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In Their Words : The Story of BC Packers
First Nations women fishing in shallow water with nets in the Fraser River
First Nations women fishing in shallow water with nets in the Fraser River.
City of Richmond Archives, 1977 16 12.
First Nations women fishing in shallow water with nets in the Fraser River

In the 1870s, the arrival of European settlers saw the quick establishment of European-style fishing and processing industry. Many salmon canneries were built along the Fraser River to make money from the millions of salmon in the river. They did not use machines to can fish in the early days. Hundreds of people were needed to perform the work by hand. First Nations people were the most populous group in the province at the time and were the natural choice for cannery owners seeking labourers. Steveston became the centre of salmon canning on the Fraser River, offering employment to hundreds of people. First Nations families from the river and up the coast began making the long journey to find work each season.

By the early 1900s, First Nations people were slowly pushed out of the Fraser River salmon canning industry. Before 1893, the majority of Fraser River fishermen were First Nations men but by 1920, they held less than 40 of the nearly 1,300 gillnet licenses issued for the Fraser River. The same decrease in numbers was found in the canneries. First Nations women dominated the washing and filling on Fraser River cannery workforces until the late 1890s. By 1918, Steveston's canneries were no longer employing a significant number of First Nations workers.

A number of factors contributed to the disappearance of First Nations workers from Steveston's fishing industry. Large numbers of Japanese fishermen began entering the industry in the 1890s, their wives following in the 1900s. As this new workforce became available, First Nations people were increasingly pushed out of the industry on the Fraser River. A great fire in Steveston in 1918 destroyed several canneries and reduced the need for labour on the waterfront. New canneries were built up coast and these attracted the majority of First Nations workers away from the Fraser River.

Eventually, many First Nations people could no longer make a living in the fishing industry. The rising cost of boats, gear and licenses was forcing more and more First Nations commercial fishermen out of business. Jobs in the processing plants continued to dry up for First Nations women. In this climate, communities were forced to rely heavily on their traditional food fisheries. During the 1970s and 1980s, many First Nations sought answers through civil disobedience and the legal system. Today, First Nations peoples of British Columbia continue their struggle for position in the industry.

To learn more about the struggles faced by First Nations people in the fishing and canning industry please visit our Learning Resources section for links and references. Katzie First Nation fisherman, Cyril Pierre believes "As fishermen we were pushed aside and weren't allowed to be the best fishermen... Now much of the industry is telling us... it's not fair that the Indian people should go out and catch salmon. When are we going to be equal? I don't think there was ever a day in our life that we were equal to anybody. They haven't come to that sense yet... It's not a privilege, it's a right to us, as native people along the coast."

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