Segregation and Japanese Labour at the North Pacific Cannery from 1918 until 1923 by Sarah Utz


The North Pacific Cannery, located near Port Edward, BC, and other canneries in British Columbia provided employment for people of several different ethnicities. The Japanese labour force, provided fishermen and other forms labour for the canneries of British Columbia was one of these groups. Japanese people were employed or contracted for many different jobs at the canneries in British Columbia, they were carpenters, fishermen and the women often worked in the cannery itself, cleaning and preparing the fish for the final product. The Pacific fishing industry of British Columbia heavily relied on the labour of groups who did not fit the definition of white. These groups, the Japanese people, the First Nations Peoples and the Chinese people, often had specific jobs in the industry often based upon ethnicity and gender. This text, will in particular focus on the years between 1910 and 1925 and will examine the Japanese workers at the cannery, and the reaction of European settler residents of British Columbia to the influx of Asian labour to the fishing industry.

There are three main points this text will explore in regards to imported Japanese labour for the fishing industry. First the Japanese people themselves and the jobs they preformed. This will be explored through the North Pacific Cannery, and the workers and living quarters that were present at that particular cannery. Second, the segregation of workers based upon ethnicity that occurred in canneries will be examined.  Thirdly this work will explore different reactions towards the Japanese labour force of the canning industry and how these reactions may have been dictated from a fear of the unknown as well as a part of societal expectations and imagined differences.

The Japanese workers at the North Pacific cannery preformed many different jobs. The inherent structure of the segregation and racial ideas of the time is apparent in the way payment was given. In a ledger from the North Pacific Cannery Archives, there is a record of employees, jobs and payment from 1918 until 1923, in this record those who were Japanese workers were separate from other employees of the cannery under a section called Jap labour. These workers, in contrast to the other section of workers, which did not have a heading but based off of the names appeared to be of desirable European origins, worked for hourly wages instead of a monthly salary. Based off of the records of each workers hours the work varied, some days Japanese labourers worked ten or twelve hours and other days only a few. One important aspect of this ledger, however, is that it did not record the names of fishermen or workers in the cannery but only those who worked at other jobs, such as carpenters, people working on nets and general labour. There is also some evidence, which suggests that, these fishermen arrived before the fishing season to work at these odd jobs and then transferred to fishing once the salmon were running.

Besides being segregated in how payments were given, Japanese workers were also segregated when it came to housing. This was not something unique to just the Japanese workers, as housing on site at the canneries was divided for people off all ethnicities. The image shows a plan from 1923 of the North Pacific Cannery and this plan shows the Japanese housing, the Chinese bunk house, and although they are not visible on this portion of the plan, to the left there was housing for the First Nations Peoples. For the Japanese workers they were also divided into houses. Over the time period from 1918 until 1923 the names of these houses changed and they also varied in number. The house names over this time period were, Tanaka House, Matsumoto House, Tanino House, Kurita House and Hayashi House, these houses often included a person with the same last name as the house name, although from the records this was not always the case.

Although many people understood the necessity of the Japanese labourers, as is apparent from the fact that they were employed by canneries in large numbers, many people complained about these workers, and appear to have held to racial stereotypes of the time. In a newspaper, BC Saturday Sunset a gentlemen writing under the name of Mr. Bowler writes about how the Japanese and the Americans are monopolizing the fishing industry and states that British Columbia needs to be rescued from these Japanese fishermen as well as from the American monopolization. The British Columbia Federationist, also discusses the threat of “Oriental,” workers in Prince Rupert and how these workers are stealing jobs that should belong to white people. Although this article is largely talking about Chinese workers, it also discusses other workers from Asia. This article also discusses how companies are paying these workers lower wages, although they could afford to pay a higher wage and hire a white person to do the work.

These three points illustrate how Japanese workers in canneries preformed jobs based on their ethnicity, although there were Japanese, and European fishermen, at least when it came to working on shore Japanese workers were treated a separate group, and preformed jobs that were deemed appropriate for their ethnicity. This sort of separation between ethnic groups appeared in other ways as well, the living quarters at the cannery were also divided into residences and areas based upon a persons ethnicity. Beyond this the Japanese workers were seen as something of a threat to European Settlers in British Columbia, and were seen by some people through a filter of what a Japanese person should and should not be.


“Account Book, 1917-1923,” Ledger vol. 57, in MS 2 box, North Pacific Cannery Archives, Port Edward, BC.

Blythe, G. “North Pacific Cannery (fire record image, 1915).” Canneries Etc. General NPC Info. North Pacific Cannery Archives, in cabinet. Port Edward, BC.

Bowler, L.P. BC Saturday Sunset, (Vancouver), 4 No. 50 May 22, 1909

“Labour News…Prince Rupert – Against the Employment of Orientals in Eating Houses Live Topic.” The British Columbia Federationist, (Vancouver) May 8, 1914.

“North Pacific Cannery (fire record image, 1923).” Featured Place at IKBLC: Skeena River. Sheet 44, North Pacific Cannery, RBSC-ARC-1272:F9-8