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.
The Net Lofts were the biggest buildings on site aside from the main cannery and as you entered the building, the cathedral ceiling seemed to stretch up into the skies.
Photo Credit TripAdvisor
The exposed beams laddered across the ceiling, hung with ropes and large metal pulleys. As the sun streamed through the window panes, the racked nets sparkled in beautiful shades of aquamarine. At one end of each racked net was a medley of coloured corks and at the other, the lead line. Whenever I touched a brand new nylon net they'd fall back in to place effortlessly.
Net lofts go way back in my family, before my grandpa was the manager of North Pacific Cannery, he was the net boss. When I was a cannery kid Laurie was the "net man". He was strict and wanted his staff of net menders there on time with no exceptions, never really taking into consideration that the ladies were all mothers as well.
North Pacific Cannery Racking nets Photo credit Oliver Philippson Collection
In the off season the tri-fold sample books with little sample pieces of the gill nets in them would arrive. These were next seasons prospects that my dad could purchase. These were like Vogue for gill nets, my dad could have cared less about what his clothes or shoes looked like but the beauty of a gill net was a sight to behold!! Looking through them as a child, seeing all the vibrant colours they came in like pink greens and blues that we would never see in our net lofts, made me want to use the samples for something, dressing our barbies maybe. Before nylon nets the fisherman would drop their linen nets in to vats of Copper Sulphate to protect them from the rotting effects of fish slime and jellyfish.
Photo Credit Tripadvisor
There was always a hushed whisper in the net lofts as the net menders did their work. Men and women both mended nets. The Japanese fishermen had their own net loft at one end of the boardwalk and there was a net loft at the other end of the cannery property.
Photo credit Oliver Philippson collection
The net lofts were like tall islands, surrounded by water on all sides. Just like all the other buildings at the cannery, us kids were not allowed in during the season. However us kids could fish off the side of the walkway, this is where many people threw their garbage so I usually only caught Bullheads but sometimes I got lucky and caught a Flounder! This was the jackpot because Mr. Lum the cook paid .25 cash not coupons for Flounders.
Japanese net loft 1979 Photo Credit Linda Hansen
The ladies were the real masters of the craft. They seemed peaceful at it when I watched them work outside in all types of weather on the floats and the main dock, almost like they were knitting or crocheting a new article of clothing. The holes they were mending were often made by seals.
The seals got into the nets and ripped the salmon right out leaving a gaping hole. Dad never had too many nice things to say about the seals.
Mr Katawake in the Japanese netloft North Pacific Cannery
When talking to the granddaughter of one of the ladies who mended the nets, she told me how her grandmother at the age of 16 training consisted of being placed in front of a ripped net and being told to "fix it". After a short lesson and teaching herself she did and went on to become a skilled net mender. Other ladies, like my friend's mum Lavinia were trained by the older and more experienced women. Net mending was a real art that took years to perfect and became a point of pride.
Photo Credit to Shar Wilson (Net mender Nora Wright at Porcher)
The one job that my sister Terry and I had was to fill the needles the ladies would use, as shown in the picture below. We would sit with the empty needles and load the twine on. The tension had to be just right and I was pretty bad at it.
In winter the gill nets were bundled up in burlap, which made for perfect games of leap frog.
Winter was the only time we were allowed to play in the net loft. As we played we looked for cats and this was where we found Pixie our feral kitty. The cats were welcome as they helped keep the mice and rodents down to a manageable level. My voice always seemed to sound different when the nets were there in the winter as I shouted, "TARZAN!" whilst swinging on the ropes.