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?
As a a Cannery Kid growing up in Prince Rupert, I really never wanted to be a line worker in the Fish Cannery. I think I saw how hard my Nan worked and how her perfume always seemed to be the scent of HEET liniment, but I also think maybe I just couldn't do it. Ever since I could remember my Nan had worked at the fish cannery down on the Prince Rupert docks. First she was a filleter at Atlin fish in Cow Bay, a hub of activity in it's day. Then she went on to the new Oceanside plant when it opened.
Photo credit: The Jim Moorehead Family Collection
My mum would sometimes take us kids down to visit Nanny. All her co-workers would be lined up filleting or candling the ground fish in their white coveralls and head scarves. The noise from the forklifts whipping around the cannery floor and the machinery was deafening. If it was Halibut season my mum would be gifted some Halibut Cheeks on our visit. (In our house that was a real delicacy!) Other times of the year it might be Witches, Sole or Cod that we left with.
My Nan worked long hours, sometimes as many as 12 when there were lots of boats in. I remember her kitchen calendar with black lines on every day she had worked and the number of hours written in. Often there was not a day without a mark on it, no days off.
Photo Credit: The Jim Moorehead Family Collection
Nan and the other ladies fought hard for the wages they earned. The big companies like CANFISCO , ABC Packing Company, B.C Packers and Nelson Bros didn't just happen to pay well. The shore-workers had organized and fought hard to be paid the hourly wages they got and they earned every cent. My Nan sat on many picket lines; some of them very angry and violent. So when the next generation came along we would reap the rewards of their battles.
Photo Credit: The Philippson Family Collection
It was a diverse group of ladies that worked in the plant, young and old, married and widowed. It was a close knit community and they always looked out for each other. My Nan had never learned to drive but there was always a car pool of ladies that picked her and others up. The little cars would race down the hill to the plant, park and out would jump 5 women from all backgrounds dressed in the same coveralls and scarves on their heads. Most of them were smoking and hanging on to their lunch buckets ready for the day. They would head in grab their time card from one side of the clock, punch in and then put the time card on the other side. Then they would set up in their regular spots at the tables in the lunch room, the greenhorns would have to learn the hard way where the ladies with the seniority sat. Then the horn would blow and off they would go to their spots on the line. The floor lady was the boss and she kept things organized and running.
As the years ticked by my oldest sister Linda would head off for her turn at being a cannery worker at North Pacific Cannery. By the time I was 14, a family friend Cliff Irving spotted me at the post office and said I had a job as of Tuesday at the Northern Co-op Grocery store in the meat department. It seemed that I would not be a cannery worker after all.
That same year my mum took my sister Terry down to Royal Fisheries in Cow Bay where she would work the line during Spring Break. Terry was 16 and this was her first job on the Herring season (phew, I managed to avoid that one). Off the two of them would go each morning, laughing as they jumped in to mum's car for the day on the line. They would return home sometimes 10 to 12 hours later still laughing and chatting about the day. They both really seem to be enjoying the work and their time together. I was just a tad jealous at this point. Then the school board announced that any students working on the Herring would get an extra week off school. Geez not only did she earn 4x more then me, now she got an extra week off school too. Then came her pay check, it was huge, and she seem to forget how every bone in her body hurt and that she would probably never stop smelling of HEET liniment .
Photo Credit: The Philippson Family Collection
I went off to College in 1980 and would return to Prince Rupert in May of '81 to find that the new management at the Co-op grocery store no longer needed me. I was an unemployed student for about 30 seconds. My mother marched me (in her white coveralls) down to the Prince Rupert Fisherman's Co-op to put my name on the call list for that year's Herring season. Yes it was my turn. The floor lady called and I showed up for the 8 am shift. I was driven there by my mother, early of course as being late was not a option. I would learn how to remove the lemon yellow roe from the Herring being careful not to break any of the roe.
Photo Credit B.C. Packers archives
The roe would go into my basket then off to the brine. I stood next to the other ladies never talking just focused on getting it right. I did not want to be fired for being slow or sloppy. My mum was waiting in the parking lot for me when the 10 hour shift was over. She would asked how it went and if I would be called to return the next day ; I was. It was a hard job. Every muscle in my body hurt. My hands ached and my back, standing all day in the same spot, felt like it was broken. But I knew not to complain.
Photo Credit B.C. Packers Archives
I was 18. My grandmother had done this job for years and I would have been very stupid to whine about my aches and pains. So I rubbed on the customary HEET liniment and got on with it. If my mum was proud she never said (that was not her way). I believe she was, however, because every morning my coveralls were washed, my breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and canned peaches waited for me and my lunch was made and ready at the door. She would then drive me down for my shift because I was no longer a Cannery Kid. Now I was a Cannery Worker.