By Goody Niosi
Harbour City Star – April 1997
Tossed in amongst the paperwork that litters his desk, is a card that says “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…from the gang at Chase River.”
The Chase River Community Organization is only one of many groups that owes thanks to Gerard St. Jean. But if you ask him what he’s done to deserve those thank-yous, he grins and shrugs. “I helped them out,” he says.
St. Jean helped them out by donating $3,000 as seed money to help them get started on their neighborhood plan. St. Jean cares about the community. He has been deeply involved in Plan Nanaimo since its inception and now he wants to see the plan come to life.
But if you ask him about himself and the contributions he makes, he’ll talk about his wife, his children, his mother and especially about his father–a remarkable man who was a very strong influence in his life.
“We’re from the Yukon,” says St. Jean. “We came to the Island in the early fifties. My father worked as a saw filer in the mill. In the sixties he started playing around with smoking oysters in the house. He started a little cannery in the back of the garage.”
From smoked oysters, St. Jean’s father turned to clam chowder. He found a building on Franklyn Street, cleaned it up and got to work. Within seven months, he was broke. He went back to a full-time job at Hub City Paving. But Armand St. Jean refused to go bankrupt; he was determined to pay all his bills.
“The American people came up here to take their machine back,” says St. Jean. “So they went to the house. Dad wasn’t there, so they went to the plant. There he is, he comes out of the plant, covered in dirt. They took one look at him and said, ‘If you’ve got enough invested to do this, you can keep the machine.’”
Armand St. Jean was not the kind of man you could keep down. The American canners suggested he can salmon. It seemed like a fine idea. Armand fixed up an old boathouse and started canning sport salmon.
Things started to work out. But then Armand St. Jean had his first stroke. Gerard took a leave of absence from his job as an engineer in the Vancouver to help out.
But instead of helping his father wrap up the business, Gerard ended up constructing a new building in downtown Nanaimo. In 1985, the business went broke again. The early eighties were tough on businesses everywhere.
But St. Jean’s Cannery managed to hang in there; 1986, the year of Expo, marked the beginning of the boom years. And that was the year that St. Jean’s moved to its present location on Southside Road. Gerard St. Jean has made the business a highly successful and respected cannery. But he gives the credit to his father.
“Dad was a pioneer,” says Gerard. “He was a very interesting man. He was a professional wrestler. That’s how he came from Quebec to here. He learned how to speak English out of the Sears catalogue.”
Armand died in 1990. One legacy he left behind was his capacity for hard work. “He always worked long hours,” says Gerard. “We got to know him better in our teens and early twenties. We’d go to the bar, have fun and leave at about ten and say ‘Let’s go down and see dad.’ He was a really good friend at that point. And we’d all go down and sit around the back table and he’d bring out a big pot of shrimp he’d just cooked. He’d be salting fish and he’d have the TV going. He was still smoking and salting at 11 at night.”
Everyone loved Armand St. Jean, Gerard recalls. The mutual love of Armand for people and they for him is another legacy the father passed on to the son.
St. Jean’s Cannery is a business with long-term employees and loyal workers. And it’s because of the boss. Gerard insists that work has to be fun. “If it’s not fun, I won’t do it,” he says. But beyond fun, Gerard really cares about his people.
“I tell my people, ‘This is what our job is, this is how much we can afford to pay’” says Gerard. “If you want to go to school and learn more things, if you have a chance to better yourself, go for it. I’ve had kids who’ve worked for me and they’re teachers now and it’s great. I’ll always back them up. I’ve got one worker now who’s taking college courses. If she has a chance to get a job that pays more, that’s her right. That’s her developing and going on. I don’t like to lose those people but if they’re going to go, I say ‘Hey — go for it!’”
Gwen Bontje is Gerard’s bookkeeper; Gwen Gates is the plant manager. They’ve worked at the cannery for 12 and 17 years respectively. How do they describe Gerard St. Jean?
“He’s a pain in the neck,” laughs Bontje. “Actually he’s a great boss. He’s probably one of the best employers in Nanaimo. He treats each of us as individuals. Once he feels that you’re responsible, he leaves you entirely alone; he never interferes. I don’t think he knows anything about my work and yet I’m in complete charge of all his finances–he trusts me.”
“He works hard,” says Gates. “He’s out on the floor and he’ll be out digging ditches with the next guy. That’s why he’s successful–he doesn’t run his business from the office–he’s right out there with the people.”
“And he spreads himself so thin,” says Bontje. “He’s with the city planning council, the Chase River Community, the baseball club, the football club–you name it, he’s involved. He’s very much behind the kids–he takes them everywhere. He involves himself.”
“He gives all of himself,” says Gates. “Whether it’s here or in the community.”
“He gives,” says Bontje. “Everyone that comes who asks, every organization, Gerard gives–a gift box for a raffle–whatever. He supports everyone. He has never turned down anyone.”