Western Canada: Which Came First, the Outrigger Canoe or the Hawaiians?
We are racing down the Fraser River, the mother river of mainland British Columbia, in a six-person outrigger canoe. The water is murky and rippled with current. It’s a big river. On Bedford Island to my left there are a couple big log booms, but I’m not paying special attention to them, though maybe I should be more so. I’m steering the FCRCC distance women’s crew in the Fort Langley Canoe Club’s River Run race….but my real interest is over on the right bank of the river downstream where Kanaka Creek flows into the Fraser. Near its mouth was a Hawaiian settlement dating back to the 1830s. I have become fascinated with the history that connects Hawaii and Canada across more than two centuries and the vast Pacific Ocean. Outrigger paddlers in British Columbia race in numerous locations where Hawaiians, called Kanakas, came to work and where some eventually settled in the very early days of western Canada’s development.
Kanaka is a term with various historical meanings, generally used to refer to a worker from various Pacific Islands employed in British colonies, such as British Columbia, Fiji and Queensland, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They also worked in California and Chile. Originally, the word referred only to native Hawaiians called kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli in the Hawai’ian language. In some locations it would later become a derogatory word used by those who wished to impress the Hawaiians with their low position. To the Islanders, however, it meant approximately the same as the English word agent. Thus, the kanaka of King Kamehameha was his agent or business associate just as the Deputy Cabinet Minister of Foreign Affairs would be the kanaka of the Prime Minister. In 2009, the Academy of the Polynesian languages Pa’umotu specified a definition more faithful to the primal Polynesian language, Mamaka Kaïo or “free man.”
Canadian Kanakas were all Hawaiian in origin and were aboard the first exploration and trading ships to reach the North Pacific Coast. Captain Cook came to the coast straight from Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, in 1778, becoming the first European to claim discovery of Vancouver Island and what is now British Columbia and by 1791 captains coming to Canada were picking up Kanakas to fill their crews. Later many more Hawaiians arrived in Canada to work. Nearly all were contractees of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), although some had arrived in the area as ship’s hands or, in some cases, migrated north from California.
The Kanaka labor force was a key factor in the HBC operations. They were employed in fur brigades travelling waterways across Canada and in the fur trade forts. Although Canadian voyageurs were desirable employees, they were also expensive and independent, and many of them were unwilling to leave the Red River Settlement area. The only other source of cheap labor was in the Sandwich Islands, and by 1823, 200 Kanakas had left the Islands, although many of them were aboard American whalers.
In fact, they were so often employed that a reserve of trained sailors formed in the Islands. The Kanakas in Canada were employed in building boats, as middlemen on the canoes and York boats, and as seamen on the Company coast vessels. As expert swimmers they were invaluable in righting swamped canoes and keeping less able employees from drowning.
As a result of their involvement in the fur trade, and eventually in sawmills and coal mines and other developing industries, a number of Kanakas made a new home in this country. Altogether three or four hundred were employed in the Canadian fur trade during the 19th century and some of them stayed on in British Columbia to make an important contribution to pioneer life. Many Kanaka men married First Nations women and their descendants can still be found in British Columbia and neighbouring parts of Canada and Washington and Oregon.
We reach the foot of Bedford Island without me seeing anything that remotely looks associated with Hawaii or even the ocean. The Fraser just keeps on rolling while we turn and race upstream to the finish line at Fort Langley. But from my reading I know Kanaka Creek is to the north, a once thriving community of mixed Hawaiian-First Nations families (mostly Kwantlen) established across the river from fort in the 1830s and that it remains on the map today as a historic rural residential area located in Maple Ridge, part of Greater Vancouver. Kanaka Creek’s population dwindled somewhat when the fort was located further upstream, although some of the original families stayed on for decades. The area has long since been subdivided and the now suburban neighbourhood retains a greenbelt quality because of the protection of the creek by its park and as a salmon spawning stream, and there are still farms operating in some parts of the area.
Finished the race we float in front of the modern town of Fort Langley and cheer on the crews still coming in. I wonder how the Kanakas saw this land, towering evergreens instead of palms, and greenie, brown fresh water versus the blue, blue ocean. They stayed here, despite the hardship and now we race their crafts in this place. We are connected in so many ways. Some linguists even hold that “canuck,” a nickname for Canadians, is derived from the Hawaiian word Kanaka. I love this possibility and the fact that I am paddling an outrigger canoe in their historic wake.
Author Laurel Archer -FCRCC