By Nancy Demwell, Delta Museum and Archives Society
Salmon canning, and consequently salmon fishing, was big business on the Fraser River toward the end of the 19th century. It was hard work: open skiffs powered by sail and oars were towed upstream by steam-powered tenders and let loose to float downstream. The boat’s crew set gillnets and gathered them in. Collector barges would then come to collect their catch. These skiffs and their two-man crews were known to stay out for days without returning to shore.
The canneries on the Fraser tripled in number in the 1890s. With the modernization of the factory system in the canneries and the opening of the CPR to the West Coast in 1891, the facilities had the means of production and distribution, and a ready market for West Coast salmon. Having enough licensed fishermen to take the catch was the difficulty that canneries faced.
The federal government, concerned about the overfishing of the Fraser River, implemented criteria for who may hold a commercial fishing licence. The canneries were given the majority of the licences, but when the number of canneries tripled, the number of licences had to be divided between them. Each cannery had as little as 20 skiffs to provide fish for it to process.
A limited number of federal fishing licences were given to independent operators who met the criteria as bona fide fishermen, residents of B.C. and British subjects. Canneries hired the fishermen, their helper crew mates, and their skiff on contract to meet the shortfalls of their own fishing fleet’s catch. In subsequent years, namely the 1890s, the number of independent fishing licences was increased.
Canneries also changed the way that both cannery fishermen and independent fishermen were paid by dropping the daily wage and adopting a price per fish. Initially, the independent fishermen received more than the cannery fishermen and the price per fish or the daily wage varied between canneries. At the time, there were organizations for the Japanese fishermen, the fishermen of European descent, and the Indigenous fishermen.
In 1900, the three fishermen’s groups joined together and struck for a better price per fish than any of the canneries were offering. The canneries, in turn, joined together in opposition. Collectively, the fishermen stayed on strike for two weeks, but in the third week the Japanese fishermen’s organization broke ranks and settled for much lower than the agreed target price. The remaining two groups of fishermen remained on strike.
There were isolated incidents of net cutting, slashed sails, damaged boat hulls and intimidation of Japanese fishermen. The canneries used these acts of sabotage to convince a justice of the peace to call in a militia of four hundred soldiers to defend Japanese fishermen and the property of the Fraser River canneries.
In the next week, all of the fishermen returned to fishing and accepted the original price offered by the canneries. In 1901, the three fishermen’s organizations united and struck again for a better price per fish.
With all the increased fishing, fish stocks had fallen in number and the federal government stepped in to reduce the number of licences. The fishermen who were last to get their fishing licences were the first to lose them. This reduction of fishing licences was repeated in the following decade, and the holders of these lost licences were primarily Japanese. The Japanese of North Delta, unable to fish, took up chicken farming in Kennedy, up the hill from Annieville. The area of their farms was then dubbed “Chicken Mura” by local North Delta residents.