BC Packers: The Company, The People
For the better part of the last century, many thousands of men and women spent their working lives in British Columbia’s fishing industry, catching and processing fish for British Columbia Packers Limited [BC Packers].
The Province’s fishing industry attracted people of many ethnic backgrounds. The men and women working for BC Packers on fishing boats and in canneries, whether of First Nation, Chinese, Japanese, Indo Canadian or European ancestry, reflected the multicultural face of the industry.
BC Packers was a large fishing company that was formed in 1902 and operated in British Columbia until it was sold in 1999. The company employed people all up and down the coast from Prince Rupert to Steveston. For many small coastal communities, the BC Packers cannery served as the main employer, the store, the post office and a meeting place for news and gossip. In the more populous centres such as Prince Rupert and Steveston, the BC Packers canneries were enormous factories employing scores of fishermen and shore workers.
During nearly a century of activity, the company and its employees were impacted by significant events in local and world history. As working people went about their jobs day after day, the consequences of unfolding world events such as the Great Depression and World War II were considerable. While working men and women struggled through the economic hardship of the 1930s, BC Packers shifted its business away from a focus on salmon and began catching and processing other fish such as herring. This expansion made possible hundreds of new jobs for fishermen and people in the canneries. With the outbreak of World War II, BC Packers and its employees would see no shortage of work, working literally around the clock year after year to meet the, huge wartime demand for fish products of all kinds.
The Second World War also impacted the company’s employees in other ways. For the many Japanese-Canadians working in the industry, the war led to the loss of their jobs, their boats, their homes and their possessions. They were declared enemy aliens of Canada and interned far from the coast. To fill the vacant positions, BC Packers recruited a whole new workforce. Young men and women answered the call, many of them completely new to fishing and processing, but who would make the most of the opportunity.
The actual jobs performed by working people would also be changed by the war. For fishermen, new wartime technologies made fishing safer and more productive and significantly eased the backbreaking nature of the work. In the canneries and processing plants, the increased production meant more work. Newer and better machines and techniques made the workplace safer.
As BC Packers grew and profited, fishermen and shore workers sought to make their working lives better. The post-war boom saw considerable gains for the Company’s employees. As more and more consumer goods became widely available, the cost of living soared. Trade unions in every industry began demanding higher pay for their members. Strike action became much more common in the fishing industry during these years. Shore workers and fishermen gained increasingly better wages and better working conditions. The United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union was formed in 1945. It would prove to be the first viable union in the industry. By the 1960s, all of BC Packers’ fishermen and employees were unionized.
During the 1970s and 1980s, business and work continued as usual for the company and its employees. BC Packers expanded its operations to include interests in Eastern Canada, the United States and abroad. In British Columbia, workers kept on fishing and processing and the Company kept on promoting its famous “Clover Leaf” and “Rupert Brand” products throughout Canada. The company remained a significant employer throughout this period, but by the 1990s the tide was turning.
The year 1990 might be remembered as the ‘last hurrah!’ for BC Packers. The five week Fraser River sockeye run was so large that the company’s Imperial Plant in Steveston employed over 800 workers to process about 1,000,000 lbs of fish a day. Following that, BC Packers and rival Canfisco formed a joint company to process one another’s fish at Canfisco’s Home Plant in Vancouver and BC Packers’ New Oceanside Plant in Prince Rupert. By 1992, the canning lines at Imperial Plant were shutdown after nearly 100 years of operation. Even the fresh and frozen fish operations that had sustained Imperial Plant since the 1960s were eventually shutdown. Only high-end herring roe processing and herring reduction continued. In 1997, Imperial Plant, the crown jewel of the BC Packers empire was closed for good. The sale of the company’s assets in 1999 removed the company from the industry it had commanded for nearly a century.
For the countless men and women who worked for BC Packers over the years, whether fishermen or cannery workers, all of their hard work, their skill at performing their tasks well, and all of their accomplishments are things that they are proud of. Regardless of ethnicity, the stories are the same. If there was fish, you worked. Everyone worked side by side to get the job done. Most people recall their lives in the fishing industry as one filled with good friends, favourite places and the occasional character met along the way. Of course, there were also struggles. The story of BC Packers may be one of business, but it is also the story of working people and their lives in the fishing industry of British Columbia.