While St. Jean’s Cannery & Smokehouse in Nanaimo, B.C. is widely known for producing Pacific seafood for more than 50 years, its story as a family business starts back in eastern Canada, pre-World War I.
Founder Armand St. Jean was born in 1913 and grew up in St. Jovite, Quebec, with his mother, father, and 15 brothers and sisters. He moved to Montreal at 16 and became a wrestler known as “The Flash.” His wrestling tours took him across Canada and down to California. On the road, he taught himself English primarily by reading the Sears catalogue.
Business was good, but the oysters didn’t keep long in the plastic bags. So, Armand invested in a little hand steamer and began putting his oysters into glass jars and then into metal tins. The ‘cannery’ was born!
With canning techniques in place, Armand invested in a business space and more equipment, adding oyster chowder to his lineup. In 1964, he developed a method of smoking and canning salmon to attract the sport fishing market.
In 1979, Armand began talking about retirement. While all four of his sons—Denis, Perry, Gerard, and Paul—had helped with the canning business at some point over the past 18 years, it was Gerard who put forward the intent to continue on the family business.
He left his position in an engineering firm and took over the cannery.
“It just hit me that this was a family thing, All that hard work had been done. I didn’t want all the recipes that Dad had developed to disappear.” – Gerard St Jean
Armand passed away in 1990, but Gerard gives a lot of credit to his dad for being “the pioneer” to break new ground, develop great recipes, and to put out all of the blood, sweat, and tears needed to start a business. With a similar work ethic, Gerard continued to learn the ropes of the business.