Harry Assu, a Kwagiulth chief, helped
lead his people on the journey from a traditional world inhabited
by spirits and supernatural beings to the prosperous modernity
A renowned fisherman by trade, Assu's boat, BCP #45, became the Raincoast's answer
to the Lunenberg fishing schooner Bluenose when it was featured on the back of
the Canadian five-dollar bill that was in circulation between 1972 and 1986.
The old bill shows the 14.3-metre seiner and its crew pulling its net in 1958.
Built in 1927 to a classic West Coast design with a high wheelhouse and swooping
hull, BCP #45 was owned and operated by Assu from 1941 to 1959, when he sold
it to B.C. Packers. It was later acquired by the Vancouver Maritime Museum, where
it is still part of the collection.
Born at Cape Mudge on the south end of Quadra Island in 1905, Harry was the son
of Chief Billy Assu, who was born in 1867.
The process of transforming the community began at the turn of the century when
his father urged the We-Wai-Kai band at Cape Mudge to begin building a commercial
fishing fleet and to participate in the logging industry, which was expanding
in Vancouver Island just across Discovery Passage at Campbell River.
During the 1930s, Harry learned as he watched his father organizing an association
for native fishermen that became the Pacific Coast Native Fishermen's Association.
But if Harry Assu symbolized his people's successful transition from a traditional
way of life to a respected place in the commercial fishing industry, he also
represented the beginnings of the cultural renaissance that now transfigured
aboriginal society in British Columbia.
In 1977, he and his wife held a feast to pass on to their descendants the names
inherited from their own great-grandparents. It was one of the many ceremonial
feasts and potlatches that Harry Assu gave to help re-establish traditions ritual,
dancing, songs and stories that had been suppressed and eroded by federal and
provincial authorities over the previous century.
For 60 years, the Assu's and other families fought for the return of historic
artifacts taken from them by the department of Indian affairs and given to the
National Museum of Canada.
Harry later became a founding member of the Nuyumbalees Society, which set out
to create a museum to house the artifacts when they were returned.
In 1973, The Kwagiulth finally won an agreement for the return of the regalia.
On June 29, 1979, the chiefs of all the Kwagiulth villages gathered aboard Don
Assu's seiner just off the beach at Cape Mudge for a ceremony to mark the placement
of the material in the new museum.
Afterward, Harry and his sons raised a memorial totem to Billy Assu inside the
museum and gave another memorable potlatch for the gathered tribes.
A life-long member of the Native Brotherhood, he was an elder of the Quadra Island
United Church, a member of the Campbell River Shrine Club and member of the Masonic
Order, and an adviser to the federal department of fisheries and oceans.