In the Hawaiian language kanaka means “human being”, their name for themselves, kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli, .

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Kanakas were workers from various Pacific Islands employed in British colonies, such as British Columbia Fiji, and Queensland, Australia. They also worked in California and Chile.

Canadian Kanakas were all Hawaiian in origin and had sailed aboard the first exploration and trading ships to reach the Pacific Northwest Coast. Some migrated north from California while others had jumped ship. Kanakas lived among various First Nations peoples, joined fur trading brigades, or took residence in HBC forts. A great many were contractees of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Kanakas were active in both the California Gold Rush British Columbia rushes. Many Kanaka men married First Nations women and their descendants can still be found in British Columbia, neighbouring parts of Canada, and in the states of Washington and Oregon. Kanaka Creek, British Columbia was a community of mixed Hawaiian-first families established across the Fraser River from Fort Langley in the 1830s and remains on the map today. Kanaka Bar, British Columbia gets its name from claims staked and worked by Kanakas who had been previously working for the fur company. Today is a First Nations community of the Nlaka’pamux people.

There was no negative connotation to the use of Kanaka in British Columbian and California of the time, and in its most usual sense today means someone of Hawaiian ethnic inheritance, without any derisive sense.

One linguist holds that Canuck, a nickname for Canadians, is derived from the Hawaiian Kanaka.