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High end wander through the gritty and great of Steveston's past

Lorraine Graves   Sep-13-2018

Tour guide Andrew Wade plays a 1914 commercial fisher, John Thomas, who hunts for his truant child while leading us on a trip through Steveston history, an experience you can’t have anywhere else in the world.

Photo by Kaylee Jerez, Tourism Richmond

The Steveston Heritage Experience is well named. You don’t just watch or listen, you wander through, experience and sometimes even taste the flavours of our past.

The tour for about 20 begins at the Britannia Heritage Shipyard, a National Historic Site on the banks of the south arm of the Fraser River. The costumed tour guide use voice amplification that echoed throughout the large space of the shipyard’s Seine Net Loft building. He opened with words in archaic language that those new to English would have struggled to understand but it soon became clear the tour would not be in rhyming verse or ancient English but rather, it was traditional toast once used in the Fraser’s communities.



The gist of the tour was that a fisher’s wife, Marg, was off working in a cannery while he was home for the day, looking after his son, getting him to school. Word has come that the boy didn’t get to school so our wanderings as a group are based on the dad’s hunt for his truant son, Michael. It lent a thread to the tour as we wended our way through the historic community.

The local indigenous civilization was briefly touched upon with a mention of the Musqueam community.

After learning the history of the boatyard and the Murikami House, we ended up in the Chinese bunkhouse where the first flavours of the day offered themselves to us. Cool, clear water was perfect and the silky smoked salmon, divine. More about the rice is sat upon later.

We boarded a small bus in great comfort for the short ride to the next venue, the Interurban Tram. As we toured the beautifully-restored piece of history, the tour guide had some fine jokes in his review that had all of us chuckling. After good time to admire and sit in the tram, there were stellar heritage colas and root beers to wash down the kettle popcorn provided. The pop was generous in size and the popcorn, in traditional paper bags, was a good mix of salty and sweet crispness.

From the Tram, it was a short wander up the next block to the Steveston Museum where we explored the Fishman’s Benevolent Society Building as the hunt for the truant, Michael, continued with clear commentary on life in the old days in this fishing village. Nothing was entirely grim but nothing was whitewashed either. The bitter world war two history of the Canadians of Japanese origin was offset by the traditional Japanese Saki tasting offered.

The three types of locally-produced Saki were clear traditional, unfiltered and berry blend. The knowledgeable presenters took time to explain the beverage to each taster.

As the weather threatened rain, we didn’t mingle outside in the village square but did make our way to the Gulf of Georgia National Historic Site where our guide once again explained both the bright and dark sides of existence for cannery workers. The detailed script offered a great taste of life as we journeyed through the once-mighty cannery. With many interactive displays, there was much to take in.

The final tastes of the journey were hot, creamy clam chowder from Pajo’s and gentle pale ale from Britannia Brewing company. The soup was hearty and the ale appealed to even the non-beer-lovers amongst us.

As we all sat at long tables, like cannery workers of old, the general mood was one of happiness, satisfied appetites, and renewed interest in the history of this old fishing port.

The hope is that those visiting the lower mainland will consider spending an afternoon experiencing our recent history in Steveston. Be they people whisked from the airport, waiting for a cruise ship, or just in town for a holiday, this tour would be worth putting into a well-planned or a last-minute itinerary. This is an experience you cannot have anywhere else.

The heritage tour represents cooperation towards a common goal by many people and organizations from Tourism Richmond, to each venue and each vendor who offered tastes of their wares. For that feat of cooperation alone, they are to be lauded.

And the tardy school boy, Michael? Well, as luck would have it his father, our tour guide, found him at our final destination, hiding in the loft of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, playing marbles with the boys who worked there. We didn’t see him, but we’ll take his dad’s word for it.

While the tour is expensive at $80 per person, it is definitely on the low side for what a tourist would usually pay in other centres for a three-hour tour interspersed with food and beverages. Similar experiences around the world can be $100 (often in US dollars) or more.

We in Richmond need to start realizing we are not “just” Richmond. This is the largest small vessel port in Canada, one of the largest countries in the world. There is nothing second rate about this tour or our sites.

This was a shake-down cruise. While there may be kinks to be worked out, such as having the recycling bins handier for our empties, and the lumps of cold rice under the smoked salmon that were perhaps a too-realistic taste of poor cannery workers’ lunches, I gather tweaks are contemplated before the next tour takes off. Those two things aside, if this is the prototype, I can’t wait for the real thing to begin. It is quality.

The tour is offered to groups of about 20. With advance notice, a wheelchair accessible bus can be offered for the trip from Britannia Shipyard. The majority of the tour is already accessible to those who need ramps and wide doors. There are places to sit at most locations though it does involve walking and standing for about three hours.

It works, even in the rain but bring a brolly or waterproof coat. While it would be equally fine on a sunny day, the Steveston Heritage Experience is a stellar way to spend a rainy afternoon.

The planned tours at this time are in October and the New Year. To buy a ticket or book a group, go to Tourism Richmond’s website.

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