Japanese Canadian WWII ‘ghost towns’: An Asian American family’s eye-opening visit to West Canada


Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre — Visiting a Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre’s World War II “ghost town” shack in New Denver, British Columbia, Canada. Twila Tomita, Annie Kim (back) and Andy Noguchi. photo courtesy of Andy Noguchi

Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre — Visiting a Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre’s World War II “ghost town” shack in New Denver, British Columbia, Canada. Twila Tomita, Annie Kim (back) and Andy Noguchi. photo courtesy of Andy Noguchi
Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre — Visiting a Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre’s World War II “ghost town” shack in New Denver, British Columbia, Canada. Twila Tomita, Annie Kim (back) and Andy Noguchi.
photo courtesy of Andy Noguchi

Famous American author and humorist Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

An awareness-raising and fun vacation this summer to Canada’s British Columbia and Alberta provinces, which included learning about Japanese Canadians and their World War II concentration camp “ghost towns,” proved this for my wife Twila Tomita, adult daughter Annie Kim and me. 

Our 11-day trip focused on Western Canadian sights, history, food and communities. We highly recommend a visit for anyone interested in this fascinating American neighbor to our north.

My late Nisei father had told me about World War II Vancouver from his U.S. Military Intelligence Service duties with the Canadian government. It was ironic that Canada asked for the help of Japanese Americans as it brutally expelled Japanese Canadians from their West Coast homes. Now, our family would learn more about their story.

Twila again expertly plotted our family’s trip to Vancouver, Richmond, Victoria, Kamloops, New Denver, Banff, Jasper and Calgary — a 1,300-mile route. We drove this long trek in our rental car, flying into Vancouver and out of Calgary. In this article I’ll focus on just a few of the many adventures and spots visited. 

A Land of Many Asians

Before the trip, I again researched the racial lay of the land. I thought it was best to be forewarned of potential safety issues for people of color.

According to recent census reports on British Columbia, whites make up 67 percent of the population, yet various Asians make up a surprising 25 percent. Native peoples (what Canadians call First Nation aboriginals and their Metis mixed race) are five percent with blacks and Latinos only one percent each. 

In comparison, California has a population of 40 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 14 percent Asian, seven percent black and one percent Native American. 

Our flight into Vancouver arrived after midnight, making the first thing on our agenda: “Food.” “Snack Queen” Annie and I excitedly huddled around the hotel snack machine checking out the Canadian delicacies, but Twila wisely insisted on looking for a late night restaurant. 

The hotel staff, seemingly all South Asian and East Asian, directed us to Tim Horton’s. It’s “like Dunkin’ Donuts, only more,” said the clerk. Jumping into the car, we savored cream-filled Oreo donuts, strawberry shortcake muffins, chili and minestrone soup. Good stuff.

We soon learned that Canadians don’t talk like we Californians do. We’re talking “aboot” (about) “washrooms” (restrooms) and “Loonies” (gold dollar coins). They also seem to have a slight Scottish accent, saying “aboot” and draw out their vowels, saying “dooohnut” instead of donut. 

As we drove through the city of Richmond, only eight miles from Vancouver, we were amazed at the huge three- and four-story store complexes everywhere we looked, all with signs in Chinese. It was like traveling in China or Hong Kong. We soon found out the reason. 

Richmond is North America’s most Asian city — two-thirds of its population. Some 60 percent are immigrants. Some 50 percent are Chinese Canadian, with smaller numbers of South Asians, Filipinos, Japanese, Southeast Asians and Koreans. Twila said it was “very comfortable” with so many Asians around. 

Since 1967, Canadian immigration eligibility has been based on education, work experience, and the ability to speak English or French, rather than country/racial quotas like the U.S. Canada has attracted many high-skilled immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and other countries. 

A visit to the Real Canadian Superstore, a huge grocery/drug/department store bigger than a Walmart Super Center, allowed us to stock up on “essentials.” Snacks only sold in Canada topped the list: dill pickle popcorn, ketchup potato chips, and the deadly Roulette Doritos with a few hidden super hot chips in each bag. 

Annie had to have some special omiyage souvenirs for her friends. Having a history of ice cream sandwiches, Slurpees, and Heath Bar cappuccinos for lunch, I wasn’t adverse to some tasty snacks either.

Trying out new types of food is always fun while traveling. Eating at the H Mart (short for Han Ah Reum “One Arm Full of Groceries”) Korean food court in downtown Vancouver, eating Chinese soup dumplings at Long’s Noodle House on Main Street, or ramen at Kenzo Japanese Noodle House in Burnaby (choose your hotness levels 0–3; we had 1) were all good.

Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre 

In Burnaby, just 10 miles from Vancouver, the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre and adjacent Nikkei Place wowed us. First opened in 2000, they offer a huge community center, museum, gift store, senior independent and assisted living, a restaurant, small grocery store and Japanese Canadian garden. They provide a great range of programs, events, and exhibits throughout the year. Check out their Website for more info: http://centre.nikkeiplace.org.

Their excellent Taiken (“personal experience”) exhibit about Japanese Canadians since 1877 gave us a snapshot of their history. Similar to Japanese Americans, they immigrated to build a better life for their families on the farms, fishing villages, lumber mills and factories, mostly along the West Coast.

Also, like Japanese Americans, they suffered the backlash and intense racism after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. In 1942, the Canadian government forced some 22,000 innocent Japanese, three-fourths of which were Canadian citizens, from their West Coast homes and imprisoned many in “ghost towns,” abandoned mining towns, mostly in the harsh interior of British Columbia. 

As told by the museum exhibit, Canada seized their land and property and then sold it to pay for their imprisonment. The government initially sent men, under their protest, to road construction camps separating them from their families. As friend and former World War II inmate Stan Umeda says from attending Japanese Canadian conferences, “They got a worse deal than Japanese Americans.” 

If you travel to Vancouver in July or August, also check out the many community festivals and events. They celebrate Obon, enjoy a Nikkei Matsuri, schedule walking tours of the old Japantown on Powell Street and sponsor many other fun summer activities.

Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in New Denver 

Our drive to the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in New Denver was a long 450-mile trek across British Columbia, but well worth it. If you’re heading between Vancouver and Alberta, New Denver is only 100 miles off Trans Canadian Highway 1 and a ferry ride across the Columbia River. 

The Village of New Denver, population 500, hosts the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre located on the shore of Lake Slocan. The excellent centre offers preserved buildings from the camp with a small visitor center, family shacks, outhouse, community center/Buddhist Temple (now an exhibit hall), peace arch, and Japanese peace garden. Check out their Website at: https://newdenver.ca/nikkei/.

The World War II camp organization Kyowakai (“working together peacefully”) Society of New Denver opened the Centre in 1994. They just celebrated their 20th anniversary under the direction of Momoko Ito who welcomed our family to the Centre.

New Denver imprisoned more than 1,500 people who built their own 200 shacks plus a Tuberculosis Sanatorium for more than 100 patients. Wooden shacks 14’ x 28’, not large barracks used in U.S. camps, sheltered two families with up to six children each. Up to 50 people shared one divided outhouse. In the first frigid winter in 1942, some people lived in tents in the snow till the shacks were built. People fetched their water from the nearby lake.

As in the U.S., Japanese Canadians later organized to redress this injustice. On Sept. 22, 1988, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced a redress settlement to apologize, provide $21,000 in reparations and set up a $12 million community fund. 

A Scenic Wonder in the Canadian Rockies 

The scenic wonder of our trip was Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. The 100-mile journey along Highway 93 between two jagged mountain ranges was amazing. Twila called them “majestic mountains” graced by “pale turquoise rivers and lakes.” The innumerable glaciers in the park had ground up tiny bits of mineral called “rock flour” that colored the waters. 

The cold wet weather of the Canadian Rockies feeds the many meandering rivers, while thrashing waterfalls rush down the mountainsides. Lush green conifer forests cover the hills. 

Additionally, the parks’ Columbia Icefields feature countless glaciers. The breathtaking Athabasca Glacier, 3.7 miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep, is the most visited one in North America. We caught a giant Terra Bus with five-foot tires to actually drive onto the glacier where we drank the ice’s melting trickles of water. 

Banff and Jasper National Parks were an awe-inspiring 100-mile long Yosemite Valley. Those who love the outdoors should definitely try to visit.

As we finished our West Canada journey, Twain’s saying about parochial narrow-mindedness rang true. Our travels had gifted us with a greater appreciation of our Canadian neighbor, including the experiences of Japanese Canadians, while giving us a fun family adventure. 

Andy Noguchi is the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League’s civil rights co-chair and co-president in Sacramento, Calif. Contact him at: AndyNoguchi@hotmail.com.


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