Updated: Nov 25, 2020
As a kid growing up at North Pacific Cannery on the north coast of British Columbia, I ate a lot of fish. It came served in many forms on my plate at lunch and dinner, from smoked salmon and black cod to my favourite Halibut and Witches.
Photo Credit: Philippson family collection. |(Gillnetters being brought in for winter storage at North Pacific Cannery)
The only meal I didn't eat fish for was breakfast, but my dad did, in fact he ate it for snacks too. Dad would come into the house from his duties as manager, fill his pockets with dried Oolichan and head back out to the boardwalk munching on them like they were potato chips, smiling as he nibbled. If he sat still to enjoy his snack he would dip them in something he called "liquid gold" aka Oolichan grease. In fact sitting still was not something my dad did often. He was honoured with the Nisga'a name Sim'oojit Alaysim t'aa "Chief Reluctant to Sit"
Lunch during the summer was eaten around an old oak table that had also been the table my grandparents served Sunday lunch on when we would come to visit them in the early '60s. The one part of the lunch that would always be the same was the salmon sandwiches on white bread and slapped with margarine. My sister Terry and I would argue over who got the center bone of the canned salmon as Dad had told us that was the best part and would make us smart. I sure as heck didn't want Terry being smarter than me! So Mum made us take turns as she gently removed the bone and passed it over for either of us to enjoy before she added the mayo and salt and pepper.
Photo Credit: authors lunch. Salmon from the Nass River B.C courtesy of Corinne Mckay
As a kid in the '60s, especially in our home, you never complained about what was on your plate. But I would and it never went down well. I really pushed it one day and complained about how many salmon sandwiches I had eaten, I did regret it and only did it once as the look on my father's face said it all. He then said something I never forgot. "If it is good enough for the Queen it is good enough for you" I would ponder that statement right up until around 2016...
It was then my cousin Joan and I were chatting about new blog stories for the Cannery Kid series and she mentioned the Queen's Pack. I had never heard of this and she went on to tell me what she remembered of the event. She recalled that for a few years in the 50's and possibly the early 60's some very special cans of salmon were processed and shipped off to Her Majesty's kitchens. All other processing in the cannery was shut down when the Queen's Pack was being prepared and manager Oli Philippson and other big wigs kept a close eye on the operation. Only the best of the best salmon was used and it was hand packed by skilled native women. Given the care that was taken throughout the entire process it's strange that several cans would end up getting dropped and dented and be deemed unfit for the Queen. These damaged cans were set aside unlabeled and because the contents could not be wasted they somehow found their way to the kitchens of family and friends instead..
So with a little bit of information I had I started to try and find out more. I was told by my British sources that gifts to the Queen were recorded at Windsor Castle in Windsor. So I sent a nice letter off to the people at Windsor castle and they would respond some time later with "no record of this gift on file. I then turned into an investigator and interviewed many many people including my sister Linda Hansen, who said "I remember that story too, We always knew when the Queen's Pack was being processed. As extra people were there to inspect and supervise to make sure it was deemed perfect for the queen. I was always told that the best sockeye in the world comes out of the Skeena River. That's was by Gramps and he could exaggerate a little."
Gail Jonsson Dickson said "The Jonssons were on the receiving end of this salmon, as well. Dad and I were reminiscing the other day, and it's very possible that The Queen's Pack ended when ABC Packing was sold to Canadian Fishing Company ".
Donny McLeod, who is now the Canadian Fishing Company archivist of the historical documents that my father sent south before North Pacific was closed shared with me "I believe the Queens pack would have been shipped direct to ABC’s UK agent who would have hand delivered it to the Queen."
Label used for the cans of Sockeye sent to the Queen ( Canadian Fishing Company Archives ) Mr. McLeod also said "Al Hager, president, Canfisco, 1908 - 1948 would send the president of the United States canned sockeye salmon each Christmas during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Pre WW 2 it was shipped direct to the White House. However during the war the secret service would not allow it to be shipped to the White House as they had no way of inspecting what was in the cans. So Mr. Hager had it shipped to a neighbours of the president in Florida who delivered it. The Queen’s pack was likely handled in the same way."
My cousin Bill Kristmanson remembered "I recall that the sockeye they used were referred to as white noses as they had partial white colouring there. They were a beautiful blue colour and were large five year old's and were seven to nine pounders. I think they spawned in the Babine River below the counting fence. When we gillnetted we were always on the lookout for these “white nosers” I fished for two days this last summer and never spotted one. Asked the packer guy if he had spotted any he hadn’t"
Photo Credit: James Blyth and family collection ( Keith Philippson and Alex Blyth sitting on the Promise Isle)
Then one day I got a message from James Blyth, son of Gladys and Alex Blyth. He had been reading my Cannery Kid stories and wanted to let me know that he enjoyed them and sent a few photos along. I messaged him back and asked him if he remembered the event. His response was
"I do remember the Sockeye for the Queen. I was working on the retorts in the cannery when Ole came down the line following the cans, making sure every can was perfect! It would have been 59 or 60. I'm thinking it was 59 and I was 15 years old. Vernon Smith was the retort boss at the time. The fish were coming right out of the river and into the can. The Chinese foreman Mr. Chew was following Ole like a shadow, both of them so excited! Ole came and thanked everyone for a job well done afterwards. He was great! We were so proud of ourselves and NP! My Mother and I often share our memories of those days and all the people we knew then. Ole gave me my first job when I was 14 years old, 1958."
Photo Credit: Philippson Family Collection ( salmon being unloaded from a packer to the belt and sent directly to the cannery. My grandmother Karla Philippson supervising on the dock edge)
James was a goldmine of information on this and such a pleasure to connect with. He also told me that it was an order not a gift and it most likely came to the Vancouver office of ABC packing. At the time it was a very British Company with a strong label in Britain and shareholders in BC including the Bell-Irving family. then the order would have been forwarded on to my Grandfather Oliver Philippson the manager of North Pacific Cannery. James also told me "Knowing Ole there would have been a special code on the cans to distinguish them from all the others but I don't remember what it was. The label was likely our regular sockeye Gold Seal. I do remember when we pulled the retorts the quantity was at least a full stacked cart so that would have been a dozen 1/2 lb X 48 can cases.
Photo Credit: Alaska Digital Archives Emard Cannery Alaska (canned salmon being loaded into the retort)
We were so busy we didn't have time to pay a lot of attention to the details. The fish were very fine that year like silver dollars, they were fishing right off the dock and delivering to a packer tied up at the unloading hoist. The fish literally came out of the river and into the can. Other packers were anchored just offshore taking on fish as the gillnetters would drift down the river then pull their nets as they got to NP deliver then run back up river and repeat. I don't remember which packer was at the dock. The fish was probably shipped by rail as a special order, the steamer came later in the season after the canning was finished. The Queen's Pack would have been canned early July.... It was a magical time for us with people from everywhere converging at NP for a few frenetic months of condensed hyper activity. A very exciting and happy time. Everyone had a goal or dream and NP was the stepping stone for many. All of this was controlled and managed by your grandfather Ole, no easy job! To this day he is my gold standard for management! "
Photo Credit: Philippson Family collection (Oliver Philippson "Oli")
So when my dad said "if it's good enough for the Queen it is good enough for you" he really meant it! The Queen and I ate the same thing for lunch everyday. Who would have thought?
We are up early in Ginglox and say our goodbyes to Lavina. It has been a wonderful and emotional visit to a place that I only knew of in stories. But now 3 generations have experienced what the other 3 had loved. Mission accomplished.
As we head out on the 28km Kincolith Highway extension some locals advise us that there is a large grizzly hanging around and to be careful. We have not seen any bears while we have been here but about 6 grizzlies had been seen around the creek area the day before. The large hole that Sean said was dug by a grizzly; well he was right again! The eagles are flying overhead in a way that seems almost to be protective. I had seen about 12 of them overhead at the creek yesterday and think maybe just maybe they were keeping an eye on us.
Our first stop is the Lava beds. This bed is from Canada's most recent volcanic eruption in and around 1780. The site we have stopped at is called the Dedication Site which honours the 2000+ Nisga'a people that perished from the gases. About 1/3 of the population of the area. We all tumble out of the car each with our own mission: Hannah is in bare feet and is able to stand on the lichen bed path and not damage the delicate covering, Oliver is loving the formations of driftwood. There are not many places in Canada that you can experience a lava bed like this and we all consider ourselves very fortunate to have access to this site.
At this point our travel expertise fails us.The painted sign and finger says Canyon City but the village has been renamed and we question each other what this site might be. This is actually the village of Gitwinksihlkw where the suspension bridge over the Nass river is. There has been a suspension bridge there for 400 years and we have missed it. We all agree that this is just a sign that we must come back a little wiser next time.
Our next stop is The Drowned Forest. I had spotted the turquoise water when we first drove in but had never heard of the site. I wanted to check it out on the way back. This turned out to be an overwhelming phenomenally beautiful experience. Often, due to light, I have to filter my photo's to bring them back to the way we experience the view but not here. Every photo we take is perfect. It is hard to find information on this site but with a few local inquires I am told that when the volcano erupted the lava flowed through the river creating this effect.
To see it from the highway it looks like a turquoise swamp but it is moving water. The closest I can describe it is a Nisga'a Venice as the waterways are like canals. I think it would be amazing to see from above.
As we head down the highway we have time for one more stop: Rosswood. This very tiny community has a general store that everyone would love. We have stopped for provisions but buy way more than that. Each one of us have our arms full of goodies. It is a Sue's Paradise.
As we approach Terrace and our adventure is over, it is time for me to reflect on this amazing Nishga'a Nation. Their food, culture, arts, sports, entrepreneurship and innovation. It is any wonder a man like my father was drawn to this Nation and would stand beside them with their quest for a Treaty. In return, they recognized him with their highest honour: Honourary chief of the Killer whale tribe. His name was Alaysim taa.
Tips for Travel
Plan your trip don't be in a rush
Talk to the locals
Bring your fruits and veg
Try the local food