Imagine being told to grab what you can carry in a suitcase or two and being forced to leave everything else to an unknown fate. The media describes this scenario with alarming regularly in reference to the many war-ravaged parts of the world, but it also happened here along the peaceful coast of British Colombia. However at the time, not everyone had to leave their lives and livelihoods behind, just Canadians of Japanese origin or descent.
The year was 1942, and just weeks following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour the Canadian government, more interested in scoring racist political points than showing humanity, stripped all Japanese-Canadians of their civil rights and possessions, including cars, homes, fishing boats, businesses and investments.
With only 24 hours notice, Japanese Canadians from coastal towns and the Gulf Islands were herded into animal barns at Hastings Park (site of the Pacific National Exhibition) before being dispersed: men to road construction camps, and women, children, and the elderly to a number of internment camps, mostly virtual ghost towns in and around the Slocan Valley of British Columbia. Very little evidence remains of these camps, which at one time housed almost 20,000 Japanese Canadians, but a few of the shacks survived in New Denver and have been brought together with an original meeting hall to remind all visitors of this sad chapter in Canadian history.
The New Denver internment camp was located just outside town and was home to over 1500 people crammed into 200 little wooden shacks erected in rows in an old orchard. There were two families to a shack sharing a cramped kitchen. One outdoor latrine served as many as 12 families.
One of the surviving shacks serves as the office and information centre, the second shows the interior as it would have been at the beginning of the internment – one bedroom with rough beds and blankets, the other showing personal touches added as internees made the best of life in the remote camps. The third shack recalls how some families continued to live in these shacks past the end of the internment in order to stay close to family members living in the nearby TB sanatorium (now gone). The final public building on site is the 1943 Kyowakai community hall, which houses interpretive displays and artifacts from the time. Exhibition photos and text tell the full story, from the first winter spent in canvas tents despite the heavy snowfall and intense cold, through to the long-overdue political redress settlement in 1988.
The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, which just celebrated is twentieth anniversary, is located in New Denver, about 100 KMs north of Castlegar off Highway 6. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially on a one or two day circle tour from Castlegar or Nelson.