Some 77 years ago, approximately 2,250 exhausted and traumatized Japanese Canadians arrived in southern Alberta in dilapidated railway cars as part of the federal government’s forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast in 1942.
During the week of Oct. 7 this year, some 43 Japanese Canadians arrived once again in southern Alberta, this time in a shiny white highway coach bus. The tour participants consisted of a wide range of ages from a variety of different backgrounds: a few who had actually been among those who had been uprooted to southern Alberta in 1942; many others who had family members or relatives who had been affected, and a number who had no direct link to the sugar beet fields but who were interested in the history and its impact on Japanese Canadian culture and on Canada as a whole.
Most of the tour participants lived in B.C. but nine came from Ontario, several from other areas of Canada, three from Japan and one from the U.S. The bus tour was a collaboration between me and the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, B.C. The National Association of Japanese Canadians also supported the project by helping to fund a videographer with the hopes of creating a documentary film about this tour.
My reasons for initiating this tour and helping to organize it was a desire to ensure that this important part of the Japanese Canadian experience was not forgotten. While the forced removal of the Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast has been acknowledged by the government as a mistake and a travesty of justice, we should not forget the terrible pain and massive economic and human losses it created. However, there are other nuances to the story and not everyone was racist and bigoted. Stories of courage, perseverance, tolerance and understanding need also to be remembered.
Following a welcoming event at the Calgary Japanese Cultural Centre the night before, the tour proceeded to Lethbridge on Oct. 8, during an early October snowstorm. While in southern Alberta, the bus participants were hosted and assisted by a number of local Japanese Canadian and other organizations and businesses such as the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden Society in Lethbridge, the Galt Museum & Archives, the Raymond Museum, the Raymond Judo Club, the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers’ Association, the Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen farm, the Taber Sugar Factory of Lantic Inc., Heritage Inn and McCain.
Tour participants and those with whom they interacted commented as follows:
– June Asano from Scarborough, Ont., whose mother had been uprooted from Langley said, “The tour was amazing, educational and highly emotional. I was finally able to realize just how hard the work must have been for my mother.”
– Makiko Suzuki, whose grandparents were among the Mission, B.C. farming families who were relocated to the area, called the trip: “A revelation, I learned so much about the history and about the sugar beet, fascinating.”
– Ed Hayashi, who was five years old when he was forced to move to the sugar beet fields with his family in 1942, said “the trip brought back many memories, but at the same time, I learned a lot about how we got there. Things are very different today from what it was like then.”
– Max Holt from Raymond explained that “it was a new experience for the local residents as well, but both learned to respect each other.”
– Hanae Iwaasa-Robbs, formerly of Raymond, recounted how the shock of the forced removal was too much for some, as she told the story of the suicide of her young cousin soon after her arrival from the coast.
– Stewart Foss, Raymond town councillor and board member of the Raymond Museum, stated that “it was good to be reminded of what had happened here and that it is a part of history that we need to learn from.”
– Tim Hironaka, a judge of the Alberta Provincial court, whose parents and grandparents were pre-war residents of southern Alberta, noted “it’s important for people to remember there was a Japanese presence here prior to the war, that the war added to that presence and that we have progressed and continue to contribute to the community today.”
In my own case, I draw from both aspects of the southern Alberta Japanese Canadian experience: my father’s family were early pioneers, coming to work in the sugar beets in 1908 and then starting their own farm in Raymond; my mother’s family were forced to leave their just-completed home in Langley to live in an old log shack in Hill Spring in 1942. The forced removal was an injustice, but as a result, my father met my mother and a new Japanese Canadian experience began.