“Tied up” – Mixed media collage -Lillian Michiko Blakey
In 1996, I asked my mother Lillie Reiko Hamaguchi to write her story for her grandchildren. Since then I have been dedicating my artwork to the telling of my family story of relocation. See www.blakeyart.ca
Following is Mom’s story:
By Lillie Reiko Yano
My earliest memories are of the fields, trees, creeks, my school and friends in Ruskin, British Columbia, situated in the beautiful Fraser Valley, about thirty miles east of Vancouver. I was born in our home in Ruskin on May 26, 1922, delivered by a mid-wife.
My father was Nitaro Hamaguchi, born on March 18, 1879, in Kumamoto, Japan. My mother was Maki Teramoto, born on April 12, 1893, in Kumamoto, Japan also. My father immigrated to Canada in 1900 and received his Canadian citizenship in 1907. My father was a salmon fisherman who travelled up and down the coast of British Columbia. He spoke several native languages as he communicated with the Aboriginal peoples he met along the way.
My mother arrived in Canada in 1913. She was a “picture bride”. I don’t know how a woman could go alone to a country she did not know to marry a man she had never met. But this was the common practice in those days. Marriages were always arranged by the family. It’s amazing when you think about it. But women did not have the freedom of choice they have today.
My sister, Eunice, was born on May 31, 1915, in Bella Coola, British Columbia. Her name was given to her by an English nurse. I guess my mother and father felt that since they had adopted a new country, which was a British colony, their children should have English names. They spelled her name “Unis”. I always called her Ne-san, which means older sister in Japanese. It is a term of affection and respect.
A few years later, my father left the fishing industry and bought a strawberry farm in Ruskin, British Columbia, where I was born. My sister, Rosie, was also born there, two years later in 1924. We had a baby sister a few years later, but she died at birth and she was buried at Whonnock Cemetery.
I was enrolled at Ruskin Public School in 1928. Eunice was going to Whonnock Public School by then. We used to call on our friends as we walked down the road to school, so we were always in a group. Rain or shine, we walked about a mile to school. Our school had two rooms, but there were not enough pupils so that only one room was used.
We had one teacher who taught all of the grades, from Grade one to Grade five. Her name was Miss Inches. She rang a bell and lined us up outside, weather permitting, where we saluted the Union Jack, then marched into our classroom. We all stood at attention by our desks. She stood at the front of the room and we greeted her with, “Good morning, Miss Inches.” We then said the Lord’s Prayer and took our seats. She was a very strict, no-nonsense woman whom all of the children obeyed very well. We dared not speak unless we were spoken to. In those days, teaching methods were very different from todays.
This was a country school so that we did not have the conveniences of city schools. I remember that there was a couple who took care of the school, cleaning and heating the building. The furnace was a wood burning one, so our teacher would go down to the basement and throw in wood during the winter months. But she always had a window open, even in winter and if you were sitting in the row next to the window, you froze.
I have happy memories of my childhood days. In the summertime, when the farm chores were done, my father took us troutfishing in the creek that ran past the back of our farm. He taught me how to put bait on the hook. We didn’t have any fancy reels or casting rods, just a pole with a string and a bent dressmaker’s pin attached to the end. We used worms for bait. It was quite exciting when there was a pull on the line. Sometimes I caught some, much to my delight.
Each year, before Christmas, our father hitched up our horse, Prince, to the sled and took us into the forest where we selected a tree, which he cut down for us. I still remember my mother’s comments as she complained that the tree was too big or that my father took too many branches off so that the tree was crooked. No matter how nice the tree was, she always made a big fuss. But we were really excited just going into the forest and choosing the special tree. My sisters and I had a wonderful time trimming the Christmas tree. The ornaments were ordered from Eaton’s in Winnipeg. They were made of very fine glass and were very fragile. There were bells with pink and gold stripes and tiny pale silver and gold musical instruments, as well as beautiful glass icicles, which glittered as they moved.
When I was about ten years old, I was elected Maid of Honour by the students in my school to represent Ruskin for Queen Victoria’s 24th of May birthday celebration in Haney. My teacher went to Vancouver to buy some beautiful organza for my dress. My sister, Eunice, bought a pattern and made the dress for me. It had three tiers of scallops and was very delicate. They also gave me a cape to wear for the celebration. This was the only time I ever wore the dress. Mother would not let me wear it for any other occasion, so it just hung in the closet. I don’t know what ever happened to it.
The May Queen was from Haney and the Mayor of Haney gave a speech on a large stage. We all sat on the stage in front of a large Union Jack. This was the first time I had ever been in front of a large crowd. Later, there was a reception and a Maypole Dance performed by students. Everyone had a great time celebrating. I was awe-struck, as this was the first time I had attended such a large gathering. I was very proud and felt like a princess. It was very special for me.
My parents sold the farm soon afterwards and we moved to Vancouver. Father resumed fishing up the coast and was away during the fishing season. He had a fishing boat and fished around Rivers Inlet, or further north around Skeena.
One year, he had a partner and after the season was over, They came home on his boat. This had been a dangerous trip, as it was a small boat, and in some places, the sea was very rough. He had to know exactly when it was high tide or low tide. If he misjudged the timing, they could have been swept out to sea. Thankfully, they reached Vancouver Harbour safely and then came home. It was a great relief for all of us, especially for our mother.
I missed my friends in Ruskin but gradually made new friends in Vancouver. I finished Grade 6 at Seymour Public School and then went on to Templeton Junior High School. From there, I went to Grandview High School of Commerce. I found that Ruskin School was quite behind in most subjects and had to do a lot of catching up, especially in English Grammar.
I loved Templeton Jr. High. It was so different from elementary school. There were 52 teachers at Templeton and 1700 students. The school had three stories with an east wing and a west wing. In the centre was an auditorium, two gymnasiums, one for boys and one for girls, and a cafeteria. I used to be a monitor, along with several other students during the noon hour, to keep an eye on the students. The kids in those days were orderly so we did not have many problems.
I like French and Mathematics. My math teacher was very good at teaching and he was my favourite. I took a commercial course in high school. I loved typing, shorthand and bookkeeping.
I left high school in Grade 10 as my mother thought it best to learn sewing. I went to work in a dressmaker’s shop and learned how to make patterns. I stayed at this place only a short while because my mother said it might be better to go to work in a dress factory. I was not very fast at sewing and got discouraged, as we were paid by piecework. Needless to say, I did not earn very much money. We were not allowed to take any work home to do extra work so that we could earn more money. It was against the law to take work home.
One day, I was followed by an inspector who stopped me on the street. He demanded that I open up the bag I was carrying. He thought that I was taking work home, but I wasn’t. I just had my smock in the bag, so he let me go without incident. This was very embarrassing for me. I would not have dreamed of taking anything home.
The factory closed down soon after. It was hard to get a job. Finally, I got a housekeeping job for the Thompsons who were quite wealthy. Mr. Thompson was the mayor of Vancouver. I stayed with them for about a year and a half when the war with Japan began.
I was listening to the radio when I heard the announcement that Japanese planes were coming to raid the West Coast. I’ll never forget that day, December 7, 1941. I was stunned and very afraid. Of course, the planes never did come as far as Canada, but they did attack Pearl Harbour, the American base in Hawaii. From that day on, life changed for us.
Even though we were Canadians, we were called “aliens” and treated as the enemy. It was awful. Young people like me had never been to Japan. We were Canadian. We honoured the British flag, loved Frank Sinatra and danced the Fox Trot. It was hard to understand what was happening.
A curfew from dusk to dawn was imposed and we were not allowed to leave the house after dark. Of course, in the wintertime, it got dark very quickly. Being young people, we found it very difficult to stay home and do nothing. Our friends on our street used to sneak over to our place to play cards with us. Finally, the police became suspicious and parked their cars in front of our house. Our friends had to stay until the police left so Mother was very displeased.
I was nineteen when World War II broke out. When Japan joined Germany against us, the Canadian government forcibly uprooted the Japanese-Canadians from the west coast. We were given the choice of having women and children go to the internment camps and the men to the road camps in the interior of British Columbia and to bush camps in northern Ontario, or to stay together as families and go to work on the sugar beet farms in southern Alberta.
My mother was very reluctant to be separated from our father. She wanted our family to be together, so we decided to be evacuated to Alberta. Before we left Vancouver, Eunice managed to sell some of the furniture, but our father’s boat was confiscated without any compensation. My father was a naturalized Canadian and we were Canadian-born, but we had no rights. They even took away my little Kodak box camera. We were allowed to take only the barest necessities. The remainder of our belongings were left behind in the house in Vancouver.
In May, 1942, we arrived at Lethbridge, Alberta, by train with other evacuees, and were escorted like convicts by the RCMP. Our clothes were very inappropriate for farm life and the harsh Alberta winters. We were city people with city clothes. We no longer had a home. This was the most terrible time of our lives. We were rejected by our own country, and no-one spoke up for us.
The farmers, who had agreed to take us to work on their farms, were at the station to meet us. My parents, Rosie and I were taken to Coaldale, Alberta. Eunice’s family went to a Hungarian farm in Lethbridge, Alberta. My mother was upset and worried about separating from Eunice’s family because Eunice’s children were small, so she left us to join them. Then she worried about us, so we decided to get permission to leave the Coaldale farm to join Eunice and her family and work the beet fields together at the Hungarian farm.
The “house” was a converted chicken coop, which was extremely cramped for the nine of us. There were Eunice, her husband, her three children, my parents, Rosie and myself. We barely had room to cook, eat and sleep. The room was filthy with chicken droppings all over the place. There had been a window but the glass had been broken and slats from orange crates had been hastily nailed over the opening. We had an old broken-down screen door with cardboard nailed onto it as our door. Mother hung a comforter on it to try to keep out the cold air, but it was useless. The coal stove was kept going night and day to keep us from freezing, but we were always cold. We had come from very moderate winters in Vancouver to the very bitterly cold prairie winters which often dipped to thirty or forty degrees below 0 Fahrenheit temperatures. The farmers were supposed to provide us with proper housing and bedding, but this farmer provided neither. All we got for bedding were sacks filled with straw. That first winter was excruciating.
At that time, the B.C. Security Commission was in charge of the evacuees. When conditions grew worse for us, I went to their office in Lethbridge and told them of our circumstances. Thankfully, they looked into the problem and supplied some lumber for repairs. We also added a little room for a kitchen. They also sent brand new mattresses from Eaton’s.
When summer came, it was unbearable inside. There were hundreds of flies everywhere, in our hair and on our faces, all over the walls. Once, as O was talking, a fly flew into my mouth. You cannot imagine how horrible that is. We were spraying the pesticide DDT all of the time, but that still did not kill them off. I often wonder now what the long- term effects of the spraying would be. Today, the government bans this pesticide because they found out that once it gets into your system, it couldn’t be eliminated. I shudder to think about it now, as we had used a lot of it in the 1940s.
You cannot imagine a more backbreaking job than working on a sugar-beet farm. We were not accustomed to the hard farm work and faced many hardships thinning the beet plants, weeding, hoeing and finally in the fall, the topping of the beets.
We got up at the crack of dawn to go out to the field to thin out the beets. The beets were planted in thick rows about three feet apart and when they were about an inch high, we thinned them out to single plants about a foot apart, all the way down the rows, row after row after row. We worked until dusk when we could no longer see what we were doing. When we returned home, we did all of our chores – cooking, washing, preparing food for the next day, putting the children to bed. All we did was work, work, work. There was very little time for fun, but we made the best of it.
A few weeks later, after the thinning was finished, the farmer cultivated the crop with his four horses pulling the cultivator, and we would go over the whole field, hoeing and pulling out the weeds. If there was a drought, the farmer irrigated the field with water diverted from a canal.
The topping started around the end of September. The farmer again used his horses to pull a plough to loosen the soil around the beets. Then it was our job to pull the beets out of the ground. We took two beets, one in each hand and banged them together to shake off the soil. Then we threw them into piles as we worked along. Sometimes the soil was wet and it was very heavy lifting the beets up. Since it was very sticky gumbo soil, it was exhausting work, for each beet weighed about fifteen pounds when caked with mud. I weighed only ninety pounds, so the work was daunting. Even when the weather didn’t co-operate with us,we had to keep on working until we had finished the whole twenty acres before winter set in. There were times when the beets that we pulled out of the ground were frozen solid.
We often worked alongside German prisoners of war, who were very pleasant young men. There were always soldiers with guns standing at the ends of the rows, guarding them. I found out that they could understand French, so we were laughing and having a great time. The soldiers grew suspicious and reported the Germans. We did not see them for several days. They were punished for speaking to us.
Roy Yano, who had been sent to a bush camp at Griffin Lake in British Columbia, finally managed to join us. He came to Alberta in the spring and worked at a vegetable farm. Roy and I were married on December 4, 1943. We went work on another beet farm close by, which was owned by Yugoslavian people, the Miskulins. I had two daughters, Lillian, born on July 5, 1945, and Marion, born on December 3, 1946. I would also have had a son, but I lost him in 1947.
In Alberta, we had no electricity or running water, so we used coal for cooking and heating and had an oil lamp for light. We kept our drinking water in a barrel. By morning, there was always a layer of ice on the water when the temperature dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit. I had a string stretched across the room for laundry. It was very hard to keep the diapers for the babies clean. If I hung the clothes outside, they froze before they dried. I remember the time when I had to go to the outhouse after washing my hair. By the time I came back to the house, my hair was frozen solid in spikes.
It’s funny, though, when you look at the photos from this period of my life, we look happy, despite the hardships. I guess the photos represent the best of the times, the sunny days and the good moments of living.
Eunice and her family left for Japan in 1946. Her husband had been originally from Japan and wanted to go back as soon as the war was over. It must have been terrible for Eunice and her children to go to a foreign land, which was war-torn and defeated. Roy tried to persuade them to stay because he had been to Japan before the war and had seen the poor conditions there. But it was no use. They left.
My parents and Rosie came to stay with us for one year. Then, they too, left for Japan. They felt very betrayed by Canada and thought that life would be better in Japan. Roy and I chose to stay in Canada. It was a very sad parting.
In 1960, Eunice, her four children, Rosie and Mother came back to Canada. Eunice’s husband did not come with them at that time, but eventually did follow them a few years later. I never saw my father again. He had died of a stroke in Japan in 1956. Rosie had contracted tuberculosis in Japan. She was brought back to Canada too late. She died in 1961 in Burnaby, B.C. She was only thirty-seven years old.
One night, when the temperature was down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, a loud thumping awakened me. I got up to see what was happening. I was horrified to see that a horse had fallen into our cellar, which was right under our kitchen. Every time the horse tried to get up, he shook the floor with such force that the stove covers were banging up and down. The farmers on the prairies left their horses in the fields in winter and on this particular night, the horses had come to the back of our house for shelter and warmth. One of them had stepped on the root cellar door and crashed into our cellar.
Roy was very ill with a fever so that he could not go for help. I got dressed and went to get the farmer. I trudged along in the snow about a quarter of a mile and I thought I would freeze to death. I banged on the farmer’s door to awaken him and he finally came out. He came to get his horse out, but he could not budge it, as the doorway was very low. So the farmer went to a neighbour and borrowed a tractor. He tied a rope around the horse’s neck to pull it out. The farmer managed to inch it out so that the horse’s head was out the door. Still, it would not stand up. Finally, the farmer went down into the cellar, got behind the horse and gave it a big slap on its rump. It lunged out. It’s amazing, but the horse was unhurt. What a mess he had made! Most of my canned good were smashed, but at least the house was still standing.
One winter, just after Marion was born, Roy had to leave us to earn extra money by working in the logging camps in the Rocky Mountains. It was very hard for me because it meant that I had to look after the children on my own. It was the coldest winter we had ever had. The well water froze, even though they say that well water never freezes and I had to melt snow in a huge tub. The work was never ending. A bucketful of snow would give only a cupful of water. With two young children, this was an endless task.
Then at Christmas time, Roy came home unexpectedly. We were thrilled to see him. I had never thought that he would be sharing Christmas with us! He said it was too cold to work in the mountains. The temperature was down to -55 degrees Fahrenheit in the Rockies. I don’t know how he made it home. The mountain roads were treacherous, with barely enough space for a car to pass. One slip and the car could go over the edge. To make matters worse, there were no windshield wipers and he had to clear the ice by hand. He could see the road only through a tiny hole in the ice. There were also no heaters in those old cars and the men drank liquor to keep warm. It was a miracle that they made it home alive. It’s ironic, but the scariest moment for him was spinning on the tracks in Lethbridge.
It took ten very hard years to save enough money for the train fare for the four of us to move to Toronto to join Roy’s best friend, Ted Naruse, and his family. Between the two of us, we earned only nine hundred dollars a year. Even in those days, this was very little. We were frugal and counted every penny, making underwear out of flour sacks, growing our own vegetables and canning our food for the winter.
Roy had to work in logging camps in B.C. to make ends meet, earning only twenty-five cents an hour for extremely dangerous and nerve-wracking feats. His job was to climb up the huge Douglas Fir without a safety belt and cut the tops off. When the top fell off, the tree would swing violently, back and forth, with Roy clinging on for dear life. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see him.
Ever since that time, Roy disliked trees. You can’t blame him. It was part of his life he wanted to forget. There was just too much hardship and loneliness. When we eventually had our own property in Toronto, we had one tree in our backyard and he cut it down.
In December, 1980, Roy died of cancer of the oesophagus, which was probably caused by the work in the sawmills and the foundry. His resting-place is at the Prospect Cemetery Mausoleum in Toronto. I felt he would prefer to be inside a building than to be outside. For me, it is not easy, after all these years. Not a day goes by that I do not think of him.
In 1988, the Canadian Government announced a redress settlement to survivors of the evacuation and their children. The Government acknowledged that the forced removal was unjust. It also recognized that, despite the great stress and hardship, we had all remained loyal to Canada. The Canadian Government officially apologized for its treatment of us.
It is very sad that Roy, my parents and Rosie died before they knew that their country finally admitted that it had been wrong. I hope that the Government of Canada will never treat any of its people with such horrific unfairness again. I know that my family has paid an enormous price. We were split apart so that my children grew up, never knowing their grandparents, aunts and cousins. The Government can never compensate this loss. I remember what Roy always said, that what happened in the past was over, that it could not be helped in those times, that we must not be bitter, that we had to look to the future. Still, I will always remember the shock and fear I felt when I heard that news broadcast on December 7, 1941. And I feel a deep sadness that we were punished for doing nothing wrong.
Lillie Reiko Yano wrote her story in 1996. She passed away on December 26, 2008 at the age of 86.