Steveston, British Columbia is much more than just a cute and photogenic fishing village. It has a rich, important history that visitors would be wise to dive into when they’re visiting. In this article, Hans Tammemagi tells you the story of this village, and lets you know how you can access it on your own terms.
The boardwalk at Fisherman’s Wharf is crowded with tourists. I inhale the smell of fish and saltwater hanging in the air as salmon, spring prawns and octopus are sold direct from boats. But there is much more, something deeper. I’m immersed in an intangible sense of history.
Few places retain the memories of their past as well as Steveston, located just south of Vancouver, where the rich Fraser Delta meets the Pacific Ocean. Life here has always been dominated by fishing, but with many intricacies and twists. A variety of boats floats past including a boom of logs towed by a tug.
Settling into Steveston
The Musqueam First Nation first occupied the Steveston area, following the life cycle of salmon. As various settlers arrived, exploitation of this natural resource grew, and in the late 1800s the Fraser provided the richest salmon catches anywhere.
To learn more, I cycled along the dyke path to Harold Steves’ farm where I spoke with the long-time Richmond councillor. “This farm once belonged to my great grandfather, Manoah Steves, the first white settler in Richmond in 1877,” he said, “after whom Steveston is named. The houses were on stilts because the dyke wasn’t built until 1908,” he added.
It was Manoah’s son, William Herbert Steves, a visionary and entrepreneur, who got Steveston rolling. He started the Enterprise newspaper in 1891 and even built an opera house. The village grew as the teeming river attracted fishermen.
A Village Becomes a Boomtown
Japanese peoples have been closely involved with Steveston since those early years, with many fishermen immigrating to these alluring fishing grounds. Anti-Asian attitudes in the rest of British Columbia were strong at the time, but Steveston allowed the Japanese to come and practise their own culture and their population steadily grew.
The town and its canning industry flourished. By the late 1890s, there were 17 canneries in Steveston and square-rigged sailing ships carried millions of cans of salmon around the globe. During the fishing season the population ballooned from 400 to 10,000, turning the town into one of wildest and roughest in western North America. This incredible growth is reminiscent of another place I’ve written about, Dawson City, during the Gold Rush.
In 1905, there were numerous gambling houses along with saloons, opium dens and the incongruous opera house.
The Gulf of Georgia Cannery, a rambling old building sitting on pilings over the Fraser River, was built in 1894. Entering this National Historic Site, was like stepping into a time machine. The largest cannery in the area, it became known as the “monster.” The guide led us along the cutting and packing line and explained the long hours, child labour and poor safety. A scream of pain occasionally resounded as a finger was chopped by a sharp knife or machine, followed by frantic searching for the lost digit before it got canned.
Diving Deeper into a Historic Village’s Checkered Past
Next, I visited the Britannia Heritage Shipyard, another National Historic Site (Steveston has two!) consisting of 14 restored buildings, some constructed as early as 1885. Chinese, First Nations, and Japanese peoples were given the hardest jobs at lower pay than white people, and were segregated at the canneries, the shipyard and in their bunkhouses.
I toured the Murikami boatworks, bunk houses, saw boats being restored, and learned how Japanese “picture” brides arrived to marry Japanese fishermen they’d never met before.
At one booth, an anchor tattoo was placed on my arm. OK, it was only a paste-on, but I was proud to look like a fisherman, if only for a moment.
Tumultuous Times in Steveston, BC
Disaster struck in 1913 when a landslide on the Fraser decimated the salmon runs for many years. The Depression followed, further decreasing the canning industry.
World War II threw everything into turmoil. In 1942, all 22,000 Japanese in British Columbia were forcibly moved inland from the coast, despite many having lived in Canada for generations. 2,600 Japanese people, about two-thirds of Steveston’s population and a mainstay of the town, were interned and their belongs confiscated, including hundreds of fishing boats.
Overnight, Steveston became like a ghost town.
Life Returns to Resilient Steveston
In 1949, the Japanese-Canadians were allowed to return and by 1953 almost 1,500 had come back. Slowly Steveston rebuilt itself and its fishing industry. Catches began to grow and by the 1960s the good times had returned.
In the 1990s, however, salmon stocks dwindled and increased mechanization led to canneries consolidating. The last cannery closed in 1997. But Steveston bounced back again. Today, the fishing fleet, even reduced to 600 boats, is Canada’s largest. At the same time, tourism and the filming industry have grown phenomenally.
I met with Jim Kojima, a recipient of the Order of Canada, who explained how the Japanese commitment to community has continued since the 1890s. “Steveston has the oldest Japanese history in the country,” Kojima said proudly.
Steveston – A Modern Beacon for Tourism
In recent years, tourists have flocked to Steveston, drawn by the colourful fishing fleet, the picturesque setting on the sea, the fascinating history and the national historical sites, not to mention the mouth-watering, fresh seafood available at numerous restaurants.
In particular, Steveston has become a darling of the movie industry, which it encourages. I spoke with Samir Modhwadia, Manager of the Film Office for the City of Richmond (Steveston is a suburb). His enthusiasm was infectious. “The film industry has had an enormous impact on Steveston and the region,” he stated. “
In 2022, 78 film permits were issued, which included feature films, TV series, commercials, documentaries and pilots. A typical crew has 100 to 300 people, who are almost entirely locals. His department estimates that during its first five seasons (of seven) the most popular series filmed in Steveston, Once Upon a Time, created more than 5,500 full-time jobs and brought in over $270 million to BC’s lower mainland.
Modhwadia loves the creativity of the industry. “I was impressed by the village they created on Garry Point for the show Midnight Mass. Not only was it very realistic, but a little while later, it was completely gone.”
He described Pachinko, an early 1900s piece set in Korea, “When it was filmed in Britannia Shipyard, I was amazed by the large crowd of locals who came out to see the young male star, Lee Min-Ho, a heartthrob in Korea.”
Modhwadia noted that Steveston has become a film-tourism destination and many come from far away to visit sites that appear in various films, especially Once Upon a Time.
As the sun sank lower, I watched a forest of masts silhouetted against the crimson western sky and was pleased that Steveston retained its nautical history.
For those looking to dive deeper, here are some other places to consider visiting while you’re in Steveston. They’re either located directly in the village, or right beside it:
- Garry Point Park: A public park on the Fraser River complete with beach access, sculptures, and even a Japanese garden.
- Steveston Museum and Post Office: Originally the site of Steveston’s first bank, today it now serves as a go-to spot for helping visitors discover the people and moments that have shaped the village over time.
- Imperial Landing Waterfront Park: The real draw here is the long boardwalk and fishing piers, but the waterfront views and gardens don’t hurt either.
- Steveston Tram: Visit the restored “Tram Car 1220,” which was originally built all the way back in 1912. Children tend to love visiting this Steveston tourist attraction!
However you choose to approach your visit to Steveston, remember that stories are everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.
Hans’ writing is eclectic including travel, environment, Indigenous culture and things quirky. He has penned 10 books including one national best seller. Hans writes for Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Ensemble, Zoomer, British Columbia magazine, Explore, Northwest Travel, Canada’s History, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former adjunct professor, he has a strong affinity for the environment around us. He lives in the Gulf Islands where he enjoys kayaking and photography.