It all began about 1000 feet below the ground; in the depths of a Polish salt mine.
There, our friendly resident tour guide evidenced his theory of the restorative powers of salt. He explained that when he started in his position years before he had suffered from terrible asthma. Now, after almost daily exposure to the air of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, he had almost no breathing issues.
Since then, whenever I stand on a pier or lie on a beach, I think of our guide and wonder whether the same curative powers are found in the salt air of the ocean.
I thought of him again as I walked along the Fisherman’s Wharf in Steveston. The boats bobbed on the murky water, the crowds hustled along the uneven wooden planks of the pier inspecting the catch of the day. The sea air smelled of holidays and summer and home as it mingled with the mouthwatering aroma of fish and chips. This would surely remedy almost any ailment.
Steveston is based on the Fraser River, the longest river in British Columbia. It is also the home to what used to be one of the largest salmon canneries in the province – the Gulf of Georgia Cannery.
Before I carry on, I do have to admit that fish canning is not exactly in the remit of what I’d usually find interesting. But everyday is a school day and, as it would turn out, a visit here was a very well spent $7.80 + tax.
There is something very organic about this structure. The left side of the building is right up beside the banks of the River so the salmon could be taken straight from the fishing boats and onto the production line. The cool air inside is a result of the rushing water directly beneath the wooden flooring. The Fraser is its lifeblood.
A guided tour took us down the cannery line, explaining each stage in detail. However, the mechanics and machinery were not what drew my attention. As became apparent, this cannery was a microcosm of the accepted cultural norms of 19th century British Columbia.
The most difficult and most poorly paid jobs were usually set-aside for immigrants, particularly the Chinese. Even lower on the scale were female immigrants. One of their jobs was to clean the fish with the frigid Fraser River water. Within just five to six months these cold temperatures resulted in many cases of full-blown arthritis. European immigrants were given slightly more palatable jobs, such as ensuring each can had the regulation amount of salmon inside. Racism and sexism did not just feature on the cannery line; these prejudices were an expected part of everyday life.
Then came the revolution: refrigeration. Canning was no longer essential for food preservation and eventually almost all the canneries in BC were shut down, including this one.
Leaving the cannery, I was reminded of how Murdo MacFarlane once wrote about mal na mara. This can be literally translated as the tax of the sea. Human kind has always relied on the sea in one-way or another but its bounty always seems to come with a cost. From the dangers of fishing itself (which MacFarlane references) to the hardships of the processing lines, there always seems to be a price that needs to be paid.
Yet we continue to look to the sea for sustenance. And as the canneries information leaflet puts it: “Fishing, as any old timer will tell you, has a way of hooking you for life”.
Fun fact: if you ever watch the show Once Upon a Time you’ll be well familiar with this area of Richmond, BC. The village in the show, Storybrooke, is actually filmed in Steveston. It also appears in the upcoming remake of Godzilla.