A Lasting Tribute
Cumberland committee honours Japanese families by turning the No. 1 Townsite into a park
By Ian Lidster
Calling like the blossoms on the cherry tree are the leaves of the pages of the history of the Comox Valley. It is a history most profoundly connected with the multi-cultural heritage of the original community of any substance: Cumberland.
And it is apt that it is in Cumberland where members of the community are diligently working to restore historic ties with cultures seemingly forgotten, with perhaps the most poignant tale concerning the members of an ethnic group that was literally driven away in the name of a misbegotten patriotic fervor combined with the bigotry of the day. That day came in the months following the attack by Imperial Japan on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Among the victims of an unrepentant bias on the part of both the Canadian and provincial governments were the Japanese of Cumberland.
“When the people were finally obliged to leave they were driven to the wharf in Royston and loaded on a freighter destined for Vancouver,” says Ray Iwaasa (sic), whose uncle owned the Iwaasa Store in No. 1 Town in Cumberland. “Nobody came out to wave goodbye.”
Fortunately, however, there are those living in Cumberland and elsewhere that are not about to let this bit of cultural legacy die out completely. They are the members of the Coal Creek History Park Advisory Committee and they, along with assistance from the Village council and the Cumberland Museum, are continuing with their plans to complete a heritage park that includes the old Japanese No. 1 Townsite.
Ray Iwaasa never actually lived in Cumberland in the years before World War Two—he came later, he says as a “curiosity seeker.” Although by the time of his birth his father had moved on to Alberta, he does have a connectedness with No. 1 Townsite, and the legwork he has done has proved invaluable, says Coal Creek Committee chair, Grace Doherty.
His connectedness lies in the fact that Cumberland was his father’s first Canadian home. His uncle was the first in the family to arrive, and his father followed the uncle in 1898.
When Iwaasa arrived in Cumberland in March 2004 he was asked by Mayor Fred Bates and the Village administrator if he would be interested in getting involved with the study commissioned by the Village to establish a plan to develop the Perseverance (Coal) Creek Historic Park site. He notes that he was the only visible Asian to be so involved. The irony of that being that the parksite would encompass the area that once contained both the Chinese and Japanese communities of Cumberland, equally vibrant in their day.
Specifically, they wanted him to develop a vision for the No. 1 Japanese Townsite. Iwaasa agreed, but with obvious reservations arising from the fact, as stated, he’d not been born there, nor had he ever lived there.
In those early days Iwaasa was put in contact with George Penfold who was in the process of completing his report: Cumberland Chinatown Japanese Settlement Historic Park Plan (released in August 2004). In that report Penfold expressed disappointment at the paucity of input from the former Asian communities. Needless to say he was delighted to be contacted by Iwaasa, and ultimately, following the release of the report an ad hoc committee was formed. That report was accepted in principle by the council in September 2007, and the members of the advisory committee, including by this point a more extensive representation from the former Asian communities, began meeting regularly in early 2008.
Members include: Grace Doherty (chair), John Leung, Ray Iwaasa, May Gee, Joyce Lowe, Marie Lowe, Bernice and Katsaoki Takahashi, Tats Aoki (whose father was the principal of the Japanese language school, and whose mother was a teacher there), Josephine Peyton, Florence Bell, Carol Snaden, Dwayne Rourke, Tako Kiyono (who was briefly a resident of No. 1 Japanese Town), Imogene Lim, Donna Le May, Mas Aida and Lillian and Doug Tosoff.
Iwaasa confesses that he “came in starry eyed” at the concept of the project, and was a little blindsided by how complex the political scene was in Cumberland.
“I was eager to embrace all, but realized there were some issues between individuals and groups that were not easily surmounted,” he says. “At the same time, however, despite disputes over other issues, almost all of the people I dealt with were well-meaning and intelligent.”
Determination to not let the matter die or be pushed aside lies in the diligence of Grace Doherty. “I made a commitment to be vigilant,” Doherty says. “I made a point of literally attending all council meetings just to make sure the concept didn’t evaporate. We may have seemed impatient but the reality was that many of the people involved were not of an age to wait.”
At times, she says, she felt they were being stonewalled and it seemed that the park vision might never be realized if they didn’t get the support needed. Then former mayor Bronco Moncrief came into the mix and his input on the matter of the parks was of huge import to the park proponents.
According to Doherty, Moncrief told her he had walked down to the old Chinatown area and was struck by the beauty of the natural setting and told her he had come to the conclusion: “Why fool around any longer?” Moncrief had earlier told Iwaasa that he had lost a number of good friends when the Japanese were exiled in 1942, and he was motivated by their memory.
“In the fall of 2007,” Doherty says, “the plan was approved in principle. And in 2008 it was formally recognized and a council resolution set the parameters for the mandate.”
In essence it is a 40-acre park with the Chinese townsite at the east and the Japanese to the west, with both elements to be connected by an Asian-style bridge across Coal Creek.
Yet, what was it like in its glory days? At its high point up to 36 homes plus the two stores made up the community that was bounded by Coal Creek, the coal slagheap and the Wellington Colliery Railway. There was also a baseball diamond in the open space.
Children attended school in Cumberland, and also attended Japanese language school six days a week. Over the years a number of Japanese merchants established businesses in Cumberland proper and Japanese women had a traditional tea garden at Comox Lake from 1914-1939.
Yet, it wasn’t an easy life for the Japanese residents. The miners were paid at half the level of Caucasians in the same jobs and were the first to be let go when economic times were tight. Furthermore in what can be seen as nothing short of overt discrimination by officialdom, provincial legislation forbade them working in the pulp and paper mills, and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1923 prevented them from working underground. In 1940 provincial legislation closed all Japanese schools, and this all culminated in 1942 when No. 1 Town (and No. 5 Town, to which many of the residents had moved when No. 1 mine was closed earlier) were evacuated to ghost towns in the Kootenays. At that time Japanese residents were forbidden to move closer than 300 miles from the west coast. This prohibition was to continue until five years after World War Two was over. Meanwhile, provincial authorities never returned the possessions and property of the Japanese who had been exiled.
Ultimately, Weldwood of Canada, the later owners of the site, eco-gifted a 40-acre parcel of land, which included the No. 1 Japanese Townsite, to the Village of Cumberland in 2002. This was the first step in bringing the historic park into being.
And fortunately, not all vestiges of the old town were completely eradicated. There remains the ‘Saito House,’ despite the earlier destruction of all the other structures. This is the original home of the Saito family. “The house is a historic treasure,” Doherty says. Built in the 1920s, it is destined to become the interpretive centre for the park.
Meanwhile, Iwaasa points out that even though the structural devastation is nearly 100 per cent, there remain elements of the original settlement that are to be cherished, including 57 heritage fruit trees. Unfortunately, people, being as people are, had been dumping yard waste on the site, so that all had to be cleared away.
Looking back in time, in it’s heyday there were 31 families, totaling 132 people, living at No. 1, with many in transition at any given time, as they moved on from the original site to other areas in the Comox Valley, such as the sawmill on Royston Road and Washer Creek in Union Bay.
The Royston Lumber site still contains some of the original buildings and in its heyday was home to a small village. Much of the motivation for moving away from No. 1 was that the mine had shut down, and the settlers of the town were forced to find employment elsewhere. Some completely left the area—including Iwaasa’s father, who decamped for Alberta in 1908. His father had arrived in the area in 1898, some eight years after the original settlers. The Iwaasa Store was one of the two general stores at the settlement.
The original Japanese settlers, Iwaasa says, came under a contract between the Dunsmuirs and the Japanese authorities. “There was much more individualized migration with the Japanese than there was with the Chinese,” Iwaasa says. “They were more organized than the Chinese, and while the Chinese came from a country torn by internal strife and warlord rivalry, the Japanese in Cumberland had a consular office in Vancouver to look into their concerns.”
As a consequence, he adds, the Chinese were treated much more poorly than the Japanese residents. That the Japanese had a big impact on the Cumberland community over the years goes without saying, Iwaasa notes. And in the years before the diaspora that came after Pearl Harbor fully a third of the population of Cumberland school was Japanese. There was also competition-winning Japanese baseball team.
Living with his family in Alberta and not subject to relocation in 1942, Iwaasa wasn’t fully cognizant of the impact of what took place in coastal BC until an uncle from Cumberland and four of his children came to live with the family in Alberta.
“It’s still painful to remember an older cousin and what happened to her,” he says. “She was a 19-year-old young woman whom I regarded as an older sister. She could never adjust to having been removed from her home. After some time with us she committed suicide—she drank lye. That happened in our home, and I’ll never forget it. I am sure there are many other similar stories.
“When I was a kid, Cumberland could have been the moon,” he says. But, then, at a later date, he happened upon his father’s diary, which was meticulously kept and includes entries from his decade in Cumberland, from 1898 to 1908.
“My father managed one of the stores. He also wanted to be an integral part of his new country, so he took his education at night school and when I was a child, even before I went to school, he was fluent in English,” he says.
Iwaasa, now an integral member of the advisory committee, says that once the mandate of the group and the project had received its official sanction, things moved on in a productive manner. He adds that the committee now boasts excellent relations with the Cumberland Museum, an important factor in their quest to complete the park.
The Cherry Tree Project, which culminated in the ceremonial planting of 31 flowering Mount Fuji cherry trees on October 24, 2009, was the first symbolic manifestation of bringing No. 1 Japanese Town to life. The 31 trees represent the families who still lived at the site in 1942, and came about thanks to a grant by the National Association of Japanese Canadians Endowment Fund, as well as donations by former residents and their families. The process was set in motion by Manabu Doi, a former resident, who made the initial application for the grant.
The next part of the ceremony is to come on May 8 with the Bronze Plaque Ceremony. The plaque will be unveiled at 1:30 pm on that date. The site is at 2211 Comox Lake Road, about 1.5 kilometres from downtown Cumberland.
For more information on the ceremony, please contact Grace Doherty at 250.336.8921, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about Cumberland visit: cumberlandbc.org or cumberlandmuseum.ca
reprinted by permission from inFocus Magazine