Thoughts on Namu

By Canada C3 participant Hélèna Katz

An unopened package of curry powder. A jar of peanut butter. Dusty paperbacks abandoned on store shelves. Rusted cans. An old crane. And abandoned buildings that remain frozen in 1970 when the company at the heart of this once-thriving fish-processing community packed up and left.

We arrive in Namu on a sunny Thursday morning during Leg 14 of the Canada C3 expedition. Namu sits on British Columbia’s central coast, south of Bella Bella in the Heiltsuk Nation’s territory. The Heiltsuk Nation has given us permission to visit.

The first cannery opened here in 1893 and closed in 1970. Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt has joined us for this leg of the expedition. He was 16 years old when he worked at Namu. Every summer, the population swelled from 20 people to 2,500 from across the province. “It was a vibrant community,” Chief Humchitt remembers. “They had dances and a travelling band.”

He worked alongside whites, Japanese people and other First Nations in the fish-packing plant. While everyone spent time together, it surprises me to learn that as recently as 40 years ago, each group went home to segregated areas of the community. Sometime in the 1980s, BC Packers closed up when the fishing industry became less profitable. Namu was sold to a developer. The Heiltsuk Nation wants to repatriate it.

As our Zodiac moves slowly beneath the boardwalk, we spot the dilapidated fish plant which looks like it is ready to topple over. Our group pulls up and walks up an overgrown grassy trail. We have been cautioned to watch for bits of wire, glass and other tripping hazards. I stop to photograph a rusted barrel – and idly wonder whether it’s old enough to qualify as an artifact.

A little bit further along, a shopping cart sits abandoned outside what was once a general store. Inside, glass crunches beneath my boot as I step carefully through the debris. Dusty books sit on metal shelves. Someone finds a video of the movie Deliverance. The scene looks like catastrophe struck and everyone left in a hurry.

As I survey the scene, I wonder about all the stories and memories this place holds. People have lived here for thousands of years. Archeological digs have found evidence of continuous occupation for 10,000 years. It’s where Chief Humchitt’s ancestors were returned to the earth in a repatriation ceremony in 2011, after being removed by Simon Fraser University researchers.

I’m standing on the bank, getting ready to return to the Zodiac, when a wave of sadness washes over me. Will the stories of this place dating back thousands of years be forgotten – and erased from history? I feel a sense of hope when Chief Humchitt tells me later: “It will take time, but we’ll get this place cleaned up.”