The cannery and smokehouse that Armand St. Jean started in 1960, selling oysters and soup to local bars and grocery stores, has been purchased by the Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Development Corporation.
The sale was announced Friday with a celebration at the cannery on Southside Drive.
Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Development Corporation represents five West Coast First Nations from the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council.
Gerard St. Jean, Armand’s son who has worked in the business since he was a boy, said it was time to make a change that could both move him toward retirement and allow the company to expand.
“Time. Age. By the time I finish the next three years working with them I’ll be 70, so it’s time to wander on,” St. Jean said.
The cannery is the last on the B.C. coast, but sells canned and smoked tuna, salmon, oysters and other products to Canada, the U.S., even Australia and has 130 employees.
St. Jean has looked to expand the company for several years and brought in Steve Hughes, former general manager of Albion Fisheries Ltd. in Victoria, in 2014 to take over leadership as company president.
St. Jean’s also purchased Vancouver-based Raincoast Trading Company in 2013 to access a larger customer base and distribution to grocery chains and heath food stores.
The Nuu-chah-nulth deal was 18 months in the making, after about four years of negotiations.
St. Jean said there were other bidders for the cannery, but the decision to go with Port Alberni-based buyers was better for his staff, the company and the community because St. Jean’s stays with a local owner.
St. Jean’s is now run by a board of directors comprised of St. Jean, Hughes, and other First Nation and non-First Nation members.
“Their whole mandate is that the company stays as it is and stays profitable,” St. Jean said. “They said, specifically they don’t want to be known as a group that came in and destroyed a company.”
Hughes said the Nuu-chah-nulth are closely connected to the seafood economy.
Larry Johnson, Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Development Corporation president, said the deal re-establishes his peoples’ connection with their traditional livelihoods.
“Not only do we want to raise the awareness of St. Jean’s, but also do the things that he’s doing well already and try to do them better if that’s at all possible,” Johnson said.