Nothing fishy about a day-trip to a historic Fraser River factory

 

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Want to explore some less-known BC history on your day off? Check out the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Steveston, BC, where immigrant fishing villages are woven into British Columbia’s social and economic fabric.

 

By David P. Ball

 

Perhaps you might dismiss this as a fishy idea, but a visit to one of Canada’s historic fish factories makes a fantastic day trip.
 

Have no fear, though—the 120-year-old Gulf of Georgia Cannery has long-since shut down its extremely stinky herring and salmon operations. Instead, visitors to the nearly five-square-kilometre plant can see for themselves how many thousands of mostly immigrants caught, prepared and tinned BC’s once-plentiful fisheries, and how they lived.
 

Built in 1894 on the serene banks of the Fraser River, the Cannery is one of Canada’s National Historic Sites and takes about an hour to reach on transit from downtown Vancouver (half that if you’re driving).
 

If you get an early start from town, you can also check out the boardwalk village where workers lived in cramped conditions, an enormous Buddhist temple, and even a mysterious Scandinavian settlement built on wooden stilts.
 

Here are a few reasons to visit Steveston for a day, especially if you think you’ve already seen all the sights in greater Vancouver:

 

1. Seriously, the Cannery is a really impressive factory. It’s worth grabbing a guided tour to learn how its employees – mostly Chinese, Japanese and First Nations people—worked at breakneck speeds to catch, clean and chop 700,000 fish every year. Children were put to work stacking thousands of cans. They’ll even let you try out sorting rubber fish with a long hook.

 

2. For many thousands of years, fishing has been part an essential part of West Coast culture, long before Europeans arrived. Today, despite shrinking fish populations, it remains a part of BC’s lifeblood. The quaint village of Steveston still hosts Canada’s largest fishing fleet and many restaurants where you can taste the day’s fresh catches.

 

3. Other attractions in the Steveston area include Canada’s largest active fishing fleet, a beautiful and giant Chinese Buddhist temple, as well as the historic Finn Slough, where Scandinavian fishing families built rickety houses and a drawbridge on top of the water a century ago; a handful still live to this day.

 

 

For its small size, there are also a surprising number of places to eat in Steveston, including some waterfront restaurants where you can try some of the freshest seafood you’ll find anywhere – including Shady Island Seafood Bar & Grill, Pajo’s Fish Chips, Crab King, the Charthouse, Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine and Yokohama Japanese restaurant.
 

Bring a pair of comfortable walking shoes, because not only is the Cannery a very large factory to explore, but it’s worth the half-hour stroll along the Fraser River’s shores to the Britannia Shipyards, another national historic site.
 

It was there the factory’s workers lived, alongside people building and repairing fishing boats nearby. Not only have the dozen-or-so buildings been authentically restored so you can glimpse how workers a century ago slept, ate, and entertained themselves—but you can only reach them by wooden boardwalks sunk on posts into the tidal marsh. Imagine your house had a moat, like a medieval castle, but of course significantly smaller.
 

Be sure to also go inside the shipyard village’s Murakami House, which tells the story of Asayo and Otokichi Murakami and their family. From 1929 to 1942 single grey-wooden house hosted them and their 10 children. It faces the giant warehouse where they built their own gillnet fishing boats every winter in preparation for the next fishing season.
 

But if you think twelve family members to a tiny house is spacious compared to the two-storey bunkhouse for Chinese labourers further east down the boardwalk, which once served as the shipyard’s “main street.”

 

After hundreds of migrant workers from China died during construction of Canada’s national railway, many of the 17,000 workers who survived stayed and found work in the fishing industry.
 

Yet despite the racism they continued to face and the terrible conditions they worked under here, the rows of bunk beds in the Chinese bunkhouse also show that the 75 workers living there became friends, ate together, read political newspapers, and played games of mah jong in their spare time.
 

If you feel like being a little more adventurous, you can continue following the shores of the Fraser River east another 90 minutes walk to discover Finn Slough. (A Finn is a person from Finland, and a slough is a muddy swamp).
 

This miniature real-life village includes a wooden drawbridge, crumbling riverbank boardwalks, and some floating houses. It was built in the late 1890s, without any government permission, right on top of the waters by fishing families who moved here from Finland.

 

Like the Gulf of Georgia Cannery to its west, Finn Slough is a reminder of how crucial salmon fishing has been to the economy of B.C. A small number of people, including some of the original families, still live in this community—so please be respectful if you visit. It is not a developed tourist destination but a living community. There is, however, one historic sign explaining how the Finn Slough Heritage & Wetland Society is currently trying to save the village from being closed down.
 

If you find yourself with time to spare on your way back from the cannery and shipyards, another beautiful nearby Richmond attraction is the International Buddhist Society’s massive Guan-Yin Temple on Steveston Highway.
 

Celebrating its 30th anniversary last year, this intricately designed complex includes numerous meditation halls, several enormous golden Buddha statues (including one with at least ten thousand arms), and a small dining hall where you can have lunch or tea by donation.

 

The temple’s motto is “inspire your mind and spirit,” and you can spend your time peacefully enjoying its gardens, ponds and artwork, or experiencing traditional ceremonies offered by its nuns and monks.
 

There’s much more to discover in Richmond, even if you won’t find these attractions in most tourist brochures. But the area’s quirky sights makes it my top place to take guests when they visit—and maybe learn a little more about the history of our province. o

 

 

Far Top: Finn Slough community
Photo: Ulrich Gaede/Finn Slough Heritage & Wetland Society

 

Middle: Britannia Shipyards historic site
Boardwalks and marsh moats connect this village on stilts.
Photo: City of Richmond website

 

Bottom: Gulf of Georgia Cannery
Photo: Children learn how to clean and prepare fish in one of Canada’s only intact historic fish factories.
Photo: Parks Canada