, go down the river to take the tasty sockeyes.

Year of Big Run.

This is the year of the big run, and Steveston, the quiet, has quickened into life, to become in a short month from now a booming industrial centre.  Already the van of the great fish army has been reported – the first sockeyes have been caught in the traps out in the Gulf of Georgia, and the spring salmon nets have snared a few of the larger fish.  Their arrival has acted like a stimulant on Steveston, and within the past week even the spring salmon has been neglected in the haste to prepare for the sockeye catch.  Today not half a dozen boats may be seen upon the water where in a few weeks’ time their white sails and gaily painted hulls may be numbered in thousands.  The present is the harvest time of the boat builder and the net maker.  Without exaggeration hundreds of boats have been either completed within the past few weeks or are under construction.  Stout of build, broad of beam, and usually from 22 to 30 feet in length, they are capable of withstanding even the at times choppy seas of the Sandheads.  Lately the gasoline engine has gained in favor and this season there will be a great increase in the number of power craft engaged on the river, for the majority of new boats are either equipped with power, or so constructed as to be capable of easy conversion into launches.  Along the shores of the river strings of boats tied end to end, may be seen at this season, each group painted alike, designating the particular cannery to which it is attached.  Inside the canneries, on the beach and on the streets of Steveston itself, boats are being built or painted.  Net frames with their busy workers forming the meshes meet the eye at every turn.  Elsewhere, sinkers are being cast on ropes or oakum is being rolled.  A few weeks from now all these scenes will disappear, and the bright hued fleet will spend day and night almost upon the waters landing the finny treasure.

Asiatics Predominant

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this city of wonders to the stranger within its gates is the small percentage of white people.  In a moment the visitor finds himself amid Asiatic surroundings.  Nine out of every ten persons he meets are Japanese, Chinese, Hindus or Indians.  The Japanese appear almost to control the fisheries of the town.  The men who make the cans in the canneries are mainly Chinese, the boats that crowd the streets are owned and manned by Japanese, the stores are Japanese, the property in the limits of Steveston is largely owned by the shrewd brown man, and he may be found engaging in every line of business.

Fifteen Canneries

Fifteen canneries will be in operation at Steveston this season with the arrival of the big run, and not less than 4000 boats will make the port their headquarters.  The fifteen canneries are preparing to pack half a million cases this season, each case containing 12 cans.  The work of making the cans has been rushed forward and a few days will find them all completed ready for the packing.  The largest of the canneries, the Imperial, owned by the B.C. Packers’ Co., will have 55,000 cases in readiness; the Phoenix, of the Bell Irving Co., 32,000; the Star will prepare 24,000 and expects to have eighty boats at work, and 300 men.  The Lighthouse leased by Dawson and German will have 22,000 cases.

Labor Scarce

The big year has never failed and none of the cannery men anticipate any trouble in filling all their cans.  The one great problem this season is that of labor.  The white man has practically vacated the field in favor of the Asiatic, who will work for lower wages and do the work nearly as well.  But now even the Asiatic is becoming scarce and the canners are forced to employ Indians and Asiatic women.  Hindus, too, are appearing in the cannery work in greater numbers than hitherto and are proving capable workmen in this line.  It is expected here that providing the run is up to the standard of other years, upwards of 1,000,000 cases will be packed on the Fraser this season.  A dyke has been thrown up along the waterfront recently leaving a 20-foot ditch between the houses of the fishermen and the wharves.  This is being rapidly covered with miniature bridges or footpaths, one of which will shortly connect every house with the top of the dyke.  The immediate necessity of these has caused a rush and converted the waterfront into an exceptionally busy scene.  Large quantities of cordwood for domestic use at the houses of the fishermen are also being cut, in order that when fishing commences, the men may pursue that profitable industry without interruption.

In marked contrast to the Asiatic rush, bustle and chatter in the town is the quiet of the surrounding country.  Level as a table, the plains of Lulu Island stretch green far to the north and east, dotted with progressive, prosperous looking residences, whose neatness proclaims the care of the thrifty housewife.  The crops, under the influence of the warm sun, are growing apace and look to be in a most healthy condition, from twelve to eighteen inches in height.  The first crop, of hay, is to the stook and ready for stacking.  Roots are well advanced and the farmers of Richmond face the pleasant prospect of a rich harvest.


Reprinted from The Delta Times, June 26, 1909.