Race and Criminality in the Cannery Communities of the Pacific Northwest in 1909 by Emilio G. Caputo

I feel it necessary to preface this text as having a relation to the development of cannery communities. It is important to understand that the impact of the canneries extended far beyond the site where the labour was performed, as the canneries sprung up along the Pacific Northwest from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. The labour that this industry brought to small communities helped them prosper and is useful in understanding the particularly racialized nature of the communities themselves. In this, one cannot separate the community from the cannery, as it was the cannery workers, their families, and their descendants that helped form these communities. I firmly believe that one cannot understand the fishing industry without understanding the labourers themselves, as well as acknowledging that their lives were lived beyond the confines of the workplace. The industrialization and commodification of the fishing industry along the Northwest Coast brought with it a confluence of cultures that helped shaped the communities the people inhabited.

Within the literature there exists an unpleasant past. A realization that the racial intermixing that occurred alongside the development of the canneries brought with it a systemic racial hierarchy that depended upon conceptions of race, labour, and crime. The newspaper The Empire is a profound example of the intersection of race and criminality that permeated the community of Prince Rupert. I can say with a certain level of conviction that The Empire’s editor, John Houston, was a racially charged author, but also an adamant activist for the working class. However uncomfortable it may be, we must acknowledge that he was a product of his time and was not alone in his sentiments. The Empire became a prime method of dissemination for those concerned with the ideals of race and the superiority of a white society. Conceptions of race present within The Empire are reliant upon the labour provided of the Asiatic peoples. If nothing else, John Houston and the contributors to The Empire demonstrate that, for the people of Prince Rupert, race was a determinant in the prevalence of crime in one’s community.

John Houston was emblematic of a growing prejudice against peoples of Asiatic origin. Houston found an audience in Northern British Columbia that was reacting to the increase in immigrant labour from East Asia. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 signified to the populace of Canada that the Chinese were undesirable immigrants. The years subsequent are important to understanding how a piece of legislation can be understood as a product of societal values and not a means by which they are created. To place Houston’s concerns contextually, the Gentleman’s Agreement between Japan and Canada, signed in 1908, sought to regulate Japanese migration. Houston began his newspaper in 1907 and continued writing for The Empire until 1910, directly in the years surrounding the agreement. Asiatic labour had been on the rise in Houston’s era and many felt the effects of job loss at the hands of immigrants. Authors like Houston propagated early notions of nationalism that sought to underline the overarching racial hierarchy that existed in colonial settlements. His dependence on racial allegiances and the depiction of crime as an issue of race helped reinforce these existing ideologies within cannery communities.

The anonymity of a penned letter allows for the revelation of one’s most secret thoughts and desires. When translated to a public platform, the rhetoric of a vocal few become the sentiments of a community. On 30 January 1909, Houston titled an article, “Can Prince Rupert be Made a City That Will be Clean, Sober, and White?” The dependence upon “white” as a component of an orderly and clean community is indicative of the normalization of an emerging racial hierarchy. Houston’s hierarchy permeated the realm of labour as well. Also on 30 January Houston wrote, “The Empire stands for the non-employment of Asiatics.” In the same breath he argues “…for the enforcement of all laws, irrespective of those who may violate them.” The laws regarding gambling or the use of alcohol, however, disproportionately targeted Asiatic and First Nations inhabitants. It should be recognized that John Houston, in including the now conflicting ideals of justice and discrimination, demonstrated that they were somehow conceivably joined in his shared ideal community. The role of punishment is key to understanding this philosophy, as it was seen as a tool by which one can create an idealized space.

The prevalence of liquor sales in the literature gives one an indication of the activities of individuals in the after hours. Gambling rings and liquor were also common causes of arrest by the constables and a common cause of concern for citizens. On 4 January 1909, a person known as “BUSINESS MAN” wrote to the editor of The Empire, arguing that prohibition is a viable solution for Prince Rupert. In his articulation, he seeks to prevent Aboriginals from accessing alcohol and punish Asiatics for distributing it. One can infer from the writer that there exists an assumption of white innocence, where the illicit sale of alcohol is a result of ethnic minorities.

Though at times The Empire may seem to represent fringe views of the conservative public, the newspaper found itself highly successful in its first few years. John Houston was an effective advocate and a prolific editor. His views, however celebrated they may or may not have been, were at the very least disseminated to a large public far beyond Prince Rupert. At the end of the year, Houston’s ramblings reflected a growing movement within the community, with the question of Asiatic labour that the canneries had produced reaching all new political levels. The Empire reported on 6 November 1909 that Mr. Tom Y. McKay, a candidate in the Labour-Socialist Party, declared himself an opponent of Asiatic labour for its ability to challenge Canadian wage labourers in the capitalist economy. This demonstrates that Houston’s arguments, throughout the course of a year, found a way to substantiate ideals of a white-normative racial hegemony in the communal rhetoric. Perhaps now, more than ever, in our current political climate, it is important to be cognizant of how we conceptualize crime and the ways in which we subconsciously and overtly associate race as a valid form of categorization.


Houston, John. The Empire. 1909. Prince Rupert City & Regional Archives, Prince Rupert, B.C. Police Day Book, Port Essington, Year 1909. Prince Rupert City & Regional Archives, Prince Rupert, B.C.

Renisa Mawani. Colonial Proximities Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871-1921. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.