A CANNERY COMMUNITY: JAPANESE CANADIANS LIVING ON SEA ISLAND
The Japanese Consul and his wife visit the Japanese community living at the canneries on Sea Island.
(Photo: City of Richmond Archives)
Sadajiro Asari, a young fisherman from Koza, Wakayama, Japan came to Sea Island with his father in 1912 at the age of 15. They were looking for work opportunities and a better life. In fact, in the early 1900s, many from Wakayama had heard the promising stories of those already here and decided to come to Canada to work in the expanding salmon industry. Many went to Steveston, while some, like Sadajiro, settled on Sea Island.
The success of the canning industry varied over the years, but large runs of salmon and high demands from foreign markets in the ‘boom years,’ 1870-1890, resulted in a rapid growth of canneries that peaked in 1917. On Sea Island, the canneries were built on the north and southwest shores as well as on nearby Swishwash and Dinsmore Islands (see the Tides to Tin interactive map for their specific locations). Settlers and overseas investors owned most of the canneries while the fish were caught and canned by Japanese, Indigenous, Chinese and European workers.
Sadajiro Asari worked and lived on Sea Island as a fisherman. He lived with his father at the canneries. Life was challenging. Single men lived in company-owned bunkhouses, while some huts were provided for families. Others created their own dwellings, often made of river wood. Initially, fishermen did not own boats and had to rely on those that belonged to the canneries, most often small, two-man wooden sailboats. Early on, workers faced discriminatory practices such as low pay, restricted fishing licenses and language problems. Mechanization was beginning to take over much of the canning process. Yet, perseverance and hard work among Japanese Canadians working the river and at the canneries strengthened their community life. By the early 1900s, Japanese Canadians were building most of the wooden boats used in the fishing industry. Many now owned and operated their own small fishing boat(s).
Few families came from Japan. They were mostly single men looking for opportunity and planning to return home. However, the fishing was good and, as hard as life was, many readily completed citizenship papers to make this place their home. They were keen to start a family and began a process of choosing a Japanese bride. Future wives were selected from pictures—a ‘picture’ bride—or arranged by families and sent to Canada. Sadajiro, too, sent for his bride, Some. She came from the same village of Koza as Sadajiro. Married on January 28, 1918, they lived in a hut on the dyke between Vancouver and ACME canneries that Sadajiro had built of found river wood. They raised five children there.
Fishing and cannery work was busiest during the fishing season, typically from May to October. During the off-season, many cannery workers were recruited for the railroad, mining or logging camps. But workers were also wanted at the canneries in the off-season to do repairs and maintenance, and to make cans and corks needed for next season. Many of the Japanese Canadians took on those made-by-hand tasks at the canneries. Sadajiro’s interests were in building and repairing small fishing boats. As the Japanese Canadian community became settled in cannery life year-round, they looked to establish a church and school near the canneries. The Sea Island Japanese School opened in 1929 for the children of Japanese Canadian workers.
Sea Islander, Doreen Braverman, remembers her childhood in cannery housing. She writes in The Cork Mill (2008) of her grandfather, Thomas Goulding, owning and operating a cork mill near the ACME cannery to make corks/floats from red cedar for gillnets. Even though the canneries on Sea Island had closed by 1935, fishing continued out of the southwest shore and corks were needed there and at other fishing centers. Doreen’s memories bring to life special moments with her family living in cannery housing and later on the south end of Shannon Road. She also tells of the extensive work of the salmon cannery industry in B.C. in the first half of the 20th century. The cork mill remained operational until e xpropriated by the Federal Government in the mid-1950s. The land was needed for airport expansion—the beginning of a familiar story for many living on Sea Island, including those who settled in the Cora Brown subdivision as veterans after WWII.
Toshi Koyanagi (1911-1974) and Mitero Higo (1920 - 1995) were born on Sea Island of immigrant Japanese Canadian parents fishing and working at the canneries. While their ages differ, they most likely spent time with each other and the Asari children. Doreen remembers how spotlessly clean the huts on the dyke were where she played with her Japanese Canadian friends, including the Asari sisters. In the late 1930s, public schooling was available to the children living at the canneries, including Doreen. She recalls riding the bus with her cannery friends to Bridgeport Elementary School on Lulu Island. After school, the bus brought them back to the canneries where Doreen would go to the cork mill to help attach corks to the gillnets. Others would attend the Japanese school at the Vancouver Cannery. In the late 1930s, sports teams, such as the Sea Island Hurricanes lacrosse team, competed against other communities nearby. And, the Sea Island Young People’s Society organized social events for their community. On Sundays, Japanese Canadian families would attend church together.
Sea Island Young People's Society, 1939.
(Photo: City of Richmond Archives photograph 2013-81)
For many years, the Asari family was part of a hard-working, vibrant Japanese Canadian community living on Sea Island. Suddenly, that came to an end in December 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, WWII extended to the Asia-Pacific regions and, as a result, the Canadian government declared Japanese Canadians "enemy aliens." They confiscated their radios, cameras, vehicles and fishing boats and sent them to internment camps while all their belongings were auctioned off.
With only a couple of days’ notice, the Asari family went to Lillooet where over 300 people were housed in 62 tarpaper shacks. Doreen remembers the morning she got ready for school only to realize her Japanese Canadian school friends were not getting on the bus with her. They were gone.
The Lillooet town website states "After resident Sadajiro Asari found and repaired a pump, the Japanese Canadians were able to use an old wooden irrigation flume to carry water up from the muddy Fraser River to wooden storage tanks. Sadajiro became a tomato farmer in Lillooet.
In 1950, Sadajiro Asari returned to Steveston where he worked in the shipbuilding industry. He lived through much change, from building small wooden sailboat-type fishing vessels to much larger, more mechanized seiners. Sadajiro and Some celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Steveston in 1968. Some died in 1972 and Sadajiro died in 1983.
The Society is grateful for conversations with Doreen Braverman in 2021. Listening to her share her personal experiences at the canneries, the fishing industry as she remembered it, and the close friendships she made with the sons and daughters of cannery workers is touching testimony to the resilience, humility, and strength of the cannery community that lived on Sea Island.
To learn more about canneries and the Japanese-Canadian community on Sea Island:
- Read Leslie J. Ross’ Richmond Child of the Fraser (Harvesting the River pp. 111-130), available online as a PDF. Retrieved on August 9, 2021.
- Read Mary Keen’s history of Sea Island A Bridge to the World (Canneries on pp. 26-28), available online as a PDF. Retrieved on August 10, 2021.
- Read Doreen Braverman’s account of her time at the cork mill with the owner, her grandfather, Thomas Goulding, in the 2008 Summer Issue of Nikkei Images, Volume 13, No. 2, pp. 3-4, available online as a PDF. Retrieved on August 10, 2021.
- Read Japanese Canadians on Sea Island presented by Friends of the Richmond Archives, available online. Retrieved on August 10, 2021.
- Visit the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site in Steveston.
- View the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society’s Tides to Tins website to learn about the history of salmon canning in B.C., including a historical timeline with images and an interactive map.
- Visit the Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society building as part of the Steveston Historical Society.
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