Remembering Robert Roswell Broder
By Sarah Shiho
Our Canadian history holds some dark days and yet within that darkness shone some bright beacons of light. One such lighthouse was a man named Robert Roswell Broder. During the time of World War II many Japanese Canadians were seen as enemy aliens and treated with fear, mistrust and abuse. Many Japanese Canadians have their own stories of those dark days and whether they wish to tell them or keep them in the past, they will always remain. Those lucky enough to find brighter days will always tell their stories. One such story is told about the incredible generosity of Mr. Broder.
Seventy years after the day my great uncle, Alex Yanoshita first worked for Mr. Broder he tells his story with a tear of gratitude in his eye. Mr. Broder took in many Japanese Canadians and gave them jobs, housing, pay and food. This past summer, the Naoyoshi Yanoshita Family Foundation dedicated a plaque in Mr. Broder’s honour at the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge, Alberta to remember a man who lived by the rules of his own wisdom and heart.
Mr. Broder’s presence in Alex’s life allowed him to regain what his family lost in the war as well as his faith in humanity.
In 1900, a 16 year old man named Torakuma Yanoshita came to a budding new country called Canada from modernized Japan to start a new life. As an immigrant, he travelled extensively to find work. He found his wife back in Japan and started a family, first living in Bella Bella, then Bella Coola, then Victoria and finally settling in Mission in 1920, taking 20 years to find a stable home and land ownership in BC. By 1942, with all their perseverance and hard work, the Yanoshita clan had acquired a 35-acre bustling and prosperous berry farm. After 22 years of instability and dead-end work the family had security, sustenance and each other. They could relax and enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Then, in 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and what had taken two decades for the Yanoshitas to build was decimated in about six months. Piece by piece their livelihood was torn away at the seams until finally families like the Yanoshitas were torn from each other. After the humiliation and submission of Japan the Japanese Canadians were seen as “the enemy” and many found themselves in derelict living conditions, sometimes causing sickness and death. With their faith in the hakujin (Caucasian people) gone, hopelessness and alienation set in for many. In a desert of ignorance and hate Alex and many other Japanese Canadians were lucky enough to meet great Canadians who stood up for humanity and for what they knew to be right. Many such hakujin Canadians went “above and beyond” to try and undo the sins of others. These great Canadians still knew the Japanese Canadians as part of their community and invited them to become human again. One such man who helped a great many from all backgrounds and walks of life was Mr. Broder.
Mr. Broder was never a man to be told by anyone what to think or do. He was a man of great inner strength, integrity and compassion. How else could you describe a man who brought the vegetable canning business to Alberta after being told he could never yield vegetables on a commercial scale? How else can you speak of a man who gave to those in need and who never asked for anything in return? This was Mr. Broder’s way, the way that shone through in many aspects of his life. When he was told he could not house Japanese Canadians in Lethbridge, he refused to listen. It took the Mayor, constables and nearly all the police in Lethbridge to stop him from bringing them to work for him. He conceded, and brought his workers instead to the internment camp at Taber, but not before he showed all the officials crammed into his office that he knew better, with one simple call to Ottawa. After explaining the situation to the cabinet minister C.D. Howe, he then passed the phone to the constable. “It’s for you,” Mr. Broder could have said with an all-knowing smirk. “You can either arrest yourself in contempt of the war effort or leave this facility ‘tout suite!’” could have been heard on the other end of the receiver from Mr. Howe.
Mr. Broder won the fight but not the war and soon after my great uncle and many other Japanese Canadians were taken to Taber in a covered car at midnight. A boarding house was built for them and Mr. Broder told them all that they could eat any and all of the canned goods they wished. With shelter, food and a good job, my great uncle remembers an immense feeling of gratification and renewed faith in humanity which he has held onto dearly from that time forward.
You can now find the marker of my great uncle’s gratitude at the base of the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden ticket house. This plaque is for a man who knew what was right and wasn’t going to be told otherwise. Just as the (tea) house stands in the garden all on its own without a nail or screw, Mr. Broder was himself a self-made man who stood on his own, never wavering and giving in to government control or fear mongering.
If you happen to buy a ticket and listen to the knowledgeable staff as you make your way through the Garden of Serenity at the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, you will learn there is nothing there without purpose. Even the raking of the rock garden is very specific and rich with meaning. Some aspects of the garden are hidden and some are shown. Similarly, the Broder family only knew as much as their father and grandfather would show. It was only after he was gone that they would be shown his softer side; the side of Mr. Broder that gave to those in need, never calculating when it would be returned.
Within the garden many large rocks are placed; they sit buried a third into the ground, thus remaining grounded and a part of our Earth. Mr. Broder was a cornerstone and a solid foundation for many, just as the rocks that sit amongst the garden; he remained grounded and unyielding in his beliefs. In his time, Mr. Broder was seen first and foremost as a businessman and now, after his passing, we recognize the man for his humanity.
Mr. Broder now lives on through those he touched and through his family, the generations aspiring to walk in his footsteps by being like the man who brought them up in Lethbridge. The new plaque serves as a reminder of this legacy continuing; a shining example of humanity and generosity that should never be forgotten.