Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The cannery.

I took my son to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. It’s in the village of Steveston, which is a fishing port at the mouth of the Fraser River and a founding settlement for the City of Richmond. The Gulf of Georgia Cannery, now a national museum, is one of few remaining cannery buildings. Decades ago, a dozen or more of these high-peaked, hangar-sized, wooden structures stood shoulder to shoulder along the South Arm of the river. Back then, there were so many fish to catch.

A central feature of the museum is an exhibit harking back to the salmon heyday, the canning line, which runs the long axis of the cannery. It starts at the wharf, which extends out into the river above the tidal flats, where fish were unloaded. From here, step by step--using plastic fish (and pieces thereof) passing through authentic machinery-- you progress inexorably to the finished product, a crate of canned salmon.

Because of the location of the building’s main door, you enter this exhibit at the tail end, near the crates of labelled, ready-for-market cans. Also here, overhead in a loft, visible between dark, vertical slats, are gleaming stacks of empty, brass-coloured cans, which had been imported as metal strips and stamped lids, and assembled on site to receive their quota of salmon—which would never come. It is the loft of unrequited cans.

You leave the loft behind and head to the wharf, where there are bins of faux salmon: soft, silver-sided, nerf fish. You work back the way you came, past stations where people cut and sorted, and machines chopped and packed, all linked by wheels and pumps and conveyer belts. Manning the line (and mostly, they were not men) are ghosts—black rebar bent into outlines of those who would gut the fish, feed the fish into the butchering machines, stuff and weigh the cans, crimp the can lids, pressure-cook the cans, and so on. You stand behind and see through the outlines their tools, their gooey gloves—and plastic smears of blood and slime.

All that’s missing is the jarring racket of the machines—and the stench.

As we finished the line, a young interpreter walked up and asked if we would like to join a guided tour. I have taken the tour before, more than once—which is why I had been able to provide a reasonably coherent recap for my son. But I am the last person to say no to an interpreter. “Sure,” I said. So son and I, along with a clutch of strangers, returned to the nerf fish at the wharf.

Although she was a very good interpreter, we didn’t last the whole tour. My phone rang. I excused myself, and my son and I walked a distance away. After the call we didn’t return to the tour, which seemed to be doing fine without us.

As we approached the exit, I waved my hand at the can loft. I said to son, “Do you know what the message of this museum is?”

He said no.

I said, “We may have run out of fish, but we have not yet run out of cans.”

“Oh,” he said. He thought a bit, and then asked, “Is that true?”

I confessed, “Well, it's probably a little more complicated than that.”

We spent some time in the gift shop, but didn’t buy anything.


barefootheart said...

Thanks for the tour. Very interesting. Very sad.
Another worthwhile field trip is to the local wastewater treatment plant.

Sally said...

A backwards museum, watching fish be put back together, from product to living... er, plastic. Thanks for an interesting look at the historic tie between ecology and economy. Imagine that there was so much life there we used to mine it from the oceans (and still do, other places)...

lorin said...

I can never say no to an interpreter, either. The cannery is a well-done site, and especially nice to visit on hot summer days where the breeze keeps things cool (as was intended by the design of the building, since there was no air-conditioning).