Built in 1894 and permanently closed in 1979, The Gulf of Georgia Cannery was one of 17 such operations at the mouth of the Fraser River. According to Canadian Geographic, the almost-855-mile Fraser is “…the longest undammed river in North America south of the Arctic.” It’s also the longest in British Columbia. The GoG Cannery, built on wooden pilings atop it, was the size of 3 ice hockey rinks. You know you’re in Canada when you hear that comparison.
What makes a stop in Richmond worthwhile, especially for fans of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, is a chance to see a historic operation pretty much frozen in time that makes visitors feel fortunate that they didn’t have to work there or eat the product. It also teaches them, if they care to learn, about fish, especially salmon. If you, for example, have always wondered about the difference between pink and Chinook, this is a graphic chance to find out.
The Scottish and British cannery owners, of course, made the most money followed by fishermen who spent 2 to 10 days on the ocean hauling huge salmon into small skiffs from June through October. In-cannery workers were almost exclusively First Nation or Asian, especially Japanese. About 30 butchers could make up to $50 a month per man, but working conditions were brutal–loud machines, 16 hour days, demands for speed until the Iron Butcher that could handle up to 80 salmon a minute replaced them. Because of the pressure to gut and behead in 12 to 15 seconds it was easy to lose a finger. In fact, this was considered a rite of initiation. Over time, women replaced a lot of the men. Some of their children were paid 10¢ a day to put empty cans down a chute. Unused fish parts were dumped into the Fraser via holes in the floor, so water-borne illnesses were common. So was arthritis. A sign still on a wall lists the rules for handling fish being processed. #6 states, “Any food product that falls on the floor must be discarded or properly reconditioned before putting back into the line.” At least the salmon was later cooked, but not until the “properly reconditioned” had been vacuum sealed in cans using lead solder. In-can-cooking took about one and a half hours.
When salmon were running, this facility operated 24 hours a day with 70% of production shipped to England. As salmon became depleted, the factory switched to herring and fish oil before permanently closing.
Opened to the public as a historic landmark in 1994, the Gulf of Georgia Cannery is several miles south of downtown Vancouver, BC, and a worthwhile. interesting 4 Compass attraction in a tourist area with lots of restaurants and shops. Skip the dated, dull introductory film Journey Through Time if you get the chance.