“Internment camps in BC’s wilderness are all I recall,
And I’m too old to think about the past with bitterness in my heart.
I fell in love with you in the camp so long ago,
It kept us from the hatred and bigotry that existed outside.
New Denver is washed away with the rain
New Denver will never know,
The pain it caused.”
(Words and music by Terry Watada – Runaway Horses, 1977)
As part of the 1977 Japanese Canadian Centennial celebrations, Terry Watada released his iconic album Runaway Horses to coincide with the Sansei Conference being held in Toronto that year. The Centennial sparked national dialogue around internment and redress. Various cultural and political celebrations and workshops were held in our communities; bringing Nikkei activists together. It was the first time that Sansei were engaged in large numbers across the country.
Terry and I, along with two busloads of Nikkei (a large number being Nisei), took part in the May 1987 first internment camp tour organized by Reverend David Murata. The miles that we travelled allowed the Nisei to step forward and tell their stories over the bus PA system. I recall remarking to my seatmate—a Nisei lady—that coming from Ontario devoid of majestic mountains, of the majesty of the Rockies and the dark beauty of the surrounding forests. She said that the beauty of the landscape only amplified the ugliness of what happened to our community. Many of the camps have disappeared but the most memorable was the former camp in New Denver.
At its height, the New Denver internment camp site held 1,500 Japanese Canadians. The Kyowakai (Working Together Society) was founded in 1943 by the internees as a benevolent organization to assist the internees and to liason with the BC Security Commission. The Orchard Camp of New Denver remained in operation until 1957 to deal with those internees who had contracted tuberculosis but the Kyowakai Society is the only wartime Japanese Canadian internment organization which is still in operation today. Volunteer members of the Society administer the five original structures still standing and from May to September, the site, known as the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, is open to visitors. It has been designated as a site of national historic significance. Our community must find new funding sources to ensure that this site remains an important historical benchmark of our history and a tangible evidence of racism and intolerance.
Last month, Grace Thomson, David Jensen and Naomi Sawada visited the Centre (a round-trip journey of 18 hours by car) on behalf of the NAJC Heritage Committee to review the content and the extent of deterioration of the exhibit. The Committee is indebted to the three who volunteered their services for several days. I look forward to reading the recommendations in their planned curatorial report.
The generosity of donors towards the Japan Relief Campaigns stands in stark contrast to the lack of transparency regarding the recovery and rebuilding efforts of the Japanese government. Regularly, I receive reports from private sources of people in this region not having the basic necessities of life. There is confusion about the status of Japanese visitors and students here in Canada who are fearful of going home and who desire an extension of their visitor’s visa and are requiring financial assistance. In the next few weeks, it is my hope to meet with Japanese government officials as well as with officials of the Canadian government to encourage them to address these and other issues. As I noted in my last report, NAJC chapters and affiliated organizations will soon raise over one million dollars for Japan Relief. Vancouver and Calgary combined have collected over $900,000 to date. The generous support of the Canadian public towards Japan Relief initiatives, demands that the NAJC, as the only national Nikkei organization, advocate on behalf of those affected in Japan and here in Canada.