The Old Can­nery’s New Era



Bri­tish Columbia’s last wild­salmon pack­ing plant makes his­tory. FRANCES BACK­HOUSE FROM HAKAI

THE STENCH OF FISH OF­FAL and the screams of birds: a cen­tury ago, the pres­ence of a can­nery on the Bri­tish Columbia coast was un­mis­tak­able, even with your eyes closed.

Open them and you saw gulls and ea­gles cir­cling and div­ing to pluck dis­carded fish heads and en­trails from the ocean around wooden build­ings perched on pil­ings. A steady pa­rade of fish­ing boats nav­i­gated the blood­ied wa­ter to pull along­side the can­nery and off­load their catches. In­side, an an­kle-deep layer of slip­pery salmon await­ing butcher knives cov­ered the gut shed’s plank floor, and the pro­duc­tion line op­er­ated at a dizzy­ing pace as ranks of work­ers scaled, washed and chopped up the salmon be­fore seal­ing it in tin cans.

The prov­ince’s salmon runs seemed in­fi­nite in those days, and busi­ness­men staked out their ground along the coast, de­ter­mined to profit by turn­ing this bounty into a com­mod­ity that could be shipped world­wide. In 1918, shortly be­fore the in­dus­try be­gan to con­sol­i­date, the num­ber of can­ner­ies peaked at 80.

Although a num­ber of com­mer­cial can­ner­ies still process wild fish in Eastern Canada, only a sin­gle one re­mains on the B.C. coast. Far from be­ing just an ar­chaic relic, how­ever, St. Jean’s Can­nery and Smoke­house in Nanaimo, B.C., is at the fore­front of a new move­ment in the prov­ince’s fish­ing in­dus­try. In ad­di­tion to pro­duc­ing the Rain­coast brand, a top choice among con­sumers in­ter­ested in sus­tain­abil­ity, a change in the com­pany’s own­er­ship rep­re­sents the be­gin­ning of an era in which First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties are re­gain­ing con­trol of the ma­rine re­sources that have sus­tained them for thou­sands of years.

DUR­ING A VISIT to St. Jean’s in June 2018, I see that it looks noth­ing like the can­ner­ies of old. Boats, for in­stance, are ab­sent. Lo­cated about a kilo­me­tre from tide­wa­ter in an in­dus­trial part of this Van­cou­ver Is­land city, St. Jean’s has truck bays in­stead of wharves for re­ceiv­ing fish. The sig­nage is min­i­mal, but there’s no miss­ing the three-me­tre­tall can of salmon in front of the clus­ter of low, metal-clad build­ings.

I en­ter the yard and ask a man wear­ing blue cov­er­alls, a ball cap and scuffed steel-toed boots where I might find Steve Hughes, the com­pany pres­i­dent. He flashes a grin and points to the can. Sure enough, there’s a door on the side. Later I will dis­cover that I was talk­ing to the com­pany’s not-quitere­tired for­mer owner, Ger­ard St. Jean. In Novem­ber 2015, he sold controlling in­ter­est in his fam­ily’s busi­ness to NCN Can­nery LP, a part­ner­ship be­tween five of the 14 Nuu-chah-nulth First Na­tions that call the western side of Van­cou­ver Is­land home.

In­side the can, which turns out to be a cozy, wood-pan­elled mu­se­um­cum-board­room, are three peo­ple who

rep­re­sent the new face of the busi­ness: Hughes, as well as Jen­nifer Wood­land and Larry John­son, the CEO and pres­i­dent, re­spec­tively, of Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood, the First Na­tions–owned par­ent com­pany of NCN Can­nery. On one level, the his­tory of St. Jean’s is the tale of a busi­ness. On an­other, it’s a story about a so­cial change rip­pling through B.C.’s coastal com­mu­ni­ties.

WHILE THE PROV­INCE’S can­ning in­dus­try dates back to the ear­li­est days of Con­fed­er­a­tion, the can­ning process it­self is even older, in­vented by a French chef in the early 1800s. By 1864, Amer­i­cans were can­ning salmon on the Pa­cific coast. Three years later, Scot­tish en­tre­pre­neur James Syme es­tab­lished a can­ning op­er­a­tion near the Fraser River in what would soon be­come Bri­tish Columbia—the first of 223 salmon can­ner­ies that have come and gone in the prov­ince since then. The most fleet­ing of these en­ter­prises, like Syme’s, lasted a sea­son or two. The most tena­cious, the North Pa­cific Can­nery in Prince Rupert, boasted al­most 90 con­sec­u­tive years of fish pro­cess­ing, start­ing in 1889 and end­ing in the late 1970s.

St. Jean’s, launched in 1961, was a late­comer and be­gan not with salmon but with oys­ters. Ar­mand St. Jean started the busi­ness in his back­yard, work­ing out of a smoke­house he had built be­hind his garage. At first, he pack­aged his smoked oys­ters, which he called “smud­gies,” in plas­tic bags and sold them to bar pa­trons around town. By 1964, he had pro­gressed to vac­uum-sealed tins, ex­panded his line to in­clude oys­ter chow­der and salmon and set up a ded­i­cated pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity with about five em­ploy­ees. He also be­gan of­fer­ing small-lot cus­tom pro­cess­ing to recre­ational an­glers.

In 1979, when Ar­mand an­nounced he’d soon re­tire, Ger­ard St. Jean left his job as a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer to con­tinue his fa­ther’s legacy—only to be pitched straight into the eco­nom­i­cally stormy 1980s. St. Jean’s al­most went un­der soon after Ger­ard took over, but just when things looked hope­less, he landed a mas­sive con­tract to pro­duce canned seafood for the 1986 world ex­po­si­tion held in Van­cou­ver. Expo 86



re­vi­tal­ized the com­pany’s bank ac­count and boosted its pub­lic pro­file, al­low­ing Ger­ard to carry on.

THE CORE BUSI­NESS of St. Jean’s is still can­ning seafood, pri­mar­ily from B.C. waters but some­times from Alaska, Wash­ing­ton or Ore­gon. Oys­ters and salmon still fig­ure promi­nently, though the op­er­a­tion is now much more diver­si­fied than in Ar­mand’s day. Just how wide-rang­ing it is be­comes ap­par­ent in­side the pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties, which are a maze of in­ter­con­nected build­ings filled with work­ers wear­ing rub­ber boots, blue hair­nets and bright-yel­low aprons.

The orig­i­nal plant was just one room, and this space still houses the main can­ning line, pump­ing out as many as 30,000 cans a day dur­ing peak pro­duc­tion pe­ri­ods. Although to­day is not a high-out­put day, there’s pur­pose­ful ac­tion tak­ing place. Ten women deftly place glis­ten­ing pieces of raw tuna into open cans. Nearby, tins of sock­eye salmon travel the length of a con­veyor, each one re­ceiv­ing a dash of sea salt be­fore its lid is dropped into place, vac­uum-sealed and seamed.

Next door, on the cut­ting line, half a dozen em­ploy­ees wield­ing knives rapidly re­duce whole pink salmon to neat fil­lets for a cor­po­rate bar­be­cue or­der.

In the smoke­house, the air is redo­lent with the scent gen­er­ated by the hard­woods used to cure salmon, tuna, oys­ters and mus­sels. In­side the walk-in freez­ers, the shelves are loaded with frozen prod­ucts that in­clude hal­ibut, black cod and spot prawns.

IN AD­DI­TION TO its own St. Jean’s and Rain­coast re­tail brands, the fa­cil­ity also han­dles pro­cess­ing for a num­ber of co-pack clients—com­mer­cial en­ti­ties that put their own la­bels on the fin­ished goods—and thou­sands of recre­ational fish­ers.

While di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion has helped St. Jean’s out­live its com­peti­tors, the com­pany’s old-fash­ioned ethos may be the most im­por­tant fac­tor in its per­sis­tence. In the early days of the in­dus­try, ev­ery step of the process was done by hand—in­clud­ing mak­ing the cans. But as the 20th cen­tury rolled out, can­nery own­ers in­creas­ingly em­braced ef­fi­ciency-en­hanc­ing in­no­va­tions such as can-fill­ing de­vices and butcher­ing ma­chines. St. Jean’s, how­ever, has al­ways main­tained the hu­man touch, a for­tu­itous choice that has per­fectly po­si­tioned the com­pany to take ad­van­tage of to­day’s foodie cul­ture, with its pas­sion for all things ar­ti­sanal.

St. Jean’s is a hand-pack can­nery, Hughes ex­plains, con­trast­ing this method to mech­a­nized can­ning, where there’s “lit­er­ally a gi­ant pis­ton jam­ming salmon into a can.” Hand fill­ing is slower, but Hughes says the abil­ity to “se­lect only the best stuff ” re­sults in a higher-qual­ity prod­uct. Con­sumers, who pay a pre­mium of a dol­lar or more per can, ap­par­ently agree.

Ac­cord­ing to Hughes, St. Jean’s is also the only com­pany putting canned-in­Canada wild Pa­cific salmon and tuna on gro­cery-store shelves. (Most canned salmon and tuna sold in North Amer­ica comes from pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties lo­cated in Thai­land, the Philip­pines, Viet­nam or Alaska.) “In gen­eral, the canned seafood mar­ket glob­ally is slightly down, but we don’t ex­pe­ri­ence that,” Hughes notes. “There was a per­cep­tion be­fore [that] the garbage goes in the can. We clearly fo­cus on a dif­fer­ent end of the spec­trum, and that is res­onat­ing with peo­ple, so we see growth.”

WHEN GER­ARD started con­tem­plat­ing re­tire­ment a few years ago, there was no short­age of of­fers for his com­pany. Yet rather than go with the high­est bid­der, he chose the one he felt best matched his val­ues and would keep the busi­ness on Van­cou­ver Is­land.

His de­ci­sion to sell to NCN Can­nery, the lim­ited part­ner­ship formed

Yu­ułuʔiłʔath. by the Di­ti­daht, Huu-ay-aht, Uchuck­le­saht, (Ucluelet) and Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ (KyuquotChe­cle­seht) First Na­tions, was no­table on two counts. Only weeks ear­lier, Cana­dian Fish­ing Co. (Can­fisco) had per­ma­nently shut down the can­ning line at its Prince Rupert plant in

north­ern B.C., blam­ing de­clin­ing de­mand for canned salmon and its Alaskan com­peti­tors’ lower wages and oper­at­ing costs. That left St. Jean’s as the last com­mer­cial can­nery pro­cess­ing wild salmon in the prov­ince. And the fact that St. Jean’s was now in First Na­tions hands was equally sig­nif­i­cant.

First Na­tions labour was crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of the prov­ince’s can­ning in­dus­try, es­pe­cially in the early days when the re­gion’s non-In­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion was small. How­ever, the men who ini­tially sup­plied all of the fish to the can­ner­ies were soon marginal­ized by dis­crim­i­na­tory race-based rules that re­stricted their abil­ity to ob­tain in­de­pen­dent fish­ing li­cences— while in­side the plants, the com­mu­nity’s women were al­ways the back­bone of the work­force.

First Na­tions can­nery own­er­ship, on the other hand, is al­most un­prece­dented in B.C. The only his­tor­i­cal ex­cep­tion is a salmon can­nery owned and op­er­ated by the Tsimshian com­mu­nity of Met­lakatla for a few sea­sons in the early 1880s. (In the United States, there are sev­eral Na­tive Amer­i­can–owned fish can­ner­ies, in­clud­ing the prom­i­nent Swinomish Fish Com­pany in La Con­ner, Wash.)

Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood pres­i­dent Larry John­son is Huu-ay-aht and grew up im­mersed in his peo­ple’s fish cul­ture in the small fish­ing vil­lage of Bam­field, lo­cated on the other side of the is­land from Nanaimo. “All the hus­bands would be out on seine boats or hal­ibut boats or trollers,” he re­calls, while their wives fished from smaller ves­sels, closer to shore. When they brought home their catch, they’d can it or smoke it, just like count­less gen­er­a­tions of women be­fore them. As for the chil­dren, “We learned how to clean a fish prob­a­bly at about six years old,” John­son says.

John­son him­self started fish­ing with his fa­ther around age six and even­tu­ally be­came a com­mer­cial fish­er­man. In 1995, how­ever, he left the fish­ing boats and be­gan work­ing for the Huu-ay-aht First Na­tions in treaty ne­go­ti­a­tions and re­source man­age­ment. His mis­sion is to re­con­nect his peo­ple to their ma­rine roots and re­vi­tal­ize their com­mu­ni­ties through new,



sus­tain­able eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties. Help­ing the Nuu-chah-nulth take the helm at St. Jean’s fit per­fectly with this vi­sion. As well, he as­pires to find ways to in­te­grate their com­mer­cial fish­eries and com­mu­nity mem­bers.

In time, this could in­clude St. Jean’s hir­ing more Nuu-chah-nulth em­ploy­ees and buy­ing more fish from Nu­uchah-nulth boats, but cur­rently there are con­straints on both. None of the NCN Can­nery share­holder na­tions are within easy com­mut­ing dis­tance of Nanaimo, and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances have con­cen­trated their com­mer­cial fish­ing li­cences on hal­ibut rather than sock­eye salmon, the St. Jean’s main­stay.

An April 2018 Bri­tish Columbia Supreme Court de­ci­sion that af­firms the Abo­rig­i­nal right of five spe­cific Nuu-chah-nulth na­tions to catch and sell any fish from their ter­ri­to­ries may even­tu­ally open up new op­por­tu­ni­ties for other First Na­tions. How­ever, none of the plain­tiff na­tions in that court case are part of the NCN Can­nery group, and wider ap­pli­ca­tions of the rul­ing may be years away. IN THE MEAN­TIME, the NCN Can­nery mem­bers are ben­e­fit­ing from those, like Hughes, who’ve long worked at St. Jean’s—gain­ing ac­cess to ex­per­tise that is help­ing them de­velop their own Abo­rig­i­nal caught-and-pro­cessed brand, Grat­i­tude Seafoods. “We want to be able to tell our story through seafood,” John­son says. “We’re say­ing we’ve been here since the be­gin­ning of time [and] we’re still con­nected to our land and re­sources.”

Although Grat­i­tude Seafoods canned salmon isn’t for sale yet, the new own­er­ship struc­ture at St. Jean’s is al­ready rewrit­ing the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive about the role of First Na­tions in B.C.’s fish­ing in­dus­try. Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood CEO Wood­land re­cently met a woman who had stopped by St. Jean’s to col­lect her cus­tom-pro­cessed fish. When Wood­land saw her tak­ing a pic­ture of the gi­ant salmon can, she went over to chat. Her re­sponse to Wood­land’s greet­ing speaks vol­umes about the pride gen­er­ated by the par­a­digm shift. “I’m Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’,” the woman said. “This is ours.”

St. Jean’s Can­nery and Smoke­house, in Nanaimo, B.C., pro­cesses 30,000 cans a day dur­ing peak pro­duc­tion pe­ri­ods.

St. Jean’s pres­i­dent Steve Hughes, stand­ing at the board­room en­trance, be­lieves the com­pany's com­mit­ment to hand-pack­ing re­sults in a bet­ter prod­uct.

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