By Sophie Constable

In July I flew over to Canada to be part of the University of Victoria Past Wrongs Future Choices Internment Era Field School, representing Nikkei Australia. The Field School gathered educators and history students together for two activities: visiting World War II internment sites in British Columbia, Canada, and working on educational resources at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. This blog post discusses the context and pre-tour sessions.

The Internment Era Field School participants were mostly educators, seven from all over Canada, one from the US and two from Australia – Michael Lake from the Broome Historical Society and Museum, as well as me. Five University of Victoria students also took part.

Being a university course, we first had a stack of readings to do to understand the context. Japanese people began settling in Canada in the late 1800s, about the same time as in Australia. Coastal British Columbia had may things in common with central Japan, such as the available fish species, maple, and deer. On top of that, there were common social activities like baseball that people shared.

Despite this, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Canada declared war with Japan, people of Japanese ancestry living within 100 miles of the west coast were arrested, dispossessed, forcibly relocated, and interned. To stay together, families had to work on beet farms in terrible conditions, or they were split up amongst multiple internment and work camps. 

After the war, internees faced the choice of being deported to Japan or starting again on the eastern side of the country. Legal appeals eventually meant Japanese Canadians were recognised as citizens and could legally go home, although in most cases their homes, businesses, and fishing boats had been sold at token prices and the money used to fund their internment.

Having become familiar with the broad brushstrokes of the context, we met online to discuss the history and try out some of the school resources created by the earlier Landscapes of Injustice project. We discussed the relative merits of concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘safety’ and whether Canada was a ‘fair’ country. Then we met for a pre-tour session at the Nikkei National Museum and Culture Centre. There we heard from a panel of Nisei (second-generation), Sansei (third generation) and Yonsei (fourth generation) Japanese Canadians, sharing the experiences of their respective families.  We discussed the legacies of being Japanese Canadian and the intergenerational effects of WWII, including the silences of those with firsthand experience of internment and the pressure to fit in.

Notably, Nisei Mary Kitagawa spoke about her successful campaign to have Japanese Canadians awarded honorary degrees. Seventy years after being expelled from university during WWII,  Japanese Canadian University of British Columbia students were awarded a total of 76 honorary degrees in 2012. Most were awarded posthumously. Only 23 graduands were still alive and 10 well enough to travel to the ceremony. Hearing about the pride of those nanogenarian graduates touched many hearts.

Detail of a totempole in Mio, Japan, made by Squamish carver Darren Yelton in honour of Gihei Kuno, an early migrant from Mio to Steveston, BC.  Seeing the salon run in the Fraser River, Kuno encouraged others to migrate and set up a profitable fishery. The carved figure pictured has their hands raised in welcome. Photo from an exhibition at the Nikkei National Museum, Burnaby BC.

Lastly we had a tour of the current historical and artistic exhibitions at the Nikkei National Museum. The gallery featured photographic and multilingual poetic works by artists Masako Miyazaki and Yoshimi Lee, a fitting precursor to our next activity – touring British Columbia’s WWII internment sites and compiling reflective photo journals on the experience.

The Tour

Our first week involved a collaboration between the Nikkei National Museum and PWFC, bringing together 48 Japanese Canadians and non-Japanese Canadians to visit a dozen internment sites throughout southern British Columbia, from suburban Vancouver to semi-desert canyons to remote mountain valleys.

Hastings Park, Vancouver, where women and children lived in livestock stalls.
Lillooet, Fraser Canyon: an internment camp was located on the east of the river, separated from the town itself by a forbidden bridge. Japanese Canadians were not allowed to fish in the river and had their handmade fishing rods confiscated – seeing this, local First Nations people later smuggled the internees fish.
Arrow Lake in the Kootenays region of the remote British Columbia interior, still only crossable by ferry today.

Each day was intense as we heard from Nisei about their firsthand experiences living in the camps as children, with multiple families sharing living, cooking, and washing spaces. Our guide Mike Abe also read us anecdotes from survivors who weren’t able to make the tour, and together these voices really brought history to life, sometimes in the most heartbreaking ways.  It often made me think of the Japanese diaspora in Australia, their experiences, and the traumatic silences we share too.

Some internment sites had been ghost towns, with old buildings repurposed to squeeze in hundreds of people. Most sites though were farmers’ fields containing rows and rows of raw pine shacks without insulation or electricity, and insufficient firewood through one of the worst winters in memory.  Because the shacks were built with green wood, when the wood dried and contracted, large gaps opened up in the walls. Survivors spoke to us of icicles forming inside the rooms and bedsheets being frozen to the walls each morning in winter. 

We also travelled with the newer generations of Japanese Canadians for part of their journeys, negotiating the silence and stories of their elders, who had to start again far from home, give up on past hopes, and work hard to be part of society again. Les Takahashi travelled with his children and spoke with me about the founding of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto postwar. Members remortgaged their homes and businesses to fund the planning and building of the Centre. The ganbaru spirit was in evidence everywhere, with koinobori being flown at many sites to symbolize this, just as they were flown from internment shacks to give returning fathers a way to find their families amongst the hundreds of identical shacks. It was heartwarming to be a part of how the more recent generations are reconnecting, regaining community pride and negotiating their places within that legacy. I often wished Australians with Japanese heritage could be part of this life-changing experience too.

Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, New Denver

At the New Denver Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, surrounded by a stunning kare-sansui garden, and where internment shacks have been filled with items recreating the experience of daily life in the camps, we shared in an amazing session with Hawaiian Nikkei Ruby Truly. Ruby spoke from experience, and from the heart about connections between Canadian First Nations of the coast and interior, the Doukhobor people (Russians who moved to Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and Japanese Canadians with similar experiences of forced movement and family separation by government representatives.

It was also exciting to see little patches of fuki and gobo growing wild or being nurtured at many sites, connecting me to Elysha Rei’s amazing papercut artworks. They always make me think of putting down roots and adapting to new homes.

Educational Resources

In the second week we came back to University of Victoria on Vancouver Island to plan how to make sure this story reaches more people in a way that addresses injustice for all. We agreed that the most powerful ways we had engaged with the history was through the voices of those who had been there, or their relatives. This created a very human, empathetic connection to the history that raised it beyond the sort of dry history lessons of dates and strings of events many students struggle to remember. I was grateful that there are already some oral histories available through the Nikkei Australia website and hope to be part of enabling teachers and students to access more of these in years to come.

As well as working on our resource projects we engaged with guest lectures. A stand-out for everyone was a visit to Carey Newman’s woodcarving studio on Tsawout First Nation’s Reserve where we saw three massive totem poles at various stages of creation. Carey is a powerful artist, university professor, recipient of the Order of British Columbia, and an incredibly humble, thoughtful, caring, and insightful human being.

University of Victoria totem poles
Totem pole in final stages of creation, Carey Newman’s studio

Carey’s host Mavis shared with us stories of her father in the fishing industry with Japanese Canadians pre-war, recognizing common humanity despite antagonistic social attitudes. Carey then spoke with us about a project he is involved with at the University of Victoria. The University has planted a western red cedar seedling and committed to having it carved with Carey’s design when it is fully grown.  Populations of western red cedar have been decimated over 150-200 years of settlement, but take 600 years to reach adult size. It is an almost unimaginable time span for a university established 60 years ago, but Carey pointed out his people have been on country for more than 30 of these 600 year cycles. Carey’s project is getting the university to think long term – in ‘generational time’ – rather than in five year plans, addressing issues of land tenure, planning, and climate change. This made us think about what concrete steps we need to make today to have the world we want to see in 600 years.

I’m looking forward to doing further work on Australian and transnational educational resources in years to come, based on the sharing of powerful personal histories/stories, such as those we experienced at the Internment Era Field School.  The incredible generosity of all involved made the field school a once in a lifetime experience for me. I highly recommend it for anyone who gets the chance!

Sunset on Vancouver Island

Sophie Constable is a Masters Student in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific with research interests in how WW2 affected societal relationships for Australians and other people of the Japanese diaspora. She is an Australian with English, Scottish, French and Irish heritage, grew up in a French-Australian bilingual community, and is a science and history educator. 

Other stories about PWFC Project:

Past Wrongs Future Choices Project

Nikkei Australia begins major international collaborative project

Past Wrongs Future Choices Project website

All photos supplied by author.

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