Remembering Aya Higashi
Kaslo city council has approved in principle a motion to rename a local road as Higashi Way in honour of longtime Kaslo resident Aya Higashi, who passed away this past July at the age of 96. The last remaining Japanese Canadian Kaslo resident interned there during the Second World War, Higashi was much loved and respected in the community, where she was a teacher for 33 years.
Born Ayako Atagi in Campbell River, she grew up on Quadra Island where her father was a boat builder before moving to Vancouver. At 16, Aya graduated high school in Vancouver, with plans to become a doctor.
In 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father was sent to a roadcamp in the Crowsnest Pass while the rest of family was interned in Kaslo, living in an abandoned house.
At 19, she began her teaching career in the Giegerich block, a building that is still standing in Kaslo. She would go on to become principal of the school at the Popoff internment camp in Slocan.
Following the war, Aya returned to Vancouver to obtain her teaching certificate then returned to Kaslo for good, fulfilling a promise she had made to the local principal. She taught senior high, specializing in commerce and home economics.
Aya married Buck Higashi, a catcher on the Slocan baseball team, in 1949. They were married for 59 years. The couple had no children of their own, but she considered all her students to be her children, and they loved her back.
As one of the family, she was invited her to their weddings and anniversaries. When she retired in 1986, the school gym was packed with well-wishers.
Only three Japanese Canadian families stayed in Kaslo following the lifting of restrictions. By the time Aya retired, she and Buck were the only ones left in town who had experienced the internment and she was often asked to speak to tour groups, schools, and visitors.
Higashi was publicly honoured twice in 2012, unveiling an interpretive sign at the former Popoff farm and receiving the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for outstanding community service.
“I refuse to be a hyphenated Canadian,” she said a few years ago. “From the time I was little, my father told me ‘don’t forget you are Canadian’ and I have refused to think of myself as anything but. I am one happy 92-year-old Canadian.”
Higashi was predeceased by her husband and is survived by brother Yute Atagi of Nelson.
The street naming was insigated by former Kaslo residents Glen and Jeanette Leyden and approved in principle by the Kaslo City Council on August 11.