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Romantic Canada
Chapter XXXI Steveston

BOOM! Um-mmm-m—!

Every Sunday evening at six o'clock during the salmon-run, the signal gun that marks the beginning of another fishing-week rings out upon the evening air of Steveston the capital of the British Columbia salmon fisheries at the mouth of the great Fraser River. Not a net passes over any gunwale of the hundred odd motorboats that for the past hour have been jockeying up-and-down picking up the great river's signals-of-fish and the way they "set", until the crack of the official gun rings out over the water. The moment, however, that this is heard, over go the great seines, imported here from Old Scotland for just this dramatic instant, entrants in the great race, boat against boat, and all in league, against salmon.

Of all the stories of animal-life, none is more wonderful or pathetic, than the story which the salmon of the Fraser have given to Canada. From out the deep-sea they come by tens of thousands, crowding, pushing, over-leaping each other, a silvery mass of fighting-mad mothers, trying to start their off-spring on the perilous road of fish-life, somewhere in a pool, high up in the mountains out of harm's way; and here across the river, near its mouth, is this line of boats and their submerged nets lying in wait, while on the river's bank in league with the boats are the huge canning factories, like so many Molochs open-mouthed, waiting to swallow to-day's catch and to-morrow's, as they have snapped up those of the years gone by.

One has not spent an hour on this waterfront before story and romance have flitted across the stage in almost confusing numbers. Each figure in the vaudeville of fish, a flashing mosaic, stepped out of the Far East to serve this river of the Far West. For the Japs are the servitors of Salmon at Steveston. Out of the Islands of Nippon have come these fishermen, to serve in the ranks of Fraser salmon-fishing, men with wives and little families, caught in the net of circumstance and landed far from home, to work here where the snow-capped Mount McKinley, over in the State of Washington, gleams an intermittent nimbus of light above the foggy head-veil of distance, suggesting, like a lighted candle on the altar of remembrance, all the sweet associations and memories clinging to the snow-capped brow of Fujiyama.

Here in the boats are the nets, all the way from the hand of the old net-maker in Scotland, and here the hands handling the nets come from the other side of the world to bring Canadian salmon to the tables of the home-land and to carry the overflow to the tables of the world. For when one comes to think of it, there must indeed be few, if any lands, that do not know Canadian salmon, and few undertakings calling for a ration of canned-food which do not depend on canned-salmon to hold up the fish-end.

These up-to-date motorboats, so broad in the waist to hold the net and the fish-cargo, bear in their rounded bows striking psychological resemblance in quaint twist of line to the old Saint Malo fishboats riding in the anchorage sentried off Cape Barrie at Perce, while at the same moment in that blunt blow, there is suggestion both of the tripping old canal-barge of the Richelieu and of the craft of the Yang-tse, so that one involuntarily murmurs "Sampans of Salmon''. So too, in the lower river-silt bank platformed by rough planks and water-soaked piles, there is both touch of Fundy and whiff of Asiatic Deltas.

The little wooden shack homes of these Japanese fisher folk of Steveston are raised above flood-danger on wooden platforms and set about with wooden yards, fronted by clear-running canals crossed by foot bridges of wide plank.

Who can screen a picture of Japan without a bridge, or of a Japanese home, however homely, but its poverty is beatified by masses of flowers? So, here against the unpainted walls, set about on the floor of the wooden yard, are buckets and tubs of Chrysanthemums a-bloom, Japan-transplanted. And do the flowers stop at the bucket or the box? Not at all. Marigolds and cornflowers and candytuft and many others under the loving hand of the Jap-mother, are coaxed out of every crevice of river-silt staved-up by any old bit of wood. Vines set near the edge of the tiny canals trail tendril fingers to touch the water. And the little bridges are so invaded by pots of bloom that the man of the family must surely object to the narrow gangway allowed him to and from his boats, did he not love flowers as keenly as his little Flower-of-Japan wife.

Passing to and fro here and in the salmon-factories one begins to realize that the Japanese women share the work on the fish with the men. One might even call these little women "the 'longshoremen of Salmon" as they stand at the tables,—groaning under the weight of sockeye and its lesser brethren—their babies tied to their backs with a soft shawl, in the same way that the Cree mother carries her baby in a tikanagan. Many a lullaby is crooned while the skilful brown fingers place the juicy steaks in the little flat tins. The gentle rocking of the mother's swaying figure sends the baby to sleep more effectively than any cradle. And the mother and her baby are together through the long day of toil.

As one steps along the factory-floors between the long rows of women, figures just made by Nature for the kimona and the smooth shiny ebon-elegance of the Japanese coiffure, these plump little women with their brown-eyed babies on their backs are indeed a picturesque contribution to the genre appearing on the vast stage from Atlantic to Pacific that is—the Dominion. Nor is canning the fish the limit of the Japanese woman's usefulness. Not all of them work in the factories. Figures of the wharf-side and of the platform-yards by the flowering banks of the canals are the great seines a-drying. And while one sees men, sitting about in the sun, netting-needle in hand, mending these nets, just as frequently one happens on some strong Japanese woman, long knife in hand, cutting away the large wooden floats, against the net's being laid away at the close of the season, her baby, released from the back cradle-perambulator, playing at her side.

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