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Attorney General lauds resiliency of Greenwood’s Japanese residents

Niki Sharma meets with families for tour of legacy park, brief Q&A
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BC Attorney General Niki Sharma and Boundary-Similkameen MLA Roly Russell met with families and surviving members of Greenwood’s Japanese Internment Camp on Friday at Nikkei Legacy Park, where Sharma had a brief Q&A session and learned more about the park’s history. Photo: Karen McKinley

Honouring Greenwood’s history with Japanese internment was on the agenda for the province’s Attorney General.

Niki Sharma and Boundary-Similkameen MLA Roly Russell made a stop at Greenwood’s Nikkei Legacy Park on Friday afternoon as she returned from a two-day tour to formally apologize for abuses by the provincial government against the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor community.

The visit included a brief meeting with Mayor John Bolt, city council and a talk at the park’s pavilion and meeting with about a dozen surviving Greenwood internment members and descendants, most of which are now in their late 80s and mid-90’s

Sharma said she was honoured by meeting the community members, saying it’s a beautiful community and they are responsible for that beauty despite being displaced from their original homes.

She explained her riding is centred around the PNE grounds, which used to house JapanTown, one of the larger Japanese communities in B.C. before the war broke out.

“I know there was a thriving community there and some of you may have been connected to that through your families,” she said. “I’ve collected stories from people that said they were told they had to leave with little more than a suitcase. Something you know from your own backgrounds.

“It was a terrible part of our history and I want to thank you for coming here to gather and share the stories of how that impacted you and your families and the beautiful resiliency of your culture.”

When Japan entered WWII, Canada’s federal government declared Canadian-born and recent Japanese immigrants enemy combatants, uprooting families and sending them to internment camps around the nation.

In 1942, Mayor W.E. MacArthur agreed to take in 1,200 Japanese people, making Greenwood the first internment camp in Canada, explained Chuck Tasaka, Nikkei historian and grandson of internees Isaburo and Yorie Tasaka. While being the first, it was also unique because in short order, they were integrating into the city, owning businesses, going to schools and attending churches alongside white residents.

This aspect of the Greenwood internment confuses some people, said Tasaka, as most people have the image of all internment being sparse camps with barbed wire.

“It morphed into a community rather than an internment camp” he said. “Once the war was over, we ended up having the highest percentage of Japanese that never left.”

Many of the internees originally came from Vancouver, the coast or Vancouver Island, he added. Those that stayed had four or five generations of descendants in the city.

It actually benefited the city, he explained. Greenwood’s population and business was suffering after mining had dwindled in the area. The influx of people created a self-sustaining internment camp, with people taking on jobs and opening businesses that revitalized the local economy and boosted the population.

When WWII ended, the federal government no longer had a legal right to hold Japanese Canadians in internment. However, there were orders for Japanese to either move east of the Rockies, or return to Japan.

Mayor MacArthur wasn’t having it, Tasaka said.

“MacArthur bravely put his foot down and told the government these are our friends and neighbours, so we are not going to make them relocate, again,” he said.

After the meeting, the group met for tea and lunch at the Greenwood Museum, where Tasaka said it was great to gather and share stories with each other and Sharma.