When the time came to disperse the thousands of ethnic Japanese from their enforced stay amid the Pacific National Exhibition’s odorous cattle barns, wartime authorities wanted them out of sight, out of mind.
Allowed little more than a suitcase each for a lifetime of possessions, they were shunted onto trains carrying them to little-known hamlets and ghost towns scattered about the distant West Kootenays – Lemon Creek, Popoff, Bay Farm, Slocan City, Rosebery … Today, barely a trace of those grim internment camps remain, leaving only fading reminiscences and photos to tell their story. But not in New Denver. There, it was different.
Anchored by a tuberculosis sanatorium that housed many of their elders and a community where two cultures had learned to co-exist, even to the extent of sharing Legion meetings, a large number of Japanese families stayed on in New Denver after the war. Some continued to live in their crude cedar cabins.
Three of these original huts form the keystone of New Denver’s captivating but wrenching Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, situated where the former camp stood, on a stretch of land known as The Orchard.
Few visitors come away unmoved, particularly those with roots in that terrible time.
“It’s very, very well done,” says renowned environmentalist David Suzuki. His family was interned in nearby Slocan City. “Every time I go, I end up weeping.”
The mother of B.C.’s Minister of State for Tourism and Small Business, Naomi Yamamoto, lived there as a 12-year old, while her father, then a teenager, spent his internment at the Lemon Creek camp.
“Because of my parents, it’s very emotional for me to go back,” Ms. Yamamoto observes. “It’s hard to explain. It’s this interesting juxtaposition of some awful wrongdoings and people who made the best of it.”
The trio of small cabins, sparsely furnished as they were during internment, are the only intact survivors of the thousands that once dotted the region in demoralizing, ordered rows. Individual quarters were often identified by numbers, rather than names.
As well, the memorial centre contains the modest community hall that also served as a bathhouse and is still used as a Buddhist temple.
The hall is full of photos and artifacts that reinforce the scale of internment, which saw an estimated 22,0000 Japanese-Canadians, branded as “enemy aliens,” descend on scrub land and mostly isolated villages with few permanent residents. Hundreds of older internees died in the harsh living conditions forced on them.
Lest a visitor be brought down by ghosts or any number of difficult emotions, however, a calming, traditional Japanese garden meanders through the grounds, designed by master gardener, Roy Sumi, long-time supervisor of the Nitobe Gardens at the University of B.C. He had been interned at Rosebery. It was his last commission.
The drive to create the memorial centre owed little to government or locals seeking to make amends. Far from it. The inspiration, fundraising and ongoing operation was the work of New Denver’s own Japanese-Canadian community, spearheaded by its remarkable Kyowakai Society, the only internment camp organization still in existence.
“We thought it was important to preserve history, to remind people what can happen when there is hysteria and government can do anything it wants,” says president Sakaye Hashimoto, who was born in one of the Orchard cabins.
Set on the shores of Slocan Lake, ringed by mountains, the centre opened in 1994. It was declared a National Historic Site in 2007.
Last year, however the Kyowakai Society had to face a sad reality. With fewer than 10 members left, running the memorial was turned over to the Village of New Denver.
“The young move on, the old get older, and soon they’re not there, any more,” says Mr. Hashimoto, 70. “Our history is almost gone, now.”
Still, the society is leaving behind a fitting tribute to the suffering and hardship endured so many years ago.
Not all was bleak. Slocan Lake is one of David Suzuki’s happy memories from internment. He fished there with his father.
“Whenever I go back to New Denver, I always make a point of going fishing at the same spot. Trout. They’re still there.”
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