History

 Little Hawaii: The history of Hawaiians in Pacific Canada

A look into one of the least-known migrations in North America

  • Aug 11, 2023
  • 812 words
  • 4 minutes
Present-day Coal Harbour. (Photo: Vlad D/Unsplash)
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What do the locations of present-day Coal Harbour in Vancouver, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the village of Lytton, and Salt Spring Island have in common?

These are all places in present-day British Columbia where the migrants of one of the least-known migrations in the history of North America lived and in some areas where their descendants continue to live.

“Thousands of Hawaiians have gone away to foreign lands and remained there.” Samuel Kamakau, a Hawaiian historian and scholar, wrote in the local Hawaiian newspaper in January 1868.

In the following year and a half, Kamakau reported, “The Hawaiian race live like wanderers on the Earth and dwell in all lands surrounded by the sea.” 

Cecelia Naukana and her husband, George Napoleon Parker and five children. (Photo: Cathy Roland/Salt Spring Island Archives)
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Aligning with Kamakau’s reports of the time, the Pacific Northwest, enveloped by the Pacific Ocean’s coastal waters, saw many Hawaiians arrive and take root — the first Hawaiians arriving in 1787. 

While the exact number of Hawaiian migrants is not known, the reasons as to why they left their homeland are known. 

When the Northwest Coast fur trade was set up in the late 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, Hawaii became an ideal place for fur trade ships to spend the winter, and many of them picked up local Hawaiians as crew. Most of the passengers were local men, sought out for their natural aptitude for swimming and working on the water.

While most Hawaiians came to B.C. to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) as servants of both the land-based and maritime fur trade, other Hawaiian migrants were just curious and wanted to travel as well as take the chance to seek a better life. 

Hawaiians in the late 18th and 19th centuries found that possibilities at home were diminishing when their traditional way of life was disrupted and changing through the influence of increasing Western newcomers to their island.

Among the HBC’s many posts, a sizable number of Hawaiian employees at Fort Vancouver eventually constituted the largest single ethnic group.

According to historians Dr. Jean Barman and Dr. Bruce McIntyre Watson, who researched this migration, “The Hawaiians would contribute more than 3,000 man-years of labour to the Hudson’s Bay company alone.”

When the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858 led to the end of the HBC’s trading monopoly,  many Hawaiians chose to stay in Canada — like the experiences of many people who move to a new country, they no longer recognized the homeland they had left.  

Coal Harbour in 1898. (Photo: City of Vancouver Archives)
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Present-day Salt Spring Island. (Photo: Jun Zhu)
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They sought new work opportunities, intermarried with local Indigenous Peoples and formed numerous communities in Pacific Canada.

Today, the places where they settled and raised their families are still distinctly recognizable as they include the word “Kanaka.” This includes Kanaka Ranch (now Coal Harbour), Kanaka Row in present-day Victoria, Kanaka Creek in Maple Ridge and Kanaka Road on Salt Spring Island. 

Near present-day Lytton is home to the Kanaka Bar First Nation, one of 15 Indigenous communities that make up the Nlaka’pamux Nation today. Many families of mixed Hawaiian and First Nations heritage still live in the area.

Although Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest were most often referred to as “Kanakas,”  which means “person” or “man” in the Hawaiian language, the term “Kanaka” was used in the South Pacific and Australia disparagingly so Hawaiian descendants in the Pacific Northwest have asked to be called “Hawaiians” rather than “Kanakas.” 

The Lumley Family. (Photo: Salt Spring Island Archives)
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The largest community of Hawaiians in Pacific Canada would be on the scenic Gulf Islands — so much so that it was nicknamed “Little Hawaii.” Hawaiian traditions such as fishing methods, the luau feasts and legends of Hawaiian deities were taught and passed along from generation to generation. 

The 1890s was when the Hawaiian community on the Gulf Islands reached its greatest size. The elderly generation of full-blooded Hawaiians were still alive, and their children had started families of their own. 

In the first decade of the 20th century, the Hawaiian community saw the passing of Hawaiian-born settlers. 

Following that, while some second and third-generation descendants remained on the Gulf Islands, many moved away to the city and married non-Hawaiians.

However, in the early 1990s, families with Hawaiian backgrounds in B.C. and Washington State began to connect — forming annual gatherings named the Hawaiian Connection. These gatherings would lead, yet again, to the establishment of effervescent and new communities. 

Present-day Canada not only has 40 million people, but it’s also a complex landscape inscribed with histories that far predate Confederation, where culturally diverse communities of Indigenous peoples have continuously thrived since time immemorial. 

Over the past several decades, Canada has become increasingly multicultural through historical and current trans-Pacific immigration from around the world. 

Knowing the migration story of Hawaiians is more than just history, it speaks to the larger human experience of what it means to set roots in a different place. 

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