Skip to content

About Steveston Heritage

Steveston is situated along the main estuary of the Fraser River, a designated Canadian Heritage River. The area’s rich ecology has significant natural heritage in its tidal marshes, sloughs, mud flats, and traces of surviving native vegetation. Many of these and other natural areas in Steveston provide important habitats for marine wildlife and numerous bird species, and are considered environmentally sensitive.

The abundance of the Fraser River and its estuary attracted Indigenous Peoples to the area now known as Steveston. For thousands of years, Halq’eméylem speaking peoples have harvested the seasonally available resources of the region. The estuary was ideal for fishing and clam digging, as well as gathering other food items, which would entice many newcomers to settle there.

According to Musqueam, the area now known as Steveston possessed at least two settlements. One, called qʷeyaʔχʷ, was located just east of today’s Garry Point Park. This settlement was originally a cluster of houses and later became a fish camp as canneries pressured Indigenous Peoples to relocate. The other settlement qʷɬeyəm is believed to have been north of Moncton Street near Railway Avenue.

In 1877, Manoah Steves arrived in the area as part of the early settler-led boom in agriculture along the Fraser River. His eldest son, William, purchased the land lying south of today’s Steveston Highway and west of No. 1 Road in 1889. On those 50 acres, he laid out the townsite of Steveston.

In 1881, brothers Charles and William London bought 200 acres at the south end of No. 2 Road at what became known as London’s Landing . That same year, the first dairy cattle were imported, which marked the beginning of a dairy industry that would sustain Richmond and Vancouver until the Second World War. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Steveston area contained about 50 thriving farms primarily supporting dairy or grain production. These early farming families created diking systems allowing reliable cultivation of the fertile delta soil while providing drainage and protection from the regular flooding of the Fraser River.

In 1883, the first of more than 15 canneries was established. The canneries created access to larger international markets for local fish. In particular, the highly valued sockeye salmon that thrived in the Fraser River became a staple of the local fishing industry. Fishing and the canneries provided the basis for a prosperous working community. During the salmon fishing season, the town’s population could swell to over 10,000 people.

To meet the increased demand for labour, fishing companies recruited fishermen and cannery workers from many places. Since Indigenous Peoples were no longer legally permitted to fish for themselves, they came to work for the canneries, with men fishing the river and women working the canning line or making and repairing nets. In Steveston’s early days, local Indigenous Peoples were joined by others from along the BC coast who journeyed here in large groups of canoe families each season. As the canning operations took up more and more land, local Musqueam were moved to reserve lands in South Vancouver.

In the late 1900s, Chinese men who had migrated to BC to build the trans-Canada railway also sought employment in the canneries as butchers and labourers. Later, as machines replaced hand butchering, some moved into farm work and began market gardens to produce food for the growing city of Vancouver. These Chinese labourers also helped dig drainage ditches and build roads that served Steveston’s growing community.

Close to 15 years before, in 1887, the first Japanese had arrived in Steveston, mainly from Wakayama Prefecture. Attracted by the stories of the abundance of fish, this was just the beginning of a migration of several thousand fishermen and boat builders from Japan. By 1919, two-thirds of the fishing licenses on the Fraser River were held by Japanese, most of whom owned their own boats. Unlike other seasonal labourers, these Japanese fishermen settled in Steveston, sending home for “picture brides” to start a family. By the 1920s, the area had become the second largest Japanese settlement (after Vancouver) in Canada.

As Steveston’s population grew, so did its community with new businesses and amenities to support them. Through the twentieth century, Steveston Village became a market centre, offering services for farmers, and the canning and fishing companies. In the early 1900s, the community included a number of churches as well as around 18 gambling houses, illustrating the variety of desires of its population. Despite being ravaged by fire in 1918, many of the remnants of these businesses are still seen in Steveston Village buildings today.

As Steveston grew into a busy commercial centre, access to transportation was essential. In early days, the Fraser River acted as a freshwater highway while Steveston’s busy port offered moorage to transcontinental ships as well as ferries to local destinations such as Vancouver and New Westminster. In 1902, Steveston’s role as a transportation hub expanded with the completion of the Interurban tram line to Vancouver. The introduction of the Interurban brought electricity and commercial development in Steveston Village. The “Sockeye Special” line ran until 1958, bringing cannery workers to and from work and shipping milk from Steveston dairy farms to Vancouver.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Japanese Canadian residents of Steveston played a key role in the development of important community services such as hospitals and schools. Led by the Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society, these services helped the community survive a serious typhoid outbreak in 1894 and provided education for Steveston’s children.

By 1941, people of Japanese descent owned 46 out of 62 businesses. However, in early 1942, with the declaration of war on Japan, 2,600 Japanese and Japanese Canadian (also known as “Nikkei”) residents of Steveston were forcibly removed from their homes, had their property seized, and were sent to internment camps in the interior of BC or further east to labour on farms and in road camps. This act reduced Steveston’s population by half, devastating the local community and the fishing industry. Eventually in 1949, when permitted to return four years after the end of the war, some families moved back to the area, still drawn by the desire to fish and build boats.

Through the second half of the twentieth century, Steveston continued to be sustained by fishing and farming, despite the decline of salmon stocks and the closure of canneries. Fishermen switched to herring and other species to make a living. Farmers also began selling their land for development. In an effort to save BC’s farming industry, in 1973, the provincial government introduced a new act, creating the Agricultural Land Reserve and preserving Steveston’s farmlands for future.

As these industries declined, community members came together to protect the physical remnants of their presence and preserve the history and traditions of Steveston. Their actions resulted in the designation of multiple heritage sites, including the Gulf of Georgia Cannery and Britannia Shipyards National Historic Sites.

In addition, to further preserve the unique heritage character of Steveston Village, in 2009 the City created the Steveston Village Heritage Conservation Area (HCA). The Steveston Village HCA currently protects the exteriors of 17 valued heritage buildings and 77 other unique buildings and elements specific to Steveston.

Today, despite increasing challenges in commercial fishing, Steveston remains one of Canada’s busiest fishing harbours with providing berths and services for First Nations and people from around the world fishing the waters of the Pacific. Farming also continues to play an important role, with a number of local farms growing fruits and vegetables for the region.