Recon (2013)

The weather was not bad in early January, 2013. Art and I decided to drive the route between Jasper and Blue River, making rough guesses about where the camps should be. We took two days. Normally this drive takes about two and a half hours in normal winter driving conditions. However we stopped in several locations, to determine how fast we could actually do a field survey of all nineteen labour camps—if indeed that was how many there were.

The old Albreda train station along Yellowhead Highway South (Highway 5), between Tete Jaune Cache and Blue River, B.C.

The temperature and snow depth was similar to what the Japanese labourers would have experienced. 2013 was described as an “in between” climate year—not overly harsh or mild. According to climate records, 1942 was also a mild winter with light snow cover. In other words, the Japanese labourers were lucky. If the weather had been normal, their working conditions would have resembled those of men working on the Alaska Highway to the north. Even so, winters in north-eastern British Columbia are always harsher than those in coastal parts of B.C. The winter of 1942 was no exception to that general rule.

A crisp sunset at four pm in the afternoon. Cranberry Marsh, in Valemount, B.C., looking toward West Ridge.

The winter light at this latitude is amazing—crystal clear, slanting, and brief. At this time of year, there is only seven and a half hours of sunlight. With daylight savings time in effect, the sun sets at about 3:45 in the afternoon in early January. In narrow valleys such as the North Thompson valley, the day is even shorter due to mountain shadows. The effect is like being in the shade for most of the day, with bright light above. The first few Japanese labourers had a bit more light, because they arrived in late February. They had about ten and a half hours. Yes, the days lengthen quickly! Those workers sent into the North Thompson still experienced shadowed daylight.

Featured image: TransCanada Highway (Highway 16), between Jasper, Alberta and Tete Jaune Cache, B.C.

Columbia Basin Trust Funding

Great news! Received word that our field research (being called “Documenting the Yellowhead Road Camps” has been granted financial support by the Columbia Basin Trust via the Columbia Kootenary Cultural Alliance. The funding ensures that the research will be based in Valemount, which is the most logical of all places to carry it out. It also assists us to transform the research, raising the bar to obtain quality results which can be useful to many people.

Valemount is part of the Columbia River Basin, where a number of Japanese Internment camps were based. It is also within the Fraser River Basin, another watershed which was home to Japanese Internment camps. Water has significance in the British Columbian geographical imagination. Rivers, rails and roads flow through the peaks and valleys. Culture and history flows with them.

Many thanks to the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance!

Research begins (2013)

Mount Robson, in Mount Robson Provincial Park.

Somewhere in Saskatchewan
My train got stuck behind a freight in Saskatchewan… and then another… and before you knew it we were—still in Saskatchewan.

En route by rail from Toronto to Jasper aboard The Canadian, I weighed a couple of fascinating project ideas.

The most fascinating idea was to return to the topic of Japanese Canadian internment history. Reason: I would be heading straight into the heart of the region known by historians of the Japanese Internment as “Yellowhead – Blue River.” This was my hometown region. The village of Valemount, British Columbia, is located almost at the midpoint between Jasper and Blue River.

Beginning in February, 1942, men born in Japan were among the first to be forced to leave the West Coast of Canada. They were loaded on to rail cars, with less baggage allowed to them than I am currently allowed on the train in 2013. Most had never been to this mysterious place called “Yellowhead,” with possibly a few former CN rail workers, or perhaps tourists, as exceptions. Shopkeepers and lumberers alike were jumbled together and ordered to work under guard and restrictive rules with little compensation. Numerous work camps were built for the Japanese between Jasper, Alberta and Blue River, British Columbia. By the early Spring of 1942, the road camps were beginning to rebel. Not long afterward, married men were able to return to their families. By November most of the camps were closed, with a few men seemingly choosing to remain employed north of Blue River.

Mount Robson
There weren’t any Japanese road camps at Mount Robson, but people lived there who helped staff the camps.

I’ve left many things out of the story—the men’s love of baseball, their beautiful gardens, the encounters with animals, and their sit-down strikes. Actually, there is a lot left out of the story. The research so far has been fantastic. I would recommend reading Yon Shimizu’s “The Exiles” as a particularly good source of interesting archival material related to this region. At this date, there is much that should be done to supplement that wonderful work, and the work of all others delving into this field of study.

The biggest issue facing historians dealing with this topic is the immensity and remoteness of the region. Forget about what it looks like on a map. This is a 200 kilometre stretch of wilderness, and there are few people in the region who have the resources to dedicate themselves to this study.

In 1942, it was not realistic to think of driving out of the place by car. Some families had trucks and cars, but they had to be delivered on a train. The other way to travel around (besides the train) was by wagon, horseback or horse-drawn sleigh.

It was not until the 1960s that a highway was built through the Yellowhead Pass, and until then it took an entire day to get to Jasper by that route. Even today, to drive from Jasper to Blue River takes almost three hours. Within that distance,in 1942, there were twenty or so road camps. It is unlikely that there is a Japanese man that would have been familiar with all of the camps—especially since most of them were there for only a few months. A possible exception could only be one man—Kinzie Tanaka—who did have the opportunity to tour the camp system. Another possibility would be the Issei plumbers who were hired to build Japanese baths in each of the camps.

Premier Range
This might be Mount Trudeau, or maybe the peak attached to it. Can’t quite remember. Near Valemount, BC.

There were, however, hundreds of people living in the region, who passed down memories of the Japanese men through friends and families. Each small town has a museum and archives carefully preserving memories, and elders helping to explain them. I’ve had a chance to meet some fascinating historians and archivists in Vancouver and Toronto, and would love to use those experiences to give back to the local historians.

So, this January I informally committed to studying the Yellowhead – Blue River region a bit more intensely. My intention is to donate research back to the Valemount Museum and Archives. It is probable that if I’m to get anywhere I will very much need their help. I’ll also add a few posts from my visit to the region.

My visit took place in the holiday season when many people were out of town, and the snow was a bit too deep to do much exploring. In the meantime, I’m back in Vancouver. Here in the GVRD, there is plenty that I can study up on until the snow clears.