Newspaper publisher, uncle, lifelong learner. Born on Sept. 12, 1920, in Vancouver; died on June 7, 2014, in Taber, Alta., of heart failure, aged 93.
Walter was born and raised in Acme Cannery, a community of Japanese-Canadian fisherman on Sea Island, B.C. (now home to the Vancouver airport). Although born in Vancouver, he faced much discrimination in his early years, as did most Japanese-Canadians at the time. They could not vote, were restricted in the type of work they could do, and faced many barriers to full civil rights.
Life was challenging, but good – until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. By then, Walter had opened a general store in Vancouver’s Kitsilano area but suddenly he and others of Japanese descent were declared “enemy aliens,” despite being Canadian citizens. Ironically, Walter’s uncle died fighting for Canada in France in the First World War. At the age of 22, Walter, his parents, two brothers and two sisters were forced by the federal government to move from British Columbia to work in the sugar-beet fields of Southern Alberta.
Walter never talked much about that forced move. There were brief descriptions of a hurried exit by train from Vancouver, taking only a few personal belongings; the bitter cold of their first Alberta winter; and being housed in an unfinished shack on a farm north of Coaldale, with back-aching summer hoeing and thinning of beets. People weren’t friendly to the new arrivals, who were restricted in their movements and could not buy a home or property in many towns and cities until 1948. But Walter did not let these experiences define the rest of his life. He was guided by a clear purpose: move on and create your future.
Walter and his family settled in the farming community of Taber; when restrictions were dropped at war’s end, they moved into town. With their B.C. property and belongings confiscated and sold, they had nothing to return to, and began building new lives of their own. In 1950 Walter landed a job at the weekly Taber Times (which had for years published articles and editorials opposing the relocation of the Japanese-Canadians to the area). Walter held many positions at the paper, from handy man to Linotype operator to accountant. Eventually he became its co-owner in 1970 and, later, its publisher. He and partner George Meyer invested in new web-offset technology and the Times eventually printed most of the local newspapers in Southern Alberta. They also bought or founded other papers until his retirement in 1987. In 1980, the Canadian Community Newspaper Association honoured Walter for “outstanding service” to weekly newspaper journalism.
His willingness to try new things extended beyond the world of business. He learned to play the clarinet in his 50s, ski in his 60s and kept current with the latest computer technology until his final days. The shelves of his home were filled with books on subjects from wood working to gambling. He was always keen to learn something new.
Walter travelled the world with his wife of 66 years, Kiyo, whom he had known from his days in Vancouver and whose family was also forcibly moved. Their home was always in Taber, a place he tried to make better through service on the town’s municipal recreation and library boards, and the Taber and District Museum Society.
Walter passed away peacefully after a brief illness, and a life well lived, leaving his family and friends with many great memories and many powerful lessons in perseverance.
John Koyanagi is Walter’s nephew.