Photo:  Ritsu Saimoto (Enjo) c. 1949 highschool grad photo in front of their East Lillooet Internment shack.

By Laura Saimoto, Community Relations Committee

As the COVID crisis was emerging in mid-March, I was going about my daily life and I started to feel this deja-vu feeling as I watched the news and as life as we knew it started to shut down.  First the travel ban, school shutdowns, business shutdowns, self-quarantine, and the amount of fear and uncertainty hanging in the air, and buried in everyone’s hearts.  There was the shock of it all, how serious and deeply structural this was, and how life as we knew it was no longer, but then knowing that I did not know what was going to come next.   

And the speed of all that was happening kept me in this spin.  I was checking my phone frequently throughout the day to check the stats of the exponential spread and severity of the toll on human life, frontline healthcare workers, in seniors’ homes, and how this was spreading like a forest fire throughout the globe.  

The energy of fear, the stillness of the streets, the boarded up stores in downtown Vancouver and Gastown feeling like a ghost town, and in particular the images of the makeshift triage hospitals being set-up in Central Park, New York City switched on a lightbulb inside of me. This had never happened before, so why was I feeling a deja-vu?  Then it dawned on me that what I was feeling was what my mother and father and their families and what the entire Japanese Canadian community must have felt when World War II broke out in Dec. 1941 and early 1942. 

My parents had shared the story of their families, on my mother’s side, interned in Bridge River and East Lillooet, and on my father’s side in Minto Mine, and I’ve been an advocate of promoting the education of Japanese Canadian history.  So I knew the facts, had seen many of the archival photos, including those of my own family, and of course, heard many of the stories from my family and community members.  The images of those makeshift triage hospitals in Central Park instantly reminded me of the Hastings Park photos, where the makeshift beds were set-up in the animal stables at the PNE to detain Japanese Canadians before they were shipped off to Internment camps.  

Historic Powell Street and the pre-war Japanese Canadian Community was an amazingly vibrant market village, with a population of 8000 Japanese Canadians and over 400 businesses along Powell Street.  The Japanese School and Hall had a student population of over 1000 students as a second language school.  As soon as Pearl Harbor happened, soon after, there was a curfew imposed, businesses, newspapers, and the Japanese School closed. And everything was boarded up.  Overnight, the population of Strathcona Elementary dropped from 1200 students to 600 as half of the students were Japanese Canadian and were told not to go to school. 

Through no fault of their own other than their ethnicity, the homes, properties, boats, and businesses of Japanese Canadians were confiscated and sold off by the federal government.. Overnight, people lost their livelihoods, going to school, their homes, their freedom of movement – essentially their rights.  There was no Emergency Benefit or EI wage subsidy back then. They lost everything material, one’s way of life, and did not know what was going to happen next.  Feeling the deep fear of both the short and long-term implications of COVID now, in the Japanese Canadian community with the suspension of all civil rights back then, the fear factor must have been off the charts. 

Of course, we know that the government forcibly relocated 22,000 Japanese Canadians to 100 miles east of the coast to deserted farm fields or ghost towns to self-isolate them from being a security threat to the nation for 7 years, from 1942 – 49.  During that time, there was no freedom of movement, there were no jobs in the camps initially, there were no schools or Japanese Canadian children were not allowed to attend white schools.  

And yet, when I look at the photos of the Internment and the faces of the children especially, all the community members are well-dressed. The children look happy and healthy.  Community life was rebuilt and actually, each of the Internment camps built their own de facto little self-sufficient economies, growing their own food, starting their own businesses, like starting to grow and sell tomatoes in Lillooet, and they built or started their own schools to continue their education of their kids.  They kept in communication with each other; they rebuilt community.

So each day since the COVID crisis started, I look at the beautiful photo of our mom (shown above) of her highschool graduation in East Lillooet in her beautiful white graduation dress sewn by my grandmother, who was a skilled seamstress.  This photo was taken in front of their Lillooet shack in the Internment camp. To me, it encapsulates everything that my mother taught me about life. In spite of the extreme hardships of that time, her family, the community, rallied together and built a life. 

They made the most of what they had, their skills, their health, their hard work, imagination, and  the spirit of collective organization and effort to get through.  Despite their poverty, my grandmother had taken her Singer pedal sewing machine up to the Internment camps, sewed clothes for other community members, and made this beautiful grad dress for my mother’s high-school grad. With homemade community schools put together by older students who taught younger students and taking highschool courses by correspondence, echoing today’s remote learning, my mother skipped a couple of grades, and was able to graduate highschool in an Internment Camp.  Upon returning to Vancouver with her education gaps, she worked hard to catch up and graduated from UBC to become a home economics teacher. 

And so, as we come up to Mother’s Day, looking at my mom’s grad photo in East Lillooet, I feel a deep, deep knowing appreciation and gratitude for what our mom and her mom has taught me.  Now in her late 80’s and with dementia taking her short-term memory, we chat with her through Skype at her seniors’ care home. Her strength of life-force continually reminds me of what she once told me, “If we can get through this, we can get though anything.”  

Thank you, mom.