Gulf of Georgia Cannery exhibition explores how waves of fishing-industry innovations affected diverse communities

It's one of 35 offerings at Doors Open Richmond, a free virtual event offering insights into the city's cultural diversity and heritage

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      In the 21st century, innovation often brings benefits to many people, but it also mows down jobs.

      A case in point: Google.

      While it's opened up a world of information with a few taps on a keyboard, it's wiped out countless occupations in a host of industries. And it's only accelerating with refinements to artificial intelligence.

      But the pros and cons of innovation are not a new thing. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, new discoveries also transformed B.C.'s fishing industry, sometimes to the detriment of workers.

      This is at the crux of a new exhibition at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in the Steveston neighbourhood of Richmond.

      The head of visitor services, Mimi Horita, told the Straight by phone that its name, Waves of Innovation, plays on the cannery's ocean theme and the ripple effect of adaptations and inventions on different communities.

      As an example, she mentioned the "iron butcher", which mechanized the process of carving up a salmon.

      Prior to its invention in 1905, there would be about 30 Chinese butchers on each canning line in Steveston, cleaning the fish and removing their heads and tails.

      "Maybe they would do five or six fish a minute," Horita said. "This iron butcher...was able to process one salmon per second."

      That meant the 30 skilled butchers on each line lost their jobs, only to be replaced by just three people.

      An innovation that hurt Japanese fishers north of Rivers Inlet in the early 20th century was invention of the gas engine.

      "The ban on gas engines was lifted from fishers in 1924," Horita explained. "But that excluded the Japanese Canadian fishers. They were not allowed to use motorized boats until five years later when one fisherman fought for the right to be able to do that.

      "Innovations come and go in our industries," she added, "and they may be helpful for some and may put others at disadvantages. The waves of innovation affect different communities differently."

      The Gulf of Georgia Cannery's exhibition was co-curated by executive director Stephanie Halapija, collections manager Heidi Rampfl, and audience engagement manager Krystal Newcombe.

      Waves of Innovation is one 35 offerings in this year's virtual Doors Open Richmond—a free annual event designed to showcase the city's cultural diversity and heritage.

      The Gulf of Georgia Cannery is a national historic site managed by a local community organization on behalf of Parks Canada.

      Fishing industry lured Japanese to Canada 

      Since last July, a limited number of people can also visit the Gulf of Georgia Cannery's sprawling 55,000 square-foot building, which extends over the Fraser River estuary on 600 wood pilings.

      "We say it's the size of three ice-hockey rinks, which gives it perspective for Canadians who might know what size an ice-hockey rink might be," Horita said. "Basically, it was built to can salmon, so it's a very long-shaped building."

      It was designed this way to enable fish to be loaded directly into the cannery without having to travel over land, even at low tide.

      Indigenous peoples caught salmon in this area for thousands of years prior to European contact. Horita said that the first canneries were built by settlers in the 1800s.

      "Initially, the Indigenous people were hired to fish for the canneries because they knew where to catch them and how to catch them," she noted.

      But a labour shortage led to the immigration of Japanese Canadians, starting with the first who arrived in 1887 from the town of Mio in Wakayama Prefecture.

      He passed on word to his hometown, resulting in many more Mio villagers immigrating to Steveston to work in the fishing industry. They became fishers, boat builders, net menders, and, in the case of many of the Japanese wives, cannery workers.

      After the railway was completed in 1885, many Chinese immigrants also looked for work in the fishing industry.

      According to Horita, they did much of the hard labour, such as carrying fish from the boats into the canneries and manning the areas where cans were cooked at the end of the line.

      "The high-risk, hot, laborious tasks were done by many Chinese immigrants," she noted.

      The internment of Japanese Canadians in the Second World War resulted in the confiscation of their property as they were sent to camps in the B.C. Interior and other parts of Canada.

      But the Japanese heritage still remains in Steveston, most notably in Garry Point Park. There's a Japanese garden on the eastern edge, as well as many cherry blossom trees. They were donated by the B.C. Wakayama Kenjin Kai (the Wayakama Prefectural Association).

      "A large part of the reason I started working here was I wanted to gain more knowledge about the history of the Japanese Canadians in Steveston [on] Canada's West Coast," Horita, a second-generation Canadian, said. "They virtually paved the way for immigrants like my family—the newer, more recent immigrants—to come in. I knew they went through a lot so that's what I really wanted to immerse myself into and be able to present that story."