Kay Fujiwara and Kimi Yamada smiled and laughed as they stepped forward to unveil a memorial and plaque renaming a small park in Duncan Heiwa Park (Peace Park) on September 23, 2016.
Seventy-four years earlier it had been an entirely different story. As Japanese Canadian children living in the Cowichan Valley in 1942, they with their families had been forcibly uprooted from their homes. They and hundreds of others were taken to the mainland where they were dispersed into camps or forced to move across the country. Not long after, Japanese Canadian properties, businesses and possessions in the Cowichan Valley were sold off without their permission.
Barred from returning to the coast until 1949, only a few ever returned.
But the memories of better times remained. And one Duncan resident, Elsie Braithwaite, never forgot her school friends Sets Oda and Kimi Yamada. She helped set in motion the move to have the park dedicated to Japanese Canadians, recounting to friends and family her resentment for the government actions that took her friends away.
Duncan councillor Sharon Jackson heard her story and she brought the issue to council where the idea of dedicating the Canada Avenue park to the former Japanese Canadian residents gained support.
Duncan Mayor Phil Kent and Japan’s Consul General in Vancouver Asako Okai paid tribute to the many former residents who gathered for the ceremony. Kathryn Gagnon, Curator of the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives, also spoke of the responsibility that goes with being a caretaker of community history and the power of the past to alter the present. (Please scroll down for the full text of Ms. Gagnon’s speech.)
The museum hosted a lively reception after the dedication, where old friends reconnected and the past and present came together.
The Canadian government acknowledged the injustice of the uprooting in 1988.
ACVI filmed the dedication. A 15-minute clip is available for public viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkUfbVC7jwE
Heiwa Park Dedication Speech
Kathryn Gagnon, Curator
Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives
September 23, 2016
An archival request by a researcher for school photos of her mother brought me face to face with the devastating consequences of the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II. Her mother had grown up in the Japanese Canadian community here in the Cowichan Valley. The family lost everything, including precious photographs. There wasn’t a single image of her mother as a young girl. So, we searched in our archives for school pictures and found one class photo that included her mother. This brought such joy, and to be honest, tears, that this one image was found of her mother.
This research request showed me two things: one, that I will always be in awe of the privilege I have to be a caretaker of our community’s history and to make it accessible to the public, and two, that the profound connection we have to our past, and the power it has to alter our present, cannot be underestimated.
Ten years after this request, the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives was invited to be a partner in the University of Victoria’s Asian Canadians on Vancouver Island research project in 2014. This collaboration has opened new corridors of knowledge about addressing the difficult issues of our past and redressing devastating wrongs. It’s a privilege to be working with people like Dr. John Price, who is heading this project, as well as Michael Abe, who is part of the Landscapes of Injustice project.
One of our long time volunteers at the museum, Mary (Spencer) Rambold, told me what it was like in 1941 when the Japanese Canadian friends in her class were simply one day – gone. Her thoughts reflected the experiences of many friends of our Japanese Canadian community. Mary shared with me an autograph book that held the names of these friends who were sent away; she donated this to the museum and it will be featured in our new permanent Asian Canadians in the Cowichan Valley exhibit next year.
Another long-time Duncan resident, Mrs. Braithwaite, has similar memories: suddenly her friends were gone. These experiences are just as real as the overwhelming evidence of Duncan’s petition to the provincial government to uproot members of this community because of fears about a Japanese attack on this coastal community. The evidence of this overt racism is shocking now; the consequences of these actions in 1941 are all too real and most of the Japanese Canadian community never returned to the Cowichan Valley.
Mike Abe, whose mother grew up in Paldi, BC, just northwest of Duncan, has been putting together his family history. I put him in touch with Cowichan Valley resident Len Mayea, who was able to help him research his family’s past because his family were neighbours of the Asada family. In undertaking research, people have begun to talk, photos and other documents shared, and new connections have been made.
Connections are still strong with members of the Japanese Canadian community and it is an honour to remember the integral part they play in the history of this community.