Print this page
Thursday, 22 December 2011 09:26

Galt Museum honours Japanese Canadians

Written by 
Rate this item
(0 votes)

By Jamie Woodford
Southern Alberta
The story of four generations of southern Albertan Japanese Canadians — from the pioneering immigrants of the 19th century and their Canadian-born children to today’s young generation — will be told in a new virtual exhibit put on by the Galt Museum and Archives.

Armed with a grant from the Canadian Heritage Information Network, the Galt will spend the next year creating the multi-lingual exhibit that will be available through the Internet.

“This makes it a worldwide exhibit,” said Wendy Aitkens, Galt curator and project lead. “It offers the opportunity for people of all ages and from around the world to access it.”

The website will tell the tales of Japanese Canadians, many of them farmers, through archival documents, photographs, film, personal narratives and artifacts from the Galt collections and the local Japanese Canadian community.

“The Japanese Canadian community has been a part of this right from the very beginning so the voice of that community will come through in this exhibit,” she explained. “It’s guiding our story line and all aspects of this exhibit.”

The site will be available in English, French or Japanese.

Beginning with the Japanese Canadian pioneers who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the project will follow their story leading up to the internment after the Pearl Harbour attack during the Second World War.

“We tell that story right up to the redress where the Canadian government apologized for that situation and provided financial compensation,” said Aitkens.

“We’re also going to talk about the evacuees during World War Two,” she added. “They lost everything that they’d had in the B.C. area and came here and were working for farmers in this area.”

The idea for the virtual exhibit was sparked by a three-dimensional exhibit entitled “Nikkei Tapestry” the Galt presented in 2003.

“We decided that it’s such an important story for southern Alberta that we wanted to capture that in a long-term presentation,” said Aitkens.

The Galt is partnering with the Nikkei Cultural Society and the University of Lethbridge to develop the exhibit.

“It’s something that we hope will appeal to a wide variety of age groups, and this is not an exhibit just for Japanese Canadian people, this is for people interested in southern Alberta history, in who we are as a community.

“Southern Alberta has a very diverse community, and the Japanese Canadian story is just one of those.”

The exhibit will be launched at the end of 2012.

The Nishiyama’s know all too well the history behind the Galt’s virtual exhibit — they lived it.

Mac was 14 when his family finally landed in a Japanese internment camp set up in  Tashme, B.C., now called the Sunshine Valley.

His family was uprooted three times from their original home in New Westminster before calling Tashme home.

As a teenager, Mac said it was a fun place to live, but he admits he was ignorant to the racism at the time.

“I was having fun,” he said. “I didn’t think too much about discrimination ... I did after, but at that time, it wasn’t the right thing for the government to do.”

He described the “rows and rows of shacks” where “4,000 of us were there for four years.”

When he was 19, Mac was evacuated to Alberta in 1946 to work on a sugar beet farm in Raymond.

“When the war ended, all of us in these camps had to go somewhere and that was either go back to Japan — and I don’t know how I would have went back to Japan because I never was in Japan — or go east of the Rockies,” he recalled.

While his parents wanted to go back to their home country, Mac and his siblings wanted to go to Toronto, so the family compromised settling in Alberta in order to keep the family together.

Mac remained in Raymond, and now lives with his wife, Reyko in Lethbridge.

Reyko’s story goes back to 1906 when her father, then a teenager, came to Canada to work in a sawmill on the west coast.

In 1909, he was recruited along with about 200 other Japanese men that were told they would be paid $15 per acre to chase rabbits and gophers off the land.

“It was a whole different ball game when they got here,” said Reyko.

In fact, the men were sent to work on sugar beet farms — much harder work than they anticipated.

“My dad said they were treated like second class citizens,” she said.

“Then when they found out that the Japanese men were good, hard workers, they were honest, they were responsible people, then the whole mindset changed and they got to be a valued part of the community.”

Many of the men in the group thought the work was too hard and left, but Reyko’s father was more innovative.

“He and he friends decided that they would grow cabbages and potatoes in their spare time,” Reyko told.

“They rented a wagon and hauled the vegetables into Lethbridge and peddled it to the restaurants here.

Their hard work paid off and they were able to rent, and eventually buy their own land south of Raymond, where Reyko’s father married and raised his children.

Although her father forged the way for his children to have a good life in Canada, Reyko recalled she and her siblings weren’t free from racism.

“Once we turned 16, we had to register with the RCMP, we had to be fingerprinted, and we had to carry a card,” she said, adding all the guns on the farm were also taken away.

“So even in Alberta, we were still the enemy aliens as far as the government was concerned.”

It is the Nishiyama’s stories and countless others that need to be shared with future generations to learn about discrimination and its effects.

“So much of it is not (known), especially the evacuation stories, people have no idea,” said Reyko. “Even locally, lots of people in Lethbridge have no clue that Japanese weren’t allowed to move into the city until the 1950s.”

Mac noted the internment didn’t do much to cultivate the Japanese culture.

“The second generation, that’s us, I think most of us did everything possible to get rid of anything Japanese-y,” he said.

“When the war started and the discrimination, we sort of got rid of some of the culture ... and it’s our responsibility to bring it back, and bring it into the community.”

“We don’t ever want to see something like that happen again,” said Reyko. “We both think the message should be loud.”

Read 852 times