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Musqueam's long history in Richmond

City council recently voted to rebuild the historic First Nations Bunkhouse in Steveston

More than 100 years after Musqueam were removed from Steveston and their houses replaced with canneries, little remains to mark their relationship with – and history in – Richmond and the waters that later came to be known as the Fraser River.

“We have a long, long, long history with regards to Steveston and the fishing industry – pre-contact, post-contact and commercial,” said Musqueam Councillor Howard Grant, speaking to the Richmond News from the Musqueam reserve in South Vancouver.

“So it’s been our way of life. From the very beginning of time, it’s recognized that those who live at the river delta are very blessed and fortunate and are rich in resources and rich in life.”

But Musqueam’s place in Steveston and its commercial fishing industry, is a “forgotten item,” he said, with “almost nothing (in the area) with respect to the Musqueam people…or First Nations in general.”

“We were a part of that huge industry of that era,” Grant added.

Richmond, is, however, working to change that. Recently, city council voted to rebuild the historic First Nations Bunkhouse in Britannia Heritage Shipyards – believed to be the only structure of its kind remaining along B.C.’s coast, according to a city staff report.

History spanning millennia

For thousands of years, Musqueam lived in permanent and seasonal settlements throughout the Lower Mainland, with a main winter village near the mouth of the Fraser River.

Once, that village was səw̓q̓ʷeqsən, located between North Delta and New Westminster, near what is now the south foot of the Alex Fraser Bridge – a site that has been radiocarbon dated to about 8,000 years ago, said Jason Woolman, Musqueam’s archives and research manager.

As sediment was carried downriver and the delta grew, the location of the river mouth shifted westward and Musqueam moved with it, establishing an extensive village network covering nearly 145,000 hectares that included sites in Terra Nova, Steveston and Garry Point, among others.

Fishing has always been Musqueam’s “bread and butter,” part of their traditional and cultural way of life, said Grant – and is still a mainstay for them and many other Indigenous peoples.

Because of that, he said, “it’s stood to reason that Steveston would be a very thriving area for us.”

But for the same reasons that Musqueam were drawn to river, so too was the commercial fishing industry, said Woolman. Thousands of years after the Musqueam first settled at səw̓q̓ʷeqsən­­­, the site became home to the Glenrose and St. Mungo canneries.

“Pretty much wherever there’s a cannery, there was more than likely a village site. They were just prime locations recognized by Musqueam and later recognized by the canneries,” said Woolman. “So it’s just this gradual de-territorialisation of Musqueam.”

Musqueam were also displaced from their homes in Steveston to make way for the commercial fishing industry.

In the late 1890s, Woolman said, the Bell Irving company was looking to construct a cannery near the site of q̓ʷeyaʔχʷ – at Garry Point – where Musqueam families had lived “since everyone’s earliest recollection.”

The families, who believed the land had been set aside for them as a reserve, were paid for their houses and had to move back to the Musqueam reserve in Vancouver. It turns out, said Woolman, the government had bought the land in the 1860s, but it wasn’t considered to be of use to anyone but Musqueam before the diking.   

“Then it became of use to the canneries,” he said.

A ‘more complete story’ of Steveston’s past

In its report to Richmond council, city staff note that more than 16 First Nations came to the south Fraser River area to work in the fishing industry, with many coming to the canneries during sockeye fishing season in July and August.

And yet, the report states, there are currently few opportunities – either in Richmond or across B.C. – for the public to learn about the history of Indigenous peoples in the fishing industry.

Because of this, a rebuilt bunkhouse would be ideal for “interpretive use” – a place where the lived experiences of First Nations, working in Steveston’s fishing and cannery industries, could be shared. It would also allow the city to tell “a more complete story” of the area’s history.

That history is inextricably linked to colonial practices, however, as noted by both the city report and Musqueam – including the residential school system, outlawing of potlaches and restriction of Indigenous fishing rights and methods – which limited Indigenous people’s ability to sustain themselves.

Just 0.2 per cent of Musqueam’s 144,888 hectares of territory was set aside for reserve sites. The Crown’s reasoning for this was that Musqueam didn’t need much land as they could live off the sea, explained Chief Wayne Sparrow, who was first elected in 2012 and also sits on the Musqueam Fisheries Commission. 

“But then our rights got stripped away from there at the same time the canneries and all that came in…They forced us into getting licenses and they forced our family members to fish for those companies and not be independently able to make a living.”

But First Nations people who worked for fishing companies as cannery labourers or fishermen by the fishing companies were paid low wages, the city staff report states.

Musqueam is still fighting with the Crown about their fishing rights and restrictions, and to not be controlled by the commercial sector, said Sparrow, although some rights were restored with the landmark 1990 Sparrow case.

Despite the devastation of colonial practices, the First Nations Bunkhouse should be viewed as an aspect of Musqueam’s cultural continuity and a reminder of the fact that “Musqueam are a people that are, not a people that were,” said Woolman.

“Even though there was displacement, there was complete and total interruption of their way of life, this was one area where they were able to engage,” he said. “That knowledge of millennia on the river translated into the fishing industry and made them some of the best fishermen out there…teaching the Chinese, teaching the Japanese, and really getting everybody going in that sense.”

The bunkhouse – likely used for various functions and by different First nations over the years – was considered of significant heritage value and included in the National Historic Site designation for Britannia Shipyards in 1991 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, according to the city’s report.

Its building materials have been dated to 1885 using dendrochronology testing – an archaeological method that dates tree growth rings to the year they formed using established chronologies.

“Additionally, the building is important for its early construction date, and as a possible rare example of this type of communal dwelling, likely the last surviving First Nations residence associated with the Steveston canneries,” the report reads.

Now, however, the structure is deteriorated to the point where none of the existing features of the building can be reused, although some “key elements” could be retained for an exhibit, the report states.

“It was estimated to cost about $160,000 to repair it about 30 years ago, and it’s deteriorated badly since then, but it’s an extremely important part of our heritage and we’re going to get on with it,” said Coun. Harold Steves at a committee meeting in late January.

The project is now pegged at $2.05 million – $1.6 million for like-for-like reconstruction and $450,000 for building improvements such as HVAC and plumbing. There would also be additional costs for implementing the interpretive programming, however, these haven’t yet been calculated, according to the city staff report.

The City of Richmond has had preliminary engagement with the Musqueam Indian Band, which has expressed an interest in participating in the First Nations Bunkhouse project. The city will also reach out to other First Nations groups who may have participated in the industry.

The development of exhibits and programs would be done in collaboration with First Nations knowledge keepers and could include artistic pieces, oral story-telling, either in-person or digitally, and demonstrations of canoe carving or salmon drying.

Sharing these stories would “tell a more complete story of early Steveston,” the report states. Part of Steveston’s history is told through other interpretive programs at Britannia Shipyards, including the Chinese Bunkhouse, Men’s Bunkhouse, Manager’s House and Murakami House.

“That’s not only going to be good for education but also for advancing anti-racism, so it’s a really multi-pronged approach,” said Coun. Carol Day at last month’s city council meeting. 

Steves also asked the city to find a more appropriate name for the bunkhouse, as it was likely a communal structure.

“When it was built, both the men and the women of the First Nations community would have lived there. We don’t know how many families would have lived there, but it would have been family accommodation…The Chinese bunkhouse and the Japanese bunkhouse would have had bunkbeds, but I don’t think that’s what we would have had here so we have to find another name for it.”

In a November 1991 interview for the Britannia Oral History Project – a copy of which is kept in the Richmond Archives – Musqueam member Edward Sparrow, Sr. said that women would work in the canneries cleaning and gutting the fish and packing the cans, while children would sometimes work in the can lofts, the storage area for cans.

Council also approved a motion to look into whether it’s appropriate to include welcoming posts at the entrance of the restored building.

“We have an old photograph showing that with this building, we know it had only one door and generally there was a totem at each corner, each end of the house…We know at least half a dozen families that originated in this area – the Point family (and others) and it might well be once we’ve discussed it with them, that each family could have a totem,” Steves said.

The city will work on refining the interpretive program throughout the year for a capital submission. This timeline, however, will depend upon engagement with Indigenous communities.

Local groups, including the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site, Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society, Richmond Intercultural Advisory Committee and the Richmond School District, will also be part of the engagement process.

Once the capital submission is approved, construction, exhibit design and development is estimated to take two to three years, notes the report.

A step in the right direction

While a number of First Nations groups came to Steveston to work in the fishing industry, Sparrow said the city needs to make sure that the histories are told in the correct context. There’s a difference, he said, between recognizing the nations who came to work in the industry and recognizing whose territory you’re in.

“I want to make sure it’s clear that if there are other nations there, I don’t think they should be interpreting the same information as Musqueam, whose territory it was… We have to be very careful about the interpretation of exactly what happened.”

For Chief Sparrow, the bunkhouse should be used, not just as a way of communicating what was, but to illustrate Musqueam’s current work and to help educate younger generations.

That includes Musqueam’s efforts to protect and restore Fraser River fishing stocks.

“Who would have thought, in 2021, that the Fraser River – one of the biggest salmon-producing rivers in the world – would be in the state it is today? I think we have to really switch our gears in talking about how we can get it back, as close as possible, to what it was before…so that we’re not telling our grandchildren and great-grandchildren that there used to be salmon in the river.”

Woolman, Musqueam’s archives and research manager, said so much of Musqueam knowledge is “in-place knowledge,” meaning conversations and learning opportunities are shaped by what people see happening around them, such as when they’re out on the Fraser River – or at the bunkhouse.

“I think the bunkhouse, having more access to those traditional places, to the traditional sites, the better (it is). It gives us those speaking opportunities that we otherwise don’t have, or have to find a way to script and you just can’t script life,” Woolman said.

Rebuilding the First Nations Bunkhouse “is a prominent and worthwhile cause,” said Coun. Grant, but it’s not the only thing Richmond could to towards reconciliation.

“It’s the first sentence in an introduction, which consists of ‘the,’ and then you have the five dots to say there has to be more,” he said.

Grant said he would like to see something that tangibly marks Musqueam’s place in Richmond in a more prominent place, such as at Garry Point.

Garry Point was named after Nicholas Garry, deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822-1835. It’s where the Musqueam Point family lived, where their village and longhouses were situated, before they were removed, said Grant.

“When you walk around Steveston, do you see anything that says, I’m on Musqueam land? That’s true reconciliation… So it would be nice to have something there (at Garry Point), to note that, as an example. That’s real.”

Sparrow added that the more knowledge Musqueam is able to get out to general public in Richmond and across the Lower Mainland, the better.

“People lost those stories, (with) the residential schools and the loss of our language and the loss of our teachings,” he said. “(The bunkhouse) is a first step, but there’s other things all around where it’s now known as Garry Point, there’s a lot of traffic there, and whatever information we can get out with the true history of the land, the better for us.”