Prairie Home

A Unique Profession

A Unique Profession

Lillian Nakamura Maguire – Sept. 2023

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I inched my way to the teacher's desk for the interview in front of the class about my family. 

“So, what kind of work does your father do?” 

What business was it of my grade 5 teacher or the Regina School Board? My classmates’ parents were salespeople, engineers and tradespeople. Ordinary occupations to my ears. At that moment, I wanted to be normal.

I was a shy, self-conscious kid, born of immigrant parents from Japan. In an audible, clear voice, I told the teacher that my dad was a carpenter, and then in a lower voice, I mumbled “and a chick sexer.” 

To which she responded, “What? Did you say CHICK SEXER? ”

Head bowed and nodding, and I’m sure my face flushed, 

“mm-hmm—like at a chicken hatchery. He’s able to tell the boys from the girls.” There were 24 sets of eyes upon me, and I could hear some giggling and whispering. 

In the off-season, my Dad was a carpenter, so I could have just claimed that occupation for him. Why did I bring up the chick sexing?

Clearly the word sexer brought forward a lot of images for my fellow students, especially the boys. I didn't know anything about the sex life of chickens, never mind “hot chicks.” 

Unfazed, the teacher continued with the other questions about my Mum’s occupation...“housewife,” about my siblings and other information, which was all a blur. After the interview, I slunk back to my desk.
The following year, I didn’t make the same mistake again and I said my Dad was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. 

After I began to research my family history in my retirement, I learned how important his occupation was, not only to poultry farmers, but also to our family livelihood.

The Japanese developed the technique of chick sexing in the 1930s. It was an occupation unique to the Japanese.
Poultry farming would not have been profitable without it. Farmers were not able to identify the males until 4 to 6 weeks after hatching. The farmers would usually destroy them since they were too expensive to be housed and fed. They couldn't lay eggs, their meat was stringy and they disturbed the development of the females. The time and expense required to maintain the unwanted males almost disappeared with chick sexing.

My grandfather, my Dad and his brother came to Canada in July 1931 to work as farm labourers. They may have first learned about chick sexing in Canada. There was a demonstration by the chick sexing association of Japan in 1932 in Surrey. 
Sadato, my Dad married Aiko Kikuchi in June 1936 after he, my grandfather and uncle all returned to Japan. He and my uncle took chick sex training in Nagoya.  My Dad returned to Surrey in 1937 to work as a chick sexer for Bolivar Hatcheries.

According to his first contract with Bolivar, he agreed to sex up to 200,000 chicks for $1,000 and after that, one-half cent a chick from mid- February to the end of May 1938 with at least 97 per cent accuracy. In agreements in the years that followed, they reduced the rate to one-quarter cent a chick, after the first 200,000 to a maximum of 500,000.

In 1942 my Dad was ordered by the Federal government to leave his home and family and to work at a remote road camp at Lempriere near Valemount, B.C and the Canadian Rockies. After about 10 weeks he and the family were reunited but were ordered to leave the west coast. My family moved to Winnipeg where my Dad received permission to work at Hambley Hatcheries in Winnipeg and later in Regina. 

”Sit there okay – no touch!”

My Dad lifted me up to a stool so that I could watch him in the basement of our Regina home sexing day-old chicks. He had a bright lamp over the sorting table and a set of magnifier lenses over his glasses. Like a robot, he would grab a chick with his left hand from one box, squeeze gently to clear out the poop and look at the rear end. 

I peered into the smelly can that my Dad used to collect the poop. What a yucky, slimy mess.  
Then in one motion with his right hand, he moved the chick into the appropriate box. His hand swept over the box of chicks like a magic wand, and with that motion—poof—the chicks got sorted. 

By applying just the right amount of pressure on the chick to expose its “vent” and not cause injury, and with keen observation, concentration and intuition, he achieved the minimum 97 per cent accuracy. 

He sometimes travelled to rural hatcheries on isolated winter highways requiring overnight stays. It wasn’t unusual for him to sex hundreds of chicks in a single evening. 
Because of my Dad’s unique and valued profession, he was able to earn a decent income. During the War years it also allowed my parents to live independently, with the freedom to go about their daily lives without constant surveillance. In contrast many other Japanese Canadians were interned in camps or laboured on sugar beet farms under poor living conditions and meagre wages. 

Looking back on it now, it’s hard to believe that the government seized my Dad’s B.C. property and sold it without his consent in 1943. He  received $1,793.44 in auction for the house that he built and lived in for two years. It was far below its market value. 

As a child I was completely unaware of the ordeal my parents had been through and what they did to provide a secure and comfortable home. Through his hard work and my mother’s careful management of the household and their productive vegetable garden, they moved into a house constructed by my Dad in 1951. My parents proudly said they paid cash for all their purchases. They adopted the Prairies as their home and lived there for the rest of their life.