Voices from vanished canneries:

🕔Mar 27, 2008

North coastal BC has a harsh climate and, without diligent preservation and constant maintenance, unprotected structures don’t stand much chance against relentless rain and riotous vegetation.
Andrew Minigan is the manager and curator of the North Pacific Cannery Museum in Port Edward, the most complete surviving cannery of the hundreds that once dotted the West Coast. Minigan sometimes feels as if he can see this Canadian National Historic Site crumbling before his eyes, hampered as he is by financial and manpower constraints.
However, Minigan—who calls himself a “jack of lack of funds”—knows that buildings are not the only part of North Pacific’s past in danger of disappearing. The human legacy of the canning industry is also at risk, as the last people to live and work at North Pacific age and pass away.
Of the former employees of North Pacific, four are known to have died in the last two years, leaving Minigan wondering what irreplaceable knowledge still survives to be recorded and archived. In an effort to capture the recollections and invaluable working knowledge of north coastal canneries, North Pacific has been awarded a $10,000 grant by the BC Museums Association.
Grant money will be used in an effort to contact and interview surviving former employees and neighbours of North Pacific and of any other cannery formerly operating on the coast. The money will pay for advertising and travel costs, as well as paying professional researchers. In an added boost to the project, CBC has offered recording expertise and studio time so that high-quality recordings can be made.

Bringing life to history
Minigan intends the recordings to bring human life to the museum’s displays. The current exhibits are rich in information about the buildings and mechanical elements of the canning industry, but Minigan—as a trained anthropologist—noticed very quickly that North Pacific lacked the personal experience of individual employees. “There’s a lot of interpretation of the actual machines, and what each one did,” says Minigan, “but I’d like to have people’s own words talking about what it was like working on that machine as well.”
Once a recording is completed, it will be transcribed into text to be used on interpretive panels.
“My exhibit designer is really set on the idea of having archival photographs blown up to life-size cut-outs of the actual people,” says Minigan, although this has not been finalized. Regardless of what display format is chosen, he would like to have concrete results for the 2008 summer season. “This summer we want to be installing new exhibit materials directly influenced by this ‘Life on the Canning Line’ initiative.”
Although delivery of information through multimedia such as sound bites is a possibility, Minigan is realistic about the problems of adding electronic components to the museum displays. Not only are they expensive, but the inhospitable environment that has eroded most traces of North Pacific’s sister canneries from the shores of Inverness passage are just as unforgiving of modern technology.
Dampness, cold, and tremors from passing freight trains all take their toll. “Anything electronic does not survive at North Pacific Cannery,” Minigan says wryly. “You have to go for the most durable materials possible.”
This recording project has just begun to move forward, but Minigan is brimming with ideas for further anthropological efforts. He would like, for instance, to house the gathered archival material in a secure, dedicated structure. Presently the museum’s storage system is cardboard boxes residing in various attics at the mercy of the elements.
Minigan thinks as well of genealogy. He thinks that the museum could be “a place where people can come and research their family histories. A lot of people’s birth certificates actually say ‘North Pacific Cannery’ on them because it was such a self-contained little village.”
And Minigan is interested in exploring the social dynamics of life at the canneries. First Nations, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans worked alongside one another on a daily basis, but rarely interacted. The oral history initiative would be a window into such aspects of life at a cannery, injecting human colour into a largely black-and-white depiction.

Virtual Museum project
Finally, another aspect to the memories project may be to become part of the Virtual Museum of Canada, an Internet website that allows viewers to access “original and revealing” interpretations of Canadian history. According to its website, more than 7 million people visit the VMC each year. Minigan is in the process of applying for the grant that would provide opportunity for Internet users to explore online versions of the exhibits at North Pacific.
Internet access could enable the public to actually hear the voices of former employees as they reminisce about the days when the canneries of the North Coast were booming, churning out virtual schools of canned fish and hauling in profits.
Part of the $10,000 grant will go towards advertising that will alert coastal residents to the project. As word gets out that the museum is looking for oral history contributions, Minigan hopes people will come forward and offer not only their recollections but perhaps photos and journals as well.
Because canning was a seasonal occupation, whole families travelled from up and down the coast as well as from points inland to live on-site at the canneries for five or six months at a time. For this reason Minigan doesn’t expect to make contact with all possible participants on the first try. The interviews will take place on an on-going basis, perhaps taking years. “People come out of the woodwork. Someone might say, ‘Oh, my grandfather, he worked there.’ You kind of make contact gradually.”
The BC Museums Association grant will pave the way for the skeletal knowledge of what life was really like out at North Pacific, but Minigan warns that this grant is only a drop in the bucket when it comes to preserving and revitalizing all that the site represents.
Minigan feels that, although the North Pacific Cannery Museum has been a National Historic Site since 1985, it has been neglected both politically and financially. “I’m committed to turning it around, but I’m under no illusions,” he says. “This place needs funding on a level I’ve never encountered before— $5 million in purely structural stabilization alone.”
Without a serious injection of passionate interest as well as money, the collected voices of the people of North Pacific could soon be all that remains of the most complete standing cannery on the BC coast.