Canada Day Feature: Salmon Festival still a draw 70 years later

Doreen Bravernan remembers the milk bottles.

It was July 1, 1947 and the parade float she was riding on through the streets of Steveston was adorned with glassware from Sea Island’s Frasea Farms. She was the Dairy Princess, one of the contestants sponsored by a local business group in the second annual Salmon Queen Carnival.

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“It was just beautiful,” says Braverman, who was just 15 at the time. “I don’t remember having to do much practising beforehand, other than to just get on the float and smile.”

While that was a long time ago, the underpinnings of the Steveston Salmon Festival, as it’s called today, haven’t changed much as it celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2015. Supporters, organizers and previous participants all feel it’s grassroots beginnings have allowed it to endure and become one the country’s biggest, community-based celebrations on Canada Day.

Sports day to Salmon Queens

Originally held as a sports day celebration in 1945 to raise funds to build a playground in Steveston, the July 1 celebration has evolved to be a draw for partiers from across the Lower Mainland.

But back in Braverman’s time, it was a very local affair, supported by local businesses.

“We lived on Sea Island before the airport expanded. There were two canneries on the west of the Island: Acme Cannery and Vancouver Cannery,” says Braverman, whose maiden name was Montgomery. “Everybody knew each other on Sea Island — there weren’t too many families living there at the time. And I was chosen as the Dairy Princess.”

That meant she had to get a “princess” dress for the Salmon Queen event.

“I didn’t choose it. My mom looked after that,” she says. “The day was lots of fun. We all got a lot of attention. And everywhere we went we knew people. After all, when I graduated from Richmond high school, there were only 65 kids in my class.”

On that July 1, Anna Savage was chosen, by a draw, to hold the title of Salmon Queen while Braverman was selected as one of two princesses.

Following the crowning ceremony, the newly chosen “royalty” was whisked away to Lansdowne Race Track where the Salmon Queen was pressed into service by presenting a floral garland to the winning horse and jockey from one of the races.

“It was a lot of fun,” says Braverman, who didn’t hesitate when it was suggested she enter the Salmon Queen contest. She actually considered it as somewhat of a community duty.

“My mother was always a very active person, so was my grandfather,” Braverman says. “They were great community people. So, you kinda grew up knowing you had to do your bit.

“My mom used to tell me you had to do more than your share because some don’t do anything at all,” she adds. “With Richmond being so big now, I’m sure they could get a big crowd for any event they put on. But in those days you were very loyal and went to every event that was put on.”

Community spirit also ran in her extended family as her uncle, Peter Rolston, was one of the main organizers of the Salmon Queen Carnival.

Braverman’s commitment to community also carried through her later years as she became involved with provincial politics and the BC Liberal Party, helping run campaigns for the likes of Pat McGeer and Garde Gardom who would later rise to prominence with the Social Credit Party. Bravernan also was a fundraiser for Gordon Wilson who resurrected the BC Liberal Party in the 1990s.

Today, in her mid 80s, Braverman is an active member of the Arbutus Ridge Community Association.

“I’ve always been active in the communities where I live,” she says. “It’s just something that came naturally.”

Grassroots a source of strength

What has made the Salmon Festival such a popular event for 70 years?

For longtime city councillor Harold Steves, whose pioneering family lends their family name to the village, says it has to do with its community roots.

“The present success is based on what the event was aimed at accomplishing at the time — it started fundraising for a community centre,” Steves says. “Back in those days, 70 years ago you didn’t build community centres with taxes, you had to raise the money yourself to do it. And so, the Steveston community with all the people who worked in the canneries and all the other community groups got behind the festival.”

The community centre was built in the 1950s, but the spirit has carried on for generations, said Steves.

“It’s just as strong now as it was then, which makes the festival so successful.”

And the rapid pace of development won’t change that, he added.

“I see it continuing,” says Steves, adding what gives him that impression is the number of longtime Richmond residents who are moving into the village.

“So, effectively people from other parts of Richmond are aware of that kind of community participation in Steveston and have chosen to spend their retirement years there and are bringing their enthusiasm along with them. So, I can see the Salmon Festival continuing in the way it is now for some years to come.”

A sense of pride

Steves, 78, also believes the Salmon Festival’s longevity is a result of community pride, something he recalls from the early days when he was a teenaged boy scout and had a memorable role in the event.

The task for Steves and his fellow scouts was to lead the parade and Salmon Queen contestants as it wound its way through the village, then across the open fields, where the current community centre and park sits today, to an open stage where the Salmon Queen was crowned.

“I think I must have been about 14 and we used to march ahead with flags, providing a bit of an honour guard for the Salmon Queen contestants,” Steves says.

“It was quite an honour,” Steves says, adding he was among the four or five scouts who remained on the stage with flags during the crowning ceremony.

For the first Salmon Queen competition, each contestant sold tickets as a fundraiser to establish the local community centre, and the one who sold the most was chosen as queen — in 1946, the first Salmon Queen was Sophie Kuchma.

In subsequent years, the winner was chosen at random.

And when the competition evolved to become a pageant, winners were selected by judges after the contestants took part in a talent portion and a question and answer session on stage.

That event concluded in 1994.

Community appeal remains

For Kelvin Higo, a former president of the Steveston Community Society and longtime Steveston resident, the Salmon Festival’s enduring appeal is founded in its small-town, community character.

“It still has that feeling of a country fair,” says Higo who for many years has been involved with the annual Japanese Cultural Show on the community centre grounds. “It’s remained popular because it’s a community-based festival. People come together to volunteer, to contribute back to their neighbourhood and the city — that’s where the strength of this festival lies.”

That’s an important factor as the City of Richmond continues to develop other community events that don’t always have their genesis at the grassroots level.

“I get a bit put out by the city, which seems to be getting more and more involved with these types of events,” Higo says, referring to the Ships to Shore, Maritime Festival and the latest event scheduled for the Labour Day weekend called Richmond World Festival.

“To me, festivals should be always be grounded in community, not driven the other way around.”

That was made evident decades ago when the Salmon Festival parade traveled along two separate routes — one that started in Brighouse from a marshalling area on Minoru Blvd. and ran down Westminster Hwy. to Blundell Rd.

From there, the parade shifted to Steveston where it reassembled and wound it’s way through the the streets there.

“Looking back at those years I ask myself what were we thinking,” Higo says, adding the logistics of achieving that were challenging.

Higo explains the reason for the double parade routes came from a decision to make the rest of Richmond part of Steveston’s own celebration.

“And because the city gave us a little grant for our float we felt we should have a split parade,” he says.

But it eventually became too difficult to stage in two segments.

“We were spending so much manpower just for the parade, we didn’t have enough of the remainder of the day. Plus, we were starting at 5 a.m. and not finishing until midnight. And that was taking its toll on the volunteers.”

Cross-cultural ties

The Salmon Festival has also prospered because of its multicultural nature — something the melting pot of Steveston fostered in much earlier days as the salmon industry brought together a variety of ethnic groups.

One of the defining acts that bolstered the Salmon Festival was the Japanese-Canadian community’s commitment to develop the Steveston Community Centre.

“Ken Fraser, president of BC Packers at the time came to the Japanese community that had returned to the coast after having been interned during the war and said that rather than building their own (community) facility why don’t the communities of Steveston work together to establish a community centre,” Higo says. “This was only six years after the Japanese were allowed back and I’m thinking to myself would I have been a big enough man to say, OK. But our elders had the foresight to say that in order to heal this community, and to make a better future for our children, that’s what we should do.”

So, roughly $17,000 from the sale of the Japanese Fisherman’s Hospital was added to the community centre building fund.

In exchange, one room in the building was set aside for judo, plus another in the gym for kendo.

“That’s how the relationship between the Japanese community and the Steveston area got re-started after the war,” Higo says.

From that the Japanese Martial Arts Building and later the cultural centre were built.

“Those events lend themselves to cultural harmony,” Higo says, adding that today, the majority of those people enrolled in Steveston’s Japanese language school kendo club and karate and judo clubs are not Japanese. “So, what better way to celebrate cultural diversity by participating in each other’s traditions.

“To me, that’s what the Canadian mosaic is all about.”

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