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Page last updated February 18, 2015

© Michael Kluckner

The BC Packers plant, company store and ancillary buildings on the Alert Bay waterfront, in the summer of 2002. The buildings were demolished in March, 2003.

This was one of the last operating canneries in what had been in effect a company town. Surviving cannery museums elsewhere in BC are the North Pacific Cannery at Port Edward, south of Prince Rupert, and the Gulf of Georgia Cannery museum at Steveston (see also the Gold Seal Seafoods site) on the south arm of the Fraser River near Vancouver. The corporate predecessor to BC Packers began operation at Alert Bay in 1881, eleven years after the first store and saltery were established there. The complex was completed by the Second World War years. The cannery store also served as the post office after 1890, helping to establish consistent government services in the remote town. BC Packers had recently pulled out of the community leaving the buildings empty, but (as it has done in Steveston) has floated a number of proposals to redevelop the site and/or the buildings as a fishing resort or a conference centre. But I noted the following piece of news: "Minutes of the Council of the Village of Alert Bay, July 23, 2002: The Historic Alert Bay Development Corporation met with Sam Bawlf to discuss long-term economic plans for Alert Bay. They are to meet again in October 2002. A letter from the Corporation is being sent to B.C. Packers stating we are no longer interested in saving the building as B.C. Packers has failed to provide or be responsible for the clean up. B.C. Packers hired environmental engineers but refused to disclose the report. We would like them to tear it down and do proper reparation . . . ." Read a February, 2003 news story

Written in 2002: My first impression of Alert Bay, compared with democratic Sointula (on nearby Malcolm Island) – where not even a church steeple punctuates the house rooflines – is that Alert Bay (on Cormorant Island) is a company or government town. The agencies of the state, including the church, the residential school [demolished in 2015 – see below], the hospital and the Big Employer, are all displayed prominently along the shore. There is also a fourth "state agency" – the 'Namgis First Nation with its U'mista Culture Centre and totem poles, including the tallest one in the world.

Cormorant Island is divided between the Village of Alert Bay, about 100 hectares (230 acres) in extent, with the Alert Bay Indian Reserve occupying the balance.

(There is another interesting BC Packers site, concerning the Boundary Bay Oyster Plant, at

Note from Faye Kemmis (née Clelland), 2008
: there were four major churches there; the Anglican one is the most decorative with a little steeple and is one of the oldest in BC; the Catholic one is small and was turned into a private dwelling; the lovely old log United Church where I was married to a Catholic as my Anglican church in 1970 banned me from marrying a divorced man; and the Pentecostal close to the Catholic church, all were very well attended when I lived there, from 1958 - 1970..travelling inbetween times. The Anglican one is over a hundred years old and now the Namgis First Nation fill it, and their language is used probably 90% of the time. Lovely memories and great culture.

* * *


The nurses' residence at St. George's Hospital, Alert Bay. The two-story part was built in 1925 while the lower structure in the distance was added in 1941. In what was primarily an Anglican town, the first St. George's Hospital opened in 1909 and burned down in 1923. The hospital buildings still extant in the summer of 2002, behind the nurses residence (out of the picture on the left) are low, flat roofed structures with horizontal board siding and large, multipaned wooden windows--a style that reflects their parentage as an RCAF hospital from the Second World War (apparently originally located in Port Hardy and floated over--source: North Island Heritage Inventory and Evaluation (Insight Consultants, 1984), BC Heritage Branch Library, Victoria). Since the opening of the Cormorant Island Health Centre next to "St. Mike's" (below) these buildings have been abandoned. I'm unsure whether there is to be a new hospital built at Alert Bay, or whether the health centre is the permanent replacement for St. George's.

St. Michael's Residential School ("St. Mike's")

Written/sketched in 2002: The 'Namgis First Nation has owned the old St. Michael's Residential School since 1975, and still uses part of it for offices. In the Spring of 2003, it was renamed 'Namgis House (see news stories below). Built in 1929, it was one of a large number of residential schools in British Columbia (indeed, across western Canada) intended by the federal government and the churches to provide aboriginal children with a basic education as well as complete reprogramming from their parents' culture. Many of the residential schools were run by the Roman Catholic church, while others, including this one, were Anglican. Its style of architecture, brick colour and size cause it still to dominate the town--I mentioned above my impression, coming in on the ferry, of Alert Bay being a company or government town, and "St. Mike's" almost jumps off the landscape. It is set away from the commercial heart of the town, the part of the waterfront with the BC Packers plant, town hall and hospital, and until its closure in the early 1970s was more or less self-contained, with gardens, a dairy and an electrical generating plant. In front of it (to the left of the picture above) is the U'mista Cultural Centre, a museum of repatriated ceremonial regalia and "coppers" that commemorate the potlatch, one of the core aspects of traditional Kwakwaka'wakw culture. The banning of the potlatch by the federal government in 1884 was a significant attempt to assimilate the local people and destroy their culture. On the hill behind the residential school is the Alert Bay Big House, a traditional post-and-beam structure with its planked facade painted in traditional Kwakwaka'wakw designs. And, of course, there's the world's tallest totem pole nearby, all reasons why Alert Bay is an important stop on the cultural tourism circuit.

Update, 2015: demolition of the school began in mid-February with extensive news coverage, including this excerpt from the Globe&Mail site:

This brought to a conclusion a disagreement amongst members of the community about how or whether to memorialize the residential school experience there. For example, the Indian Residential School Resources website indicates, in an undated video, the desire of a chief who attended the school to keep it.

Earlier stories, such as the ones below, talked of a "new beginning." It is an interesting contrast with the St. Eugene's Mission School near Cranbrook.

Stories from North Island Gazette, Port Hardy, thanks to Mark Allan, publisher and editor
FEB 28, 2003
Chrissy Johnny
ALERT BAY -- Lieutenant-Governor Iona Campagnolo and Bishop Barry Jenks were instrumental in a cleansing ceremony Sunday at a former residential school.
"We start to see a new beginning with Barb Cranmer, the U'Mista Cultural Centre, Chief Bill Cranmer and the community working together," Campagnolo told about 100 people gathered at the former St. Michael's residential school. "The Kwakwaka'wakw people were living in a thriving economy. Yours is a heroic story," Campagnolo added.
"You have a culture that is rich and timeless -- a culture that teaches a natural reverence," she continued. "We can learn to honour our children as we once honored our Elders. I am very honored to be here, to share with you."
The lieutenant-governor attempted to put some distance between previous government and church officials who used residential schools to separate native people from their culture.
"We're not the same people you knew in 1929 (the year St. Michael's was built)," Campagnolo stated at the newly renamed 'Namgis House.
"I was struck by the number of dances that portray transformation," commented Jenks, from the Anglican Diocese of Victoria. "Dance depicts transformation from darkness to light, Jenks continued in his speech.
"The Church has made a unanimous decision to accept responsibility and to make compensation, he said, referring to "support for the healing of the families whose development has been violated."
Mayor Gilbert Popovich, Kwakwaka'wakw leaders and residential school survivors. Everyone was invited to walk through the former school.
Late Elder Agnes Cranmer advised her people that spruce was used for this ceremony. Chief Bill Cranmer and Tsawataineuk Elder Frank Nelson carried the spruce in a traditional dish.
"We're moving into a new beginning," 'Namgis House committee chair Barb Cranmer said of the cleansing ceremony.
Project coordinator Chris Beaton and Linda Gray will work with the 'Namgis House committee to revitalize the 30,000-square-foot structure.
The Kwakiutl Territorial Fisheries Commission, the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council, a carving shop and various private tenants also based in the building are being included in the planning.
Suggestions include a café, bakery and, most importantly, a language centre, says Cranmer. Another suggestion is a permanent exhibit to honour and respect the people who attended St. Mike's school.
Former St. Michael's student Evelyn Voyageur works at the Vancouver Island Indian Residential School Survivors Society. In an interview, she indicated she is planning a reunion of former St. Michael's students. She feels that this is an essential element of the healing process.
Campagnolo has accepted an invitation to be honorary chair of 'Namgis House.

MARCH 12, 2003

ALERT BAY -- Survivors still feel the pain decades after their experience in St. Michael's Residential School, says hereditary chief Frank Nelson.
"It's time to pray for all the survivors," the former St. Mike's student said during a recent cleansing ceremony at the building. "Much more needs to be done for our people."
Pauline Alfred recounts a story of when she was at St. Mike's of a nine-year-old child from Nass River.
"There was a tent city here. A little boy was playing by the cliffs and he fell to his death," Alfred recounted during the ceremony. "They didn't even have the decency to pay their way home(to Nass) after his death)," Alfred said.
"If I was the parent, I would have died of a broken heart," Alfred stated.
"Three boys escaped in a little dingy," she continued with a different memory. "One was only eight years old. The boat flipped and the boys' bodies were never found."
Some boys would prefer to go to Oakalla penitentiary, where Alfred alleges they would get better care than at the residential school.
In an interview after the cleansing ceremony, Lily Isaac remembered the hunger and the shame of attending St. Mike's. When she first arrived, she could speak only Kwakwala.
One of her relatives told her she would have to speak nothing but English or she would be in trouble. Isaac said she was so scared she would just nod or shake her head.
When the children would be disciplined, says Isaac, they would have to take their clothes off and line up to be spanked. At shower time, they would have to line up completely naked.
Isaac recalls an incident in which dorm supervisor "Miss Howard" was found to be a man. He was told to take his shirt off, and he had a girdle underneath. The man lost his job, Isaac recalls.
Isaac says if children wet their bed, they would have to put their noses on the wet bed for a half-hour.
Isaac recalls her fear when she went back to college recently. North Island College was located in the residential school.
"Thank God I didn't lose my culture," Alfred said. "They didn't take it away," she told a crowd of about 100 at the cleansing ceremony. "We had to fight to survive, and I call myself a survivor. They could not change us.
"I started to drink," continued Alfred. "I thought it was natural. We weren't perfect. No one's life is perfect."
Evelyn Voyageur has mixed feelings because of the trauma she suffered in St. Mike's.
"We lost our identification when we were brought here," recalled Voyageur during the ceremony. "No one explained why we had to kneel down three to four times a day," continued Voyageur. "I am thankful my parents didn't attend residential school.
"Seven generations are affected by the negative residential experiences," Voyageur added. "Our stories need to be told. My son didn't know what I went through."
She recalled the hunger they all suffered while in the school. Said Voyageur, "Adult men in the village would collect food from the beaches to give to the young boys in residential school who were so hungry."
Voyageur hopes something positive flows from the cleansing ceremony in which Lieut.-Gov. Iona Campagnolo and Bishop Barry Jenks of the Anglican Diocese of Victoria tried to help First Nations people deal with painful memories.
She is planning a reunion of all former residential school survivors.
"We want to meet the needs of the survivors," said Voyageur. She plans to circulate a questionnaire to explore those needs with survivors. "Congratulations to our aboriginal children. Healing is a two-way street."

Regrettably, nothing of this scene survives, except for the church in the distance, which logically would be Christ Church (still a fixture of the waterfront but very altered from this picture). This part of the waterfront is pretty well cleared off, with the individual native families mainly living in standard government-issue houses on the streets on the hillside behind the residential school. Photographer unknown.

St. Michael's in the 1930s. The two-story wooden porch is gone now. Photographer unknown.

A 1940s photo by an unknown photogrrapher. The long building is the BC Packers plant, in the painting at the top of this page seen from the other side.

Story from the North Island Gazette, Port Hardy, pub’d February 5, 2003. (thanks to Mark Allan, publisher and editor)
Chrissy Johnny
ALERT BAY -- A local man says he will chain himself to a former cannery building to save what he says is a part of history.
"It's such a waste," says businessman Colin Ritchie, referring to the 30,000 square feet of "perfectly usable space" in two buildings scheduled to be demolished beginning this week.
The buildings owned by Weston Foods Inc. (formerly BC Packers Ltd.) are on the downtown waterfront next to the BC Ferries terminal. They have been an integral part of the community's economy and an historic attraction since the 1870s, Ritchie states.
"I won't be able to sleep if I don't do something," says Ritchie, who vows to chain himself to the gates in an effort to halt or delay the start of the demolition.
Ritchie's action will not change the decision to demolish, says Mayor Gilbert Popovich.
"We'd like to save the BC Packers buildings, but we cannot do so," says Popovich.
Popovich indicates an effort was made to save the buildings, although, "Insurance, taxes and upkeep of the buildings would cost $50,000 annually."
Chief Bill Cranmer of the 'Namgis faults the B.C. government.
"After the current government was elected, all plans were put on hold," recalls Cranmer. "BC Packers wanted a decision made."
Cranmer is a member of Heritage Alert Bay Inc., formed by the Village of Alert Bay and the 'Namgis First Nation to retain historic buildings of the community. When the provincial government halted their plan for a restoration project, Heritage Alert Bay decided to explore transferring this responsibility to another organization, Cranmer says.
If an individual took on this initiative, they would require $300,000 to $400,000 to do an environmental cleanup, Cranmer notes. He cites the example of Namu, in which a private investor went bankrupt. BC Packers was left with the cleanup. "We recognize the historical value of the buildings," Cranmer concedes. "And the fact that BC Packers made a lot of money in the fishing community of Alert Bay."
Ritchie, who owns two nearby buildings, had hoped to attract private investment to restore the former BC Packers buildings into something that would be a tourist attraction. He was trying to avoid asking for government assistance, explaining he was not "looking for handouts."
Another possibility, says Ritchie, is would be developing living quarters. He says his phone is "ringing off the hook with people looking for accommodation."
There are two apartments in the office building in perfect shape, which Ritchie says will likely be used by men who were hired to oversee the demolition.
Ritchie says he has invested $500,000 into property in Alert Bay, restoring old buildings. He has been a resident of Alert Bay for the past seven years.


The information above specifically on Alert Bay buildings is largely gleaned from the pamphlet "Your guide to Historic Alert Bay," published in cooperation with the Alert Bay Museum and Library. Its website is available from the BC History Internet/Web Site. Additional information from North Island Heritage Inventory and Evaluation (Insight Consultants, 1984), BC Heritage Branch Library, Victoria.


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Artwork and text ©Michael Kluckner, 2001, 2002