A Cannery Community: Japanese Canadians Living on Sea Island
The Japanese Consul and his wife visit the Japanese community living at the canneries on Sea Island.
(City of Richmond Archives)
Sadajiro Asari, a young fisherman from Koza, Wakayama, Japan came to Sea Island with his father in 1912 at the age of 15. They were looking for work opportunities and a better life. In fact, in the early 1900s, many from Wakayama had heard the promising stories of those already here and decided to come to Canada to work in the expanding salmon industry. Many went to Steveston, while some, like Sadajiro, settled on Sea Island.
The success of the canning industry varied over the years, but large runs of salmon and high demands from foreign markets in the ‘boom years,’ 1870-1890, resulted in a rapid growth of canneries that peaked in 1917. On Sea Island, the canneries were built on the north and southwest shores as well as on nearby Swishwash and Dinsmore Islands (see the Tides to Tin interactive map for their specific locations). Settlers and overseas investors owned most of the canneries while the fish were caught and canned by Japanese, Indigenous, Chinese and European workers.
Sadajiro Asari worked and lived on Sea Island as a fisherman. He lived with his father at the canneries. Life was challenging. Single men lived in company-owned bunkhouses, while some huts were provided for families. Others created their own dwellings, often made of river wood. Initially, fishermen did not own boats and had to rely on those that belonged to the canneries, most often small, two-man wooden sailboats. Early on, workers faced discriminatory practices such as low pay, restricted fishing licenses and language problems. Mechanization was beginning to take over much of the canning process. Yet, perseverance and hard work among Japanese Canadians working the river and at the canneries strengthened their community life. By the early 1900s, Japanese Canadians were building most of the wooden boats used in the fishing industry. Many now owned and operated their own small fishing boat(s).
Few families came from Japan. They were mostly single men looking for opportunity and planning to return home. However, the fishing was good and, as hard as life was, many readily completed citizenship papers to make this place their home. They were keen to start a family and began a process of choosing a Japanese bride. Future wives were selected from pictures—a ‘picture’ bride—or arranged by families and sent to Canada. Sadajiro, too, sent for his bride, Some. She came from the same village of Koza as Sadajiro. Married on January 28, 1918, they lived in a hut on the dyke between Vancouver and ACME canneries that Sadajiro had built of found river wood. They raised five children there.
Fishing and cannery work was busiest during the fishing season, typically from May to October. During the off-season, many cannery workers were recruited for the railroad, mining or logging camps. But workers were also wanted at the canneries in the off-season to do repairs and maintenance, and to make cans and corks needed for next season. Many of the Japanese Canadians took on those made-by-hand tasks at the canneries. Sadajiro’s interests were in building and repairing small fishing boats. As the Japanese Canadian community became settled in cannery life year-round, they looked to establish a church and school near the canneries. The Sea Island Japanese School opened in 1929 for the children of Japanese Canadian workers.
Sea Islander, Doreen Braverman, remembers her childhood in cannery housing. She writes in The Cork Mill (2008) of her grandfather, Thomas Goulding, owning and operating a cork mill near the ACME cannery to make corks/floats from red cedar for gillnets. Even though the canneries on Sea Island had closed by 1935, fishing continued out of the southwest shore and corks were needed there and at other fishing centers. Doreen’s memories bring to life special moments with her family living in cannery housing and later on the south end of Shannon Road. She also tells of the extensive work of the salmon cannery industry in B.C. in the first half of the 20th century. The cork mill remained operational until expropriated by the Federal Government in the mid-1950s. The land was needed for airport expansion—the beginning of a familiar story for many living on Sea Island, including those who settled in the Cora Brown subdivision as veterans after WWII.
Toshi Koyanagi (1911-1974) and Mitero Higo (1920 - 1995) were born on Sea Island of immigrant Japanese Canadian parents fishing and working at the canneries. While their ages differ, they most likely spent time with each other and the Asari children. Doreen remembers how spotlessly clean the huts on the dyke were where she played with her Japanese Canadian friends, including the Asari sisters. In the late 1930s, public schooling was available to the children living at the canneries, including Doreen. She recalls riding the bus with her cannery friends to Bridgeport Elementary School on Lulu Island. After school, the bus brought them back to the canneries where Doreen would go to the cork mill to help attach corks to the gillnets. Others would attend the Sea Island School, also referred to as the Japanese School, at the Vancouver Cannery. In the late 1930s, sports teams, such as the Sea Island Hurricanes lacrosse team, competed against other communities nearby. And, the Sea Island Young People’s Society organized social events for their community. On Sundays, Japanese Canadian families would attend church together.
Sea Island Young People's Society, 1939
(City of Richmond Archives 2013-81)
For many years, the Asari family was part of a hard-working, vibrant Japanese Canadian community living on Sea Island. Suddenly, that came to an end in December 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, WWII extended to the Asia-Pacific regions and, as a result, the Canadian government declared Japanese Canadians "enemy aliens." They confiscated their radios, cameras, vehicles and fishing boats and sent them to internment camps while all their belongings were auctioned off.
With only a couple of days’ notice, the Asari family went to Lillooet where over 300 people were housed in 62 tarpaper shacks. Doreen remembers the morning she got ready for school only to realize her Japanese Canadian school friends were not getting on the bus with her. They were gone.
The Lillooet town website states "After resident Sadajiro Asari found and repaired a pump, the Japanese Canadians were able to use an old wooden irrigation flume to carry water up from the muddy Fraser River to wooden storage tanks. Sadajiro became a tomato farmer in Lillooet.
In 1950, Sadajiro Asari returned to Steveston where he worked in the shipbuilding industry. He lived through much change, from building small wooden sailboat-type fishing vessels to much larger, more mechanized seiners. Sadajiro and Some celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Steveston in 1968. Some died in 1972 and Sadajiro died in 1983.
Toshitsugu (Toshi) Koyanagi and the Iona
Toshi was born on Sea Island on August 29, 1911. In 1898, his parents and older brother came to Sea Island, Richmond, British Columbia from Japan. Toshi’s birth certificate identifies Eburne as his place of birth. Eburne was one of the earliest communities on Sea Island with a general store and post office. At the time of Toshi’s birth, there were a large group of Japanese-Canadian families living on the southwest corner of Sea Island where the Acme Cannery (1989 – 1918) and Vancouver Cannery (1896 – 1930) were located. Toshi lived with his father, mother, brother and other siblings in one of the huts built on the side of the dyke, alongside other Japanese Canadian families. It was a happy community, where Japanese Canadians shared a common lifestyle living off the fishing industry. Most fished or worked at the canneries and cork mill, while others were boat builders, fish collectors or worked on the nearby farms, necessary work to support the fishermen and their families. They viewed each other as equals.
Acme Cannery (top) and Vancouver Cannery (bottom) on southwest corner of Sea Island, 1932
(City of Richmond Archives 1985 166 101)
Toshi spent his early years playing with other children who lived at the canneries and nearby farmlands on the southwest side of Sea Island. He attended the Japanese Language School located at the Vancouver Cannery. Possibly, he enjoyed playing with others on the sandbar in the summer when the tide went out, heeding a warning from his parents to be careful around the water. Several drownings occurring in the past served as painful reminders of what could happen to those living so close to the river's edge.
While he spent most of his time with other Japanese Canadian children and their families, he also played with others who lived at or near the canneries. One of his friends was Bernice Montgomery (née Goulding) whose father, Thomas Goulding, Esq. owned and operated the cork mill that sat between the two canneries on the dyke. Bernice and Toshi shared many daily childhood experiences living in the southwest corner of Sea Island and, through those experiences, developed a lasting friendship. Bernice later left Sea Island, married, and had a daughter, Doreen (born 1932). Bernice and Doreen moved back to the house Thomas Goulding built on Shannon Road so that Bernice could care for her mother, sick with cancer. Bernice divorced and married William Montgomery—Doreen’s ‘Pa.’ Doreen remembers her family’s friendship with Toshi, as she recently shared fond memories of that time.
As a young man, Toshi was involved in the fishing industry as a collector. Some collector boats were wooden double-enders. One of those boats used at the Sea Island canneries was the Iona, built in the 1930s. It was a double-ender where the bow and stern both came to a point. Daily, collectors left the canneries in boats like the Iona to collect fish from smaller fishing boats at the mouth of the Fraser or farther out at sea. The collectors would pack the fish on ice and transport the catch to the canneries. In this way, the fishing boats could fish for longer periods of time during the short fishing season. Toshi worked as a collector for Nelson Brothers. While most of the canneries on Sea Island had closed by 1935, the work of fish collecting continued. Toshi continued with his work as a fish packer.
That all came to an end for Japanese Canadians in Canada in December 1941 with WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The Canadian government of the time viewed the coastal communities of Japanese Canadians as enemies of the state and invoked an order to forcibly relocate and intern them in the name of national security. The majority of those evacuated were Canadians by birth. Many in BC were sent to the interior of BC or Alberta, their property confiscated, including fish boats, and, in the case of those on Sea Island, their homes on the dyke were razed. The final day of evacuation was March 31, 1942. Toshi was 30 years old when he was sent to New Denver, the only belongings he could take were what he could carry.
The burning of Japanese Canadian houses at the Acme Cannery on Sea Island
(City of Richmond Archives 2000 15 2)
If there was a happy moment in this turn of events, Toshi met and married Shuzuko (Shuz) Yamada in New Denver, British Columbia. Toshi was an orderly at a Sanitarium and Shuz was a nurse’s aid at the Sanitarium. The marriage took place on April 15, 1944 at the New Denver Full Gospel Mission with Clergyman Karl Hansen officiating. That same year while in New Denver, they had a son, Leonard Koyanagi. Through those years, resilience and resistance kept the Japanese community strong. Doreen’s grandfather, Thomas Goulding, would visit Toshi, Shuz and Leonard in the Interior where they were interned (1942–1949). He often took his granddaughter, Doreen, with him. Doreen and Leonard continue that family friendship to this day.
The restrictions imposed under the War Measures Act were lifted March 31, 1949. Toshi and his family returned to Sea Island in 1950 and lived at 376 Shannon Road. Soon after returning, Toshi was reunited with the Iona thanks to William Montgomery, Doreen’s Pa who had purchased the Iona from Crown Assets when the confiscated properties were put up for sale. Toshi was grateful to be working the Iona again and continued with his work as a fish collector with Nelson Brothers for at least another decade. In 1960, the Iona had its aft deck redesigned to allow for a larger fish hold. It was no longer a double-ender.
Toshi moved his family to Steveston in 1955. He died December 1, 1974. Toshi’s son, Leonard Koyanagi sold the Iona to the City of Richmond (Britannia Steering Committee) on October 18, 1991. Family friend, Doreen Braverman, supported Leonard’s efforts to have the Iona returned to its former state. While some restoration has taken place, the many years the wooden boat spent in the water created the need for costly repairs. The Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site proudly displays a well-travelled Iona in dry dock with the hopes of someday continuing with its restoration.
The Iona - Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site in Richmond, British Columbia
Acknowledgments and References
The Society is grateful for conversations with Doreen Braverman and Leonard Koyanagi, as they recalled and shared more details of their personal experiences, and the close friendships they made.
To learn more about canneries and the Japanese-Canadian community on Sea Island:
- Read Leslie J. Ross’ Richmond Child of the Fraser (Harvesting the River pp. 111-130), available online as a PDF. Retrieved on August 9, 2021.
- Read Mary Keen’s history of Sea Island A Bridge to the World (Canneries on pp. 26-28), available online as a PDF. Retrieved on August 10, 2021.
- Read Doreen Braverman’s account of her time at the cork mill with the owner, her grandfather, Thomas Goulding, in the 2008 Summer Issue of Nikkei Images, Volume 13, No. 2, pp. 3-4, available online as a PDF. Retrieved on August 10, 2021.
- Read Japanese Canadians on Sea Island presented by Friends of the Richmond Archives, available online. Retrieved on August 10, 2021.
- Read Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet: BC’s Japanese Canadian Fishermen by Masako Fukawa with Stanley Fukawa and the Nikkei Fishermen’s History Book Committee for a full historical perspective “of ordinary people who faced inequity, prejudice and inhumanity with an indomitable spirit” (p.9).
- Read Maritime Vessel Management Report to the City of Richmond that includes information about the Iona and its sale to the Britannia Shipyards National Historical Site.
- View the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society’s Tides to Tins website to learn about the history of salmon canning in B.C., including a historical timeline with images and an interactive map.
- Visit the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site in Steveston.
- Visit the Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society building as part of the Steveston Historical Society.
- Visit the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site to view the Iona, located at 5180 Westwater Drive, Richmond, BC.
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