Prairie Home

Adopted Prairie Home

Adopted Prairie Home

Lillian Nakamura Maguire – Sept. 2023

In 1978, my husband, son and I were living in North Delta, B.C. My oldest brother was living nearby in Vancouver. We all gathered at our place with my parents who were visiting us from Regina.

They were barely settled, when my Dad took a sip of his green tea and declared “we go find old house”. 

“Ah...old mean the house you used to live in? That’s like over 40 years ago Dad.”

I was very skeptical that we would be able to find the house that my Dad, Sadato had built in 1940 in the Surrey area after he emigrated from Japan. My Mum, Aiko was reluctant to search for the old house. My parents like many Japanese Canadians on the west coast, had their house and property sold by the Federal government without their permission, during the War. 

My Dad was a very determined man and no one could change his mind. 

With a map and vague instructions, along with my Dad’s limited English directions, we -- much to our amazement -- found the house located on Townline Road in the Surrey area.  We found it just in time, as there were men working inside the house preparing it for demolition the next day. My Dad’s sense of urgency to find the original family home was well founded. After my husband explained to the foreman that my Dad had built this house prior to the War, he welcomed us inside to have a look around. My Dad immediately headed upstairs to the attic. He felt around the rafters for something that he had left in a hidden compartment, but of course it was long gone. I asked what he was looking for and his only response was that it was gone. Unfortunately I didn’t probe further. My Dad had a pattern of building secret compartments within the walls or a closet, for cash or valuables, which we later noticed in our Regina family home. I’m guessing that he thought that he would be returning in a short period of time to the B.C. house and left a packet of money. I don’t think he had much confidence in banks.

I noticed two plain lead pane windows in the living room and asked the foreman if I could buy them. He gave them to me and they are the only physical evidence I have of the place. We failed to take a photograph of the house, although recently I discovered some film footage my Dad had taken of the house and their family of three. It showed my Mum beaming into the camera, holding my oldest brother, Sadamu (Sam) as a toddler. 

My Mum, did not go inside the house. Instead, she wandered around the yard no doubt remembering her early married life. I’m sure there was a mixture of emotions – the happy family times with their infant son as well as the lonely, uncertain times when my Dad was sent to a road camp in 1940. In a later conversation, she talked about the salmon that used to come upstream to the little creek that flowed through their property and the fruit trees in the yard. At the time, I had little awareness of what my parents had experienced in their Surrey home. There were so many unspoken memories.

My Mum never talked much about those years and I often wished that we could have had conversations about that time.  My parents never explained why they chose to stay in Regina instead of going back to BC. 

My awareness of their experiences began in the mid-1980s, when the National Association of Japanese Canadians reached out to Japanese Canadians across Canada to determine their losses and opinions on redress for the harms done to them. I recall my parents filling out a survey form about their history from their arrival in B.C. and their move to Regina. The Redress Settlement between the Federal Government and the National Association of Japanese Canadians was signed on September 22, 1988. After that I began to research and read materials about Japanese Canadian history that I had never heard about or learned during my school years. I was outraged at the injustice and the losses that my parents and other Japanese Canadians had experienced. At the time I didn’t understand why my parents remained silent about this history. 

After my Mum died in 2005, I acquired the metal file box that contained some of my parents’ documents. I also had photos and films that my Dad had taken from the time he left Japan in 1938 to the early family life in Surrey, B.C. and Regina. More of the pieces of the puzzle about my parents fell into place when I obtained a copy of my parents’ case files from Archives Canada in August 2017. These were files maintained by the Federal Government of all people of Japanese ancestry in Canada during and after the War.

Like most male Japanese nationals, the government ordered my Dad to a work camp in the early spring of 1942. His remote camp was at Lempriere, near Valmount in the interior of B.C. For about 10 weeks he cleared land, built bridges and bunkhouses for the workers. My Mum remained at their B.C. home, with little information about what was happening with my Dad. That was the case for many Japanese Canadians in that area. Families were separated and many were temporarily housed in the livestock barns in Hastings Park at the Pacific National Exhibition until they were forcibly moved to other locations in the Interior of B.C.

In June 1942, Dad and the family got permission from the government for him to work as a chick sexer with his brother in Manitoba. The position was temporary but in the winter he was fortunate to find more stable employment as a chick sexer in Regina and was allowed to move there in January 1943. 

Chick sexing was a specialized profession developed in Japan and was valued by Canadian poultry farmers. As a result Dad and the family had more mobility than many Japanese Canadians, although they were required to regularly report to the R.C.M.P. He was able to make a decent income as a chick sexer and carpenter to support the family during and after the War. Other Japanese Canadians had to live in camps or work on sugar beet farms under harsh living and working conditions.

My parents first settled in a Regina working class neighbourhood with many other immigrants from diverse backgrounds, many from Eastern Europe. The next door neighbours, who were of Irish/English descent, along with members of the small Japanese Canadian community helped them to settle in Regina. 

My brother who was four at the time, learned English from the neighbour’s son and his playmates. Perhaps not the “King’s English”, but enough to later enter school with some understanding. The McCann neighbours were a guiding light to my parents in finding their way through the confusion of Canadian life. One of the McCann’s daughters was engaged to an RCMP officer, who assisted my parents in meeting their obligation to report to the RCMP regularly. My Mum learned to make apple pie and donuts from neighbours. She shopped at the local Chinese grocery for tofu, and as a special treat, she would pick up a poppy seed roll from the nearby Ukrainian bakery. My Dad also developed a taste for cabbage rolls and pickled herring mop rolls available at a European deli in the neighbourhood.

There was also a strong Japanese Canadian community that my parents relied on for social and emotional support. Some of the members owned businesses such as a gas station, tire shop, and a clothing and fabric store. One member, Mr. Tamaki translated and wrote letters to the government for my Dad during the War years. 

There was one letter dated June 21,1945 from the B.C. Security Commission in charge of Japanese Canadians that influenced the trajectory of our family.
The letter offered all Japanese Canadians, whether born in Canada or Japan, to prove their “loyalty to Canada” by either moving to places east of the Rockies or sign papers agreeing to be “repatriated to Japan” when the war was over. Four thousand, half of them Canadian-born were exiled in 1946 to Japan.

My parents had already “proven their loyalty to Canada” when in February 1942 my father purchased a Victory Bond to support the Canadian war effort. The bond had the heading “Invest to Insure Your Freedom”, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to its motto to “insure” our family’s freedom. They had already met the second test to “prove their loyalty”. They were living east of the Rockies and my father had steady employment in Regina. 

I’m sure that my Mum was longing to see her relatives and friends in Japan and may have tried to convince my Dad to return. With limited contact by mail, she probably did not have any news from the family in Japan and limited information about the war and the impacts there.  

Family was very important to my Mum, and she recognized that her growing family in Canada was now her priority. In 1945, the family had grown to include three children. She had the difficult choice to satisfy her longing for her ancestral home and family, and sacrificing that for a more secure and safe home in Regina. To be safe, healthy and have future opportunities for their children were important to both of them. My Dad also knew that he would have to start over again in Japan, with limited work opportunities, limited access to land and a house, and the safety and health of his family uncertain. His oldest and youngest brothers in Japan would have first priority on the family land and property. His other brother lived in Winnipeg and chose to stay in Canada as well.

The decision to stay in Canada was reinforced when in August 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs and Japan surrendered in September. 

I think staying in Regina was an easier transition for my father because of his work, but I think my Mum resigned herself to her life there, sacrificing some of her own desire of being close to her cultural roots and immediate family, in favour of the overall benefits to their children. My Dad built a new home in 1950 on the bald prairies. 

My mother established her prairie home, managing the household and family affairs and providing a place that welcomed Japanese and non-Japanese around our dinner table. She developed a support network of Japanese Canadian women like Mrs. Ohashi, Mrs. Takashiba, Mrs. Kitagawa, Mrs. Yama (“Yama obasan”), who she would talk to regularly by phone or over tea at our house. Although her English skills were limited she often reached out to neighbours and non-Japanese friends to share gifts of flowers and garden vegetables. There was also a Japanese Canadian Club that organized the annual picnic and Christmas party for the children and the adults had a bowling league, card games or other social gatherings for visiting dignitaries or special events. 

The Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement and especially the Apology by the Federal Government meant a lot to my parents. For many years until then, they carried the pain and the shame. I think they felt they were somehow to blame for their circumstances. The monetary settlement was some compensation for the loss of property, but the apology provided the emotional payback for their suffering. When one of my brothers won the home lottery at the Calgary Stampede, my Dad thought that was the payback for the house that was taken from him.

My parents became Canadian citizens in 1964 and adopted Regina as their permanent home on the Prairies.