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Bill Moncrief, right, is shown in a family photo with Tokugi Soyama in 2009 where they were reunited after 69 years in Cumberland, B.C.Family photo

William (Bronco) Moncrief was in Grade 8 in the spring of 1942 when his school buddies of Japanese descent were ordered to report to the principal's office.

The teenagers were told they were to be ready to leave their homes in the Village of Cumberland on Vancouver Island the following day. They were transferred to Vancouver and then sent to camps in the Interior of B.C. and elsewhere in Canada.

"Watching them being displaced, it just left such a bad taste in my mouth," Mr. Moncrief said Tuesday in an interview. "I still think it was a bloody crime. They were as good Canadians as anyone else," he said.

Seventy years later, Mr. Moncrief on Saturday will receive Japan's second-highest honour, the Order of the Rising Sun, for his lifelong efforts to ensure that Cumberland does not forget the families that were rounded up and sent away.

Mr. Moncrief said he does not like talking about what he did and what he did not do. And whatever he did, he noted, he did it with other people. "It's a great honour for me and for Cumberland. It's an honour I share with the Japanese people I grew up with. To me, that's it," he said.

David Durrant, who has known Mr. Moncrief for more than 50 years, said the account of Mr. Moncrief's support for Canadians of Japanese descent is legendary, dating back to when Mr. Moncrief was a teenager in school and tried to stop the relocation program.

"When they were removing the people, he stood in front of them and said, what you are doing? It is not okay. It is not acceptable. Please stop. They were taking his friends who he played ball with, who he went to school with," Mr. Durrant said.

"People remember that as if it was yesterday," Mr. Durrant said. "That's who he is."

Mr. Moncrief moved with his family in 1928 from Cumberland, England, to the isolated Vancouver Island village, about 200 kilometres north of Victoria. He was 14 months old.

He quit school shortly after his Japanese-Canadian school buddies were rounded up, lying about his age in order to get a job at the local coal mine. Over the decades, he has also worked as a logger and in local businesses before retiring at 65. An enthusiastic civic booster who describes B.C.'s Cumberland as God's country, Mr. Moncrief has been on the village council since 1967, serving as mayor from 1969 to 1993 and from 1997 to 2002.

The Canadian government had ordered the removal of enemy aliens from within 160 kilometres of the B.C. coast a few months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. About 20,000 Japanese Canadians in B.C. were given 24 hours' notice to leave their homes. Most were born in Canada or were naturalized citizens. Their property was confiscated and sold, ostensibly to pay for their internment.

Many of the families had lived in Cumberland since the 1890s and worked in the nearby mines. Records from 1941 show that 26 per cent of students in the Cumberland Elementary School and 36 per cent of Cumberland Secondary School students were of Japanese descent.

As mayor, Mr. Moncrief worked with Japanese Canadians from across Canada and with the local community to restore Cumberland's Japanese cemetery, which had been vandalized and left untended for years.

The local Kiwanis Club in the mid-1960s made a cairn of headstones. Mr. Moncrief arranged for logs to be milled into fence posts. The local community cleaned up the grounds and upgraded the entrance area. In recent years, Mr. Moncrief has often been spotted painting the cemetery fence on his own.

Many people who once lived in Cumberland now return to the village for an annual Buddhist ceremony at the cemetery. "People from across the country have lent considerable support for what we do here," said Mr. Durrant, manager of community services in Cumberland.

Another project undertaken by Mr. Moncrief was a campaign to turn the neighbourhood where the Japanese Canadians lived, known as No. 1 Japan Town, into a park. Also, he pushed the provincial government to change the name of nearby Jap Mountain to Nikkei Mountain. He was instrumental in the development of a local museum where mementoes of Japanese settlers have been collected and displayed.

"None of this was done with the thought that anyone would be recognized for this stuff. It was just the way we operate in Cumberland," Mr. Moncrief said.

The Consulate-General of Japan in B.C., in a news release, stated that the honour was given in recognition of Mr. Moncrief's efforts to "elevate the status of Japanese Canadians" and promote friendly relations between the two countries.

The decoration puts Mr. Moncrief among an illustrious crowd that includes director/actor Clint Eastwood and the late U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who accepted Japan's surrender in 1945 and oversaw its occupation from 1945 to 1951. Former Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert and Winnipegger Albert Cohen, a former chief executive officer of Sony Canada, also received the award this year from Japan.

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