It’s one of Metro Vancouver’s most evocative heritage attractions, but what’s the story behind Steveston’s shoreline-hugging Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site? We chatted with Ann Phelps, chair of the Britannia Heritage Shipyard Society, to get the lowdown on one of British Columbia’s best day-out destinations.

Tourism Richmond (TR): Please introduce us to the Britannia Shipyards, for readers who might not have visited before.

Ann Phelps (AP): The site was built in 1889 as a cannery and it quickly became one of the busiest operations on the Fraser River, producing canned salmon for shipment around the world. But in 1912, the Hells Gate landslide [on the Fraser River, near Boston Bar] triggered a huge decline in salmon stocks, forcing many local canneries to close or convert. From 1917, the Britannia Cannery transformed into a shipyard and fishing boat repair shop. The shipyard closed around 1980 but the last boat built here – the Silver Ann – is currently being restored in the same spot where it was created!

Britannia ShipyardsBritannia Shipyards National Historic Site | Photo credit: Tourism Richmond

TR: What can people see when they visit the site?

AP: This is an authentic representation of a once-thriving community of canneries, boatyards, residences and stores. Many of the buildings date to the 1880s and they tell the stories of multiethnic residents and workers at both the Britannia Cannery and Britannia Shipyards. Our latest exhibit – “Britannia’s Fascinating Waterfront” – uses films and images to immerse visitors in the shipyard, introducing them to Britannia’s diverse community of workers.

TR: What’s the best way to experience the site?

AP: First, pop into the Murchison Visitor Centre and meet an attendant! They are a wealth of historical knowledge and they also provide free 15-minute tours on the hour. If you’re looking for a more in-depth heritage experience, you can also register for one of our specialty tours guided by historical interpreters.

TR: What are your favourite Britannia exhibits?

AP: My favourite part of the site is the Richmond Boat Builders building, which houses what I think of as a living exhibition. Here, visitors can learn how boat builders designed and constructed wooden vessels – there’s a display of traditional tools alongside the boats. You can even take part for a day or volunteer for a longer building or restoration program. Day visitors can also try rolling oakum or use a caulking iron and mallet to fill seams.

Britannia ShipyardsBritannia Shipyards National Historic Site | Photo credit: Jeremy Dyson​

TR: What historic stories interest you most about the site?

AP: To me, the story of the Japanese Canadians who lived here but were interned during World War II is particularly fascinating. The Canadian government targeted many of these Steveston fishermen immediately after the Pearl Harbor bombing, impounding many of their boats and devastating the community. Some of the local families that were interned in camps across BC later returned to Richmond and went on to contribute significantly to the city. But many others never came back.

TP: What are the challenges of operating a large heritage attraction like this?

AP: One of our biggest challenges is to have all the buildings open to visitors at the same time. We have 12 buildings and we rely heavily on volunteers to help keep them open. If you’re interested in volunteering as a Heritage Greeter, please e-mail to get involved!

Britannia ShipyardsBritannia Shipyards National Historic Site | Photo credit: Tourism Richmond

TR: For visitors, how do the Britannia Shipyards and nearby Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site complement each other?

AP:  Richmond is very fortunate to have two National Historic Sites! The Cannery highlights the local history of fishing and canning while Britannia focuses on the multiethnic work force that lived and worked in the area’s canneries and boatyards. Together, they provide invaluable insights and help preserve the history of Canada’s West Coast fishing industry.

TR: Are you participating in this year’s Doors Open Richmond event?

AP: Yes we are! We are hosting the Doors Open opening celebration in our Seine Net Loft on June 1 (5:30 to 7:30pm) – join us for live music, refreshments and fun activities to celebrate this weekend-long event. On June 2  (2:00pm to 4:00pm), the Artists Rendering Tales Collective inc. (ARTCi) will also be here: you can meet First Nations artists and listen to their experiences through quilt-making and cedar weavings. Visitors will also be able to participate in the creation of a large historical scroll.