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Hawaiians in Canada

July 8, 2011

The following historic profile of Hawaiians in Canada comes from “Multicultural Canada”. Enjoy!

The movement of indigenous Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders to the countries along Pacific rim, including the west coast of North America and Australia, followed the arrival of Europeans. The Hawaiian Islands quickly became a wintering and stop-over point for European and American merchant vessels, and local men were soon being taken on as crew members or recruited as labourers. They were sometimes termed Owhyhees, an adaptation of Hawaiians, but were more often called Kanakas, a Polynesian term meaning “human being, man, mankind, person, individual.” Like many words that in previous times were appropriate designations of identity, Kanaka has come to have a negative implication in the Hawaiian Islands, although on the Pacific Coast it remains part of many place names and archival texts. Canadian descendants prefer to be called Hawaiians.

The first two-dozen Hawaiians hired for the Pacific northwest fur trade arrived in 1811, and thereafter Hawaiians worked alongside Orkney Islanders and French Canadians as boatmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, farm workers, mill hands, and general labourers. From 1829 the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had its own agent in Honolulu to oversee trade and recruit local men on two-or three-year contracts. Virtually every Pacific northwest fur-trade post had a contingent of Hawaiians, who were repeatedly praised for their reliability, cheerful disposition, and hard work. Contemporary references to Hawaiians, usually unnamed, turn up from as far south as California (where some worked in the gold-rush). Hawaiians, many coming on their own volition, continued to arrive on the northwest coast through the nineteenth century.

1896 Map of western Canada. (University of Texas at Austin)

The number of Hawaiians who worked abroad is impossible to calculate. One respected source estimates that the figure rose from about 200 in 1823 to 4,000 in 1850. An Hawaiian publication of September 1844 considered that 300 to 400 were then employed by the HBC in the Pacific northwest, while another fifty had been hired in the past eighteen months as seamen on ships heading in that direction. The number of Hawaiians who remained abroad is equally difficult to determine. Contemporary sources, including early voters’ lists and the manuscript censuses, suggest that at least a hundred, perhaps many more, settled in British Columbia.

Flag of British Columbia.

The reasons were several. Visiting seamen likely brought news of deteriorating conditions at home, where indigenous Hawaiians were losing their autonomy and self-respect in the face of religious and economic exploitation by outsiders. Moreover, unlike the Hawaiian Islands, where newcomers had acquired control of the best land, British Columbia had unoccupied land. At least one of the labourers, William Naukana, is known to have returned home only to find that family land had been appropriated for a sugar plantation; he then came back again. Many of the men had produced families by Indian women and so acquired personal reasons for remaining. Also, American legislation equating Hawaiians with Indians and blacks, groups that lacked the right to vote, own property, or become citizens, encouraged a number of those who had put down roots in Oregon or Washington to move north to British Columbia where, perhaps because of the respect they had acquired through their role in the fur trade, they were legally on an equal footing with members of the dominant society. When the San Juan Islands, long in dispute between the United States and Britain, were awarded to the former in 1872, a dozen or more families left there for British Columbia.

Flag of Hawaii.

The comparatively menial positions that Hawaiians occupied in the fur trade, their illiteracy, and the ease with which individual names were altered for ease of pronunciation make it difficult to trace men of the first generation through their lifetimes. The stories that can be pieced together from contemporary sources, family recollections and photographs, local histories, and other materials do, however, indicate Hawaiians’ general patterns of settlement in British Columbia. Men of the first generation behaved little differently from other recent arrivals. After working in the paid labour force for a time, with perhaps a stint in the gold-fields, many if not most chose the independence that came with farming, fishing, and logging for a living.

Some of the Hawaiians stayed near their former place of employment, including a small cluster on the north shore of the Fraser River across from Fort Langley. Others moved down river to work in the small lumbering communities on Burrard Inlet. Several families lived at Kanaka Ranch in what became Stanley Park, others on the inlet’s north shore. A number worked in or near Victoria, some as coal miners around Nanaimo. Still others preferred a familiar island setting and took up land on Saltspring or one of the many smaller islands off the British Columbia coast, including Harbledown, Portland, Coal, Russell, and Bowen.

Although never a clearly defined community in the sense of having formal institutions, Hawaiians in British Columbia have valued their heritage. Stories passed down over the years remain remarkably intact, in part perhaps because the first generation was non-literate and the culture of subsequent generations has been as much verbal as written. Many who know little about their precise family histories are nonetheless aware of their distinctive origins, and for the most part descendants take greater pride in being Hawaiian than in being Indian, likely because of the greater respect accorded Hawaiians historically. Particularly since the 1970s some families have begun to visit Hawaii, hoping, so far without success, to recover an actual as well as a spiritual link with families there. Operation Ohana, a recent initiative by the Hawaiian government to enrol all persons of aboriginal Hawaiian ancestry into a cultural association, has been greeted with enthusiasm.

Though they are one of Canada’s smaller peoples, British Columbia’s Hawaiians testify strongly to the strength of the country’s fabric. Their treatment by the dominant society belies the myth that legal discrimination necessarily follows from a distinctive physical appearance. The handful of Hawaiian men who remained in British Columbia were deemed citizens of Canada, and behaved as such. Their descendants testify to the diversity of Canada’s peoples.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2011 10:36 pm

    How far we have come and how far we’ve yet to go on our planet . . .
    Another shining facet of the jewel that is Hawaii, our diversity, and sharing, learning, laughing and embracing our cultural differences . . .
    Canada and Hawaii, our histories, inextricable mixed – 2 of the most beautiful places accidently woven together but not forgotten!

  2. Donna Leoho'onani Phillips permalink
    September 11, 2012 4:12 am

    I agree with you Karen! I could not say it any better!

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