The album is compact yet weighty, a visual archive of a Canadian history. Many of the small black and white photographs hit me like a blast of cold air, none more so than the photo of the Tashme Internment Camp. Hastily built in the interior of British Columbia, row upon row of tiny shacks stand in a bleak winter landscape. The image records a place where the freezing mountain air rendered the winters unbearable for those incarcerated – fellow Canadians of Japanese origin. I’ve come across this same photo online and of other camps, yet now I sit across from a survivor who endured the misery of Tashme. And so much more.
The petite, elegant lady has entrusted the album – and her story – to me; I consider it an honour. White calligraphy on black, the inside inscription on the album reads, “May 13th, 1947, To Yoshiko Jane Ikeda, On Her Sixth Birthday.”
The second photo I gaze upon is one of Jane herself. About two years old, she’s wearing a darling white coat and dress, stitched by her mother. Standing for the camera with her older brother, it’s a sweet photograph of siblings. Yet they – Canadian citizens imprisoned during World War Two and its aftermath for nothing more than being of Japanese descent – are far from their home in Vancouver.
It’s early Saturday morning as I pour green tea for Jane and myself. The first signs of autumn are visible from my office window… maples donning a plumage of crimson red, soft rain pattering on fading summer blooms. Jane had asked if we could meet early today. “As it’s a painful period to talk about, I’ll need to walk afterwards.” At 79, Jane, a retired teacher and lecturer, is an avid walker and skier.
During our two-hour conversation, we have moments of melancholy, of sadness, of utter disdain for this shameful period in Canadian history. Jane tells me from the outset, “There are a lot of strands, like the elm tree you wrote of in Kaslo, but there are two significant people who helped ‘graft’ me. Helped me strip away the past that stunted this fragile tree.”
Yet to fully appreciate Jane’s story and the common history of the some 23,000 people of Japanese heritage like her, we have to understand the stage in which these crimes against citizens, mostly Canadian born, was set. And it doesn’t begin on the eve of war, or later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Tragically, it finds its origins long before that.
Despite Canada’s present day reputation as a nation that is welcoming to immigrants, overt racism against Asians can be traced to 1871 after British Columbia joined confederation, the point at which it became a province of Canada. Of a population of 50,000, white Canadian and European origin represented about 10,000, the remaining were mostly of Indigenous, Chinese, Indian and other Asian descent. Outnumbered and concerned about disenfranchisement, The Provincial Voters Act Amendment of 1895 stated, “No Chinaman, Japans, or Indian shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District or be entitled to vote in any election.”
This also served the purpose of preventing these citizens from becoming professionals; doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., as in order to work in these professions, one had to be on the voter list. Year by year, further Acts were passed disallowing Chinese or Japanese persons from working on railways, in mining, or at selected companies.
We know from the Indian (i.e. people of the First Nations) Act and its many manifestations of discrimination against Indigenous people, how the impacts of injustice still resonate. The Japanese, who began migrating to BC about 1877, initially worked successfully in fishing, farming, mining, and logging. In 1905 an Asian Exclusion League was formed, the increasing white resentment brimming over in events such as the Anti-Asian riots on Vancouver’s Powell Street.
Despite this, by the early 1930’s many Japanese Canadians – or Nikkei – excelled in fishing and the forestry industry. They were respectful, law abiding, upstanding citizens, over 60% of whom were born in this land. Many didn’t speak Japanese and had only a connection to their ancestral roots. Yet still, the Canadian government adopted progressively more stringent tactics of disenfranchisement. More than one-hundred orders from 1931 onwards, such as fishing licenses revoked for no apparent reason, being one of many ploys.
Jane’s own family story is initially one of success that mirrors many other families. Success built on hard work, intelligence, humility, love of family and of their country, Canada.
All these years later, with some research and the help of her two brothers, Jane has mostly pieced together the family history – their parents, like many others infused with a culture of forbearance, simply never spoke of their early experiences.
“The only time I remember my father referring to it was when a friend asked why he wasn’t bitter. That was the price I paid. Look at my three children, he replied proudly.”
George Yoshinori Ikeda was born in 1899, raised in Vancouver and followed in his father’s profession as a fisherman. When Jane and I notice a photo of him sitting at a desk while still a young man, Jane seems pleased that perhaps at one point he might have studied.
“He married well,” Jane reveals as we gaze at her family in a 1941 photo. Her brother is two, she, just a baby in her mother’s arm. No one could know the tragedies that would unfold later that year.
“After several suitors were presented to the Okimura family, my father was accepted to marry my mother, Itsuko. Years later, I was happy to learn that her family was from the Samurai class,” she says, referring to the hereditary nobility and warrior class of medieval and early modern Japan.
From the mid 1700s, the Okimura ancestry includes a samurai warrior. He would have commanded 10 to 15 foot soldiers and been able to read and write, even take on a surname. Historically, as with some cultures, common folk were known by their occupations. Okimura means, towards the sea, perhaps signifying that the Samurai had chosen to live close by the shore.
All those years later at the turn of the century, Mataichi Okimura emigrated to Canada where his daughter would marry George, a man who also felt at home on the sea.
“My mother had been born here, but was sent back to Japan to care for her grandmother. Her English was always poor,” Jane confides, “even though she returned to Canada at sixteen and helped start a family business as a seamstress. She married my father and, as was common at the time, she was taught to self-sacrifice, to obey her husband and her sons. Everything she did was for us. And reflection was not in her lexicon.”
“My parents were a good team,” Jane continues with emotion. “At the time of my birth they owned several fishing boats, three houses and seventeen lots in Steveston outside of Vancouver. We were well-to-do. Yet later when we had absolutely nothing, we always had love.”
The Ikeda’s descent into poverty through their loss of freedom, the stripping of their liberties, and eventual incarceration, began as it did for the majority of Canadians of Japanese ancestry and for the newly arrived Japanese on the Pacific Coast. As the war entered its second year, racial discrimination, partly driven by the commercial success of the Nikkei, entered the next phase.
“It was the kind of resentment that slumbers, then awakens,” one assistant to then Prime Minister Mackenzie King admitted. King began to ‘soft-peddle’ racial policies, culminating in the use of the War Measures Act by Decree. The government of British Columbia also began a campaign to rid their province of Nikkei. When Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japanese forces on Dec. 7th1941, it appears that some commentators of the time reflected that ‘it seemed heaven-sent’. As Canadians, we would perhaps prefer to believe that the government made rash decisions as they reacted in haste, that perhaps they didn’t realize the injustice and suffering their policies would cause. Tragically, the response was planned and carried out with precision… all perfectly legal in the eyes of the law at the time.
Canada and her allies were now at war with Japan, and even as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police counselled the government that the Nikkei were peaceful and posed no threat, the expulsion campaign began. Even though 63% of the Nikkei were Canadian born, fanned by sensationalist press and widespread racism, almost 1200 fishing boats were impounded. Japanese newspapers and businesses were shuttered.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued his Orders-in-Council under the War Measures Act on Feb. 24, 1942, ‘to remove all persons of Japanese origin from the Pacific Coast.’ A slogan of the time, perpetrated by MP Ian Mackenzie in British Columbia, demanded ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the sea’. All Japanese Canadians were required to register. And then, the men were the first to go.
Jane was a small baby when her father was removed from his home and business. Like many other men, George was designated to spend his captivity in hard labour. He was sent to work on a road crew, while others were packed off to farms or railways. In deplorable living conditions, George helped construct – with only hand tools – the Hope to Princeton highway, now part of Highway 3. Any man who begged to stay with his family or resisted these enforced labour conditions, was sent to a POW camp on the other side of the country – a large orange target on the back of his work clothes. “Where would we have escaped to?” quipped one survivor.
Jane’s eyes, and mine, fill with tears when she tells me that everything they owned was then appropriated by the government… the houses, boats, the plots of land. I can only imagine the anguish and uncertainty of signing the document that stated all would be returned after the war, or so they were promised; law abiding citizens still trusted their government. And yet, that was only the beginning.
Meanwhile, the BC Security Commission had prepared large exhibition buildings at Hastings Park for a temporary clearing site. With many given only twenty-four hours to pack, Itsuko was also given the order to take only what she could carry, a pair of suitcases, her two children, and join the thousands being herded into Hastings. Indeed, it had been a cattle and horse barn; the stench and filth still fresh in survivors memories all these years later. Lack of water or proper washroom facilities, poor food, the spread of disease, families separated… for any mother, the thought of young children in that environment is unimaginable. Without knowing their fate, confinement lasted for months. On top of this, they carried the burden of not knowing the conditions their husbands were facing, or even knowing whether they were alive. This was known as the First Uprooting.
By September of 1942, the peak of those simultaneously interned at Hastings is almost 4000, though 8000 were processed in total. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial governments had deemed all Nikkei a national security threat and conjured an idea for all of those abandoned mining ghost towns in the Kootenay region of BC. Soon trains trundled the detainees to mountain towns like Kaslo, Slocan, Lemon Creek, New Denver, Greenwood, Sandon. Others were offered the option of back-breaking working on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba where they were permitted to keep their family intact.
Itsuko and her two children were forcibly removed to a prison camp outside of Hope, BC. Many women and children initially lived in tents while the shacks were hastily built – each 14 by 28 ft which two families shared. With her husband already exiled to a road camp, the young mother would find a way to survive the so-called Tashme camp. “The conditions were brutal,” Jane’s brother Edward is quoted as saying. He is the older brother in the photo and recalls his mother receiving a jar at regular intervals, filled with the paltry wages his father earned for building BC’s Highway 3.
It is at this point in our conversation that I find myself truly at a loss for words and struggling to comprehend. I learn that with their bank accounts frozen by the government, the captive Nikkei were forced to pay for their own food, blankets, clothing and even for building supplies to make some semblance of comfort out of the shacks they had been forced to live in.
“Even hardened criminals don’t have to pay for their own imprisonment,” I will read time and time again from camp survivors.
Like Itsuko, Nikkei women had no choice but to become the mainstay of their families. If they were fortunate, their meagre diet was supplemented by food items gleaned from other sources. “My mother never complained,” Edward is quoted as saying. “She was a capable woman. She sewed my pants, shirts, and knitted.” Itsuko, Jane and Edward were eventually moved from Tashme to the New Denver camp.
I visited the New Denver camp where the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre pays homage to the internees. Nestled in the soaring, soulful Selkirk mountains, the concentration camp comprised some three-hundred wooden shacks built and occupied by the internees from 1942 to 1949. Having stood almost reverently in one of the family-shared shacks, I could envision only too well the harsh conditions and the years of suffering. There had been a school, a temple, sport teams, a Japanese garden, and an ofuro – a communal bathhouse. Yet the artefacts are haunting and telling. On display are items from home and of their life of freedom, mixed amongst the more practical and prosaic. As with other places of hardship I’ve visited, I am reminded of the deep resources a woman draws upon for the survival of her family.
I ask Jane if she has visited the Nikkei Centre, or the Japanese Canadian Museum at the former Langham Hotel in Kaslo, another poignant site dedicated to ensuring that this episode of Canadian history is not forgotten. Approximately eleven-hundred Canadians were imprisoned in the village of Kaslo of whom the museum points out that they ‘turned frustration and sorrow into new and honourable lives.’
“I won’t go,” she says emphatically. “I’m not introspective. I never look backwards.”
This is in fact the strength of the Nikkei, to move forward with dignity and resolve. Even as the government breached its promise by permanently appropriating property and subsequently selling it at rock-bottom prices, they persevered and found a way forward.
In 1945 Jane’s family was reunited, then displaced to Picture Butte, Alberta. Although the war had ended, unlike the US government, neither property, nor rights (including the right to return to the Pacific coast) were restored to Japanese Canadians.
The Canadian government now gave the internees two options. Move east, at least 100 miles inland from the coastline of BC, or ‘repatriate’ to Japan. Many of course had never been to Japan, didn’t speak the language, nor had any desire to go to a land they didn’t consider to be their own. And so, compounding the tragedy of the past four years, with many now destitute having lost their businesses and homes, the Nikkei now scattered themselves across Canada to start again. Some four-thousand took the government’s offer and boarded a ship to a faraway, war-torn land called Japan. Of those who took that option, many found themselves in the limbo of being shunned first in one place and then in another.
Jane shows me a photo of the shack the Ikeda the family lived in once they moved to the prairies of Alberta. “More like a kind of chicken-coop,” she says. Then about five, Jane has some recollections of this time. “It’s not pleasant and I remember how everything froze-up in the outhouse, everything…”
There are some seemingly carefree images from this time. Jane and friends in summer dresses squinting into the sunshine, and bundled up in snowsuits in the winter. Other family members also move to the small farming community where Jane’s father and an uncle become builders. It is here that another brother is born.
In April of 1949, all restrictions on Japanese Canadians are finally revoked. In 1951, the Ikeda family returns to Vancouver, to no properties or jobs, to start again. The family takes temporary lodging at a hotel, then a boarding house until they can afford to buy a house on Killarney Street. Photos of it boast profuse cherry and apple trees, smiling faces as life moves on.
Yet I’m saddened to hear Jane tell me, “It was a little shack of a house. A lean-to was built on the side for me, damp and covered with black mold.” I ask how her mother coped, whether they spoke of the hardships. “Never, not once,” she tells me. It’s here that Jane reminds me, ‘we were poor, but wealthy with love.”
George Yoshinori Ikeda, initially provided for his family as a handyman and gardener, then as a janitor at the less than salubrious Niagara Hotel. He retired at the age of 83.
Itsuko returned to dress making, working in a shop on Alma Street, often stitching into the evenings at her own kitchen table.
“She stitched beautiful wedding gowns, but I don’t think she was paid well enough. Even now, I can see the elegant white fabrics against the humble background. We never ate at the kitchen table, it was always draped in white.”
Itsuko Okimura Ikeda, resourceful, brave and proud as any Samurai warrior, died at the age of 96.
As I pour the last of the tea, Jane tells me that besides the love of her parents, she has had two ‘graftings’ that have helped her become who she is today. “I stripped away things that hurt me, I created a cocoon that stunted my fragile tree… forever stunted, but over-reaching.”
“The first graft was encouraged by Ms. Elliott, my high school councillor. She told me that I had the intellect to go to university and helped arrange scholarships. Even as I slept in a moldy lean-to and was poor, I knew I could solve it with my mind.”
It was while completing a degree at UBC that Jane came upon the deeds to the Ikeda family properties.
“And still I trusted the government and wrote a letter with the deeds enclosed, there were no photo copies. I sent them off feeling my family was owed some compensation.”
No reply or compensation ever came. In fact it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the Canadian Government formally apologized and a redress payment was made. Some 1800 internees had died from diseases and many had passed away, the 13,000 remaining survivors were each paid $21,000. Additional funds were paid to a community fund.
Jane earned her degree in 1964, then taught in Trail BC.
“I moved to Alberta to learn how to ski. I met Mike while both teaching at Western Central High School in Calgary. We married in 1972. Mike became a Commanding Officer, eventually we moved here to Kimberley where we’ve bought and sold many homes. We live a good, active life.”
“And this is where my second graft comes in,” Jane continues. “A friend of mine could see beyond the cocoon to my fragile self. She saw there was massive pain at the heart of my dwarfing… that I’ve been so busy obliterating my past.”
As we browse again through the photo album and finish the conversation, Jane admits that she’s never paid much attention to it.
“My Uncle Arthur gave it to me. It’s his artistic handwriting; he never married and took time to pay attention to his nieces and nephews.”
I tell Jane what a tangible poignant gift it is and ask about the photograph of the lush tree in bloom.
“It was a Queen Anne cherry. I never liked it much since I preferred Bing cherries, sweeter and more prized as you had to buy them. I guess even then when you’re dirt poor, you put monetary value on things.”
“Are you more at peace?” I ask Jane.
“Oh sure,” she admits, yet something she mentioned earlier lingers.
“I’ve heard it said that certain races such as the Japanese and the Jewish carry around pain. When you carry pain, you live through your ego. To live in the now, you must accept and acknowledge your past, appreciate the present as it is.”
As Jane leaves the comfort of my office for her walk in the moody September morning, it’s my fervent wish that her family’s story and the painful history of those other fellow Canadians be told and shared widely so that we never forget.
One last photo speaks to me as I begin to write that afternoon. It’s of a school room in Southern Alberta in 1949, the year in which their rights as Canadian citizens were reinstated. Jane is sitting behind three other girls in the first row, smiling with her classmates. The other children of Japanese heritage were likely also from families sent to work in the sugar beet fields. What strikes me is how normal this scene is, as well it ought to be, and perhaps how oblivious the other children were to what their classmates had endured. A reminder that we must know and teach each generation the past.
I close the photo album of Yoshiko Jane Ikeda – a strong, contemplative woman with a complex identity, now able to claim her past. As she bravely confided, “I’m ready to put a face to my story…”