Skip to main content
Harvey Humchitt Sr., Hereditary Chief of Heiltsuk Nation, on the waterfront at the crumbling town of Namu, B.C. (Mark Hume/The Globe and Mail)

It was once a thriving community where hundreds of workers gathered to process the bounty of the sea, but Namu is now a nightmare ghost town and an environmental threat that’s slowly crumbling into the Pacific.

Buildings that contain asbestos insulation are sagging, fuel tanks rest on rotting plank floors, old batteries and engine parts spill out of an engineering shed into the water below, and the ice house – once a central structure in the industrial fishing complex – has toppled over, littering the deck of the Chilcotin Princess, a 570-tonne cargo ship that appears to be sinking at the dock.

The freighter was brought in a few years ago by the site’s owner to facilitate a cleanup that never happened. Now she is a rusting hulk that “has caught the disease,” said Eric Peterson, founding director of the Hakai Beach Institute, which is located on nearby Calvert Island. “Every time I go into the bay I keep thinking the Chilcotin Princess won’t be visible any more,” he said.

Those who live closest to Namu are calling for it to be cleaned up before it spills toxins into the ocean, but neither the government nor the site owner see it as a high risk.

Mr. Peterson, whose non-profit science foundation has been doing archeological work excavating 11,000-year-old native village sites behind the cannery, said Namu has slowly been crumbling since the industrial operation shut down about 40 years ago. But he fears that process is now escalating.

“I’ve seen that place decay so much,” Mr. Peterson said on a recent visit as his boat idled beside the rotting docks. “It’s like visiting a person whose health is failing. It’s shocking each time you see how much they’ve collapsed since the last time.”

Namu is located on British Columbia’s central coast about 35 kilometres southeast of Bella Bella, in the Great Bear Rainforest, and the first cannery at Namu opened in 1893. BC Packers, one of the province’s dominant fishing companies for decades, bought the operation in 1928, developing it into a sprawling complex including salmon and herring processing plants, warehouses, a power plant and housing for workers and their families. All of it was linked by boardwalks and much of it was built on pilings over the water.

It’s like visiting a person whose health is failing. It’s shocking each time you see how much they’ve collapsed since the last time.
Eric Peterson, Hakai Beach Institute

BC Packers (now long dissolved) closed the Namu cannery in about 1970 as salmon stocks diminished. Since then it has had a handful of occupants, running a fuel dock and serving as caretakers, but there is no longer anyone there.

“Until this year you could say ‘it’s under control because there’s a caretaker,’ but now it’s an abandoned site.… For the first time in 11,000 years there’s nobody living at Namu,” Mr. Peterson said, referring to the long archeological record. “And just look at it now. It’s a ticking time bomb.”

Ian Gill, a consultant and former Ecotrust Canada director, said the old cannery is threatening to become an environmental disaster.

“There is asbestos on the site, old fuel tanks … contaminated soils,” he said in an e-mail. “This at the mouth of one of the most productive salmon ecosystems on the coast and … a site of huge cultural importance to the Heiltsuk.… The site is dangerous.”

“It is disgraceful what has been done to one of the most important cultural and ecological areas on the coast,” agreed Ian McAllister, of Pacific Wild. He said his environmental group, which is based near Bella Bella, filed complaints last year with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans about “all the deleterious material that was falling into the salmon estuary.” But nothing has been done, he said.

DFO directed questions to Environment Canada, which refused a request for an interview and issued a one-sentence statement: “As part of its regular monitoring activities, Environment Canada’s Enforcement Branch is aware of the fish processing plant in Nemu [sic]. However, the department has no information which would suggest a contravention of federal environmental legislation has occurred.”


David Milne, head of Namu Properties Ltd. which owns the site, said he bought it more than a decade ago hoping that, with its historic buildings and then still-functional boardwalks, it could become a coastal tourism destination. “We partnered up with a fellow who was going to turn it into a resort and then it didn’t work out,” he said.

Mr. Milne said he has been trying to sell the site for years and has been talking with the Heiltsuk First Nation. But he admitted “negotiating a reasonable price with them that takes into account the cost of the cleanup” has been a challenge.

Is Namu a danger?

22,000: Number of contaminated sites listed nationally by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

4,500: Number of those nationally listed sites that are located in British Columbia.

1,600: Number of the 22,000 federal sites are classified as “high priority for action.”

557: Number of the federal high-priority sites in B.C.

685: Number of contaminated sites listed separately by the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

50: Number of the provincial sites that are listed as high risk; 615 are non-high risk; and the remaining 20 are pending classification.

0: Number of times Namu shows up on either the federal or provincial lists of contaminated sites.

Mr. Milne, who hasn’t visited the site in six months, said he doesn’t think the deterioration is as bad as some say and estimates it could be cleaned up for $400,000 to $600,000.

At the suggestion that it might cost millions, he replied: “Well, again, it depends what you do.… All the stuff that’s on dry land is not an issue. But it’s the herring reduction plant that’s fallen in and that was back to the days of BC Packers, it was in pretty bad shape then and it just continues to get worse, so something has to be done about it soon.”

Mr. Milne disagreed that the Chilcotin Princess is sinking. “There’s no issues with it going down. It’s floating very well. It takes rainwater in so it has to be pumped every once in a while, so I’ve got some guys going in to check the moorings and pump it here in the next month or so,” he said.

Asked if he was surprised at how quickly the site was falling down, Mr. Milne said: “Mother Nature’s pretty harsh, so yeah it deteriorates over a long period of time, but I don’t think it’s picking up speed as far as deterioration, it’s just continuing to, you know, erode, pilings and stuff like that.”

Mel Innes, Chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said his band would like to buy the site and re-establish a village at Namu, but is worried about the contamination. “We just don’t have the money to clean it up,” he said.

Aerial view of the Namu plant of British Columbia Packers Limited, in September 1949. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Harvey Humchitt Sr., Hereditary Chief of the Heiltsuk, said he went to Namu as a boy with his family and had a job in the fish plant. He said there were 300 to 400 workers at the cannery over the summer, about half of them native, and the plant provided important income to bands all along the coast. “It was incredible,” he said of the operation.

Looking up at the docks where he once worked, Mr. Humchitt fought back tears. “I grew up here and – oh,” he said, putting his hand over his heart. “I don’t think it’s worth anything to anybody else but the Heiltsuk people.”

Chris Tollefson, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, said the provincial government can order a cleanup if pollutants are migrating off a contaminated site.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment wasn’t able to provide a spokesperson to talk about Namu.

Editors’ Note: A version of this article published in print on June 28, 2014, and online mistakenly referred to Namu Properties Ltd. owner David Milne as Doug Milne. This version has been corrected.