Sugar Beet Fields: 77 Years After
Southern Alberta Sugar Beet Fields: 77 Years After
by David B. Iwaasa
photos by Noriko Nasu-Tidball
Some 77 years after approximately 2,250 exhausted and traumatized Japanese Canadians arrived in dusty, dilapidated railway cars as part of the federal government’s forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast, a shiny white highway bus containing some 50 Japanese Canadians once again travelled the roads and streets between Lethbridge, Raymond, Picture Butte and Taber. This very first bus tour of the sugar beet fields was organized and sponsored by the Nikkei National Museum, with Nichola Ogiwara handling all of the logistics and Linda Kawamoto Reid providing historical support and collecting valuable oral histories. The NAJC also supported the project by helping to fund a videographer who is hoping to create a documentary film about the tour.
The tour participants consisted of a wide range of ages with many different backgrounds: there were a few who had actually been among those who had been exiled to Southern Alberta in 1942; many others had family members or relatives who had been involved; and there were others who had no direct link to the sugar beet fields but who were interested in the history and its impact on Japanese Canadian culture. While the majority of those on the tour were now living in BC, several tour participants came from Ontario, Alberta, other parts of Canada, and from Japan and the US.
My own motivation for pushing for this tour to take place and helping to organize it was a desire to ensure that this important part of the Japanese Canadian experience was not forgotten. However, the tour also kindled an important realization on the part of many different groups and individuals in Southern Alberta that the sugar beet experience needs to be better understood. The stories recounted during the tour also revealed important nuances to the traditional evacuation and forced removal narrative: notwithstanding the rabid racism and fears that precipitated the forced removal and the terrible pain and massive economic and human losses it created, not everyone was evil and the removal forced both Japanese Canadians and those already living in Southern Alberta at the time to discover each other.
The tour started in Calgary and the tour members were feted to a delicious Japanese-style dinner by the Calgary Japanese Community Association on the night before the tour departure, giving the participants a chance to see the Calgary Japanese Community centre and to meet many local residents. On Tuesday, October 8th the tour departed during an early fall snowstorm. Early October had been chosen for the bus tour because it best coincided with the sugar beet harvest season, giving everyone a taste of some of the harvesting conditions that those working in the sugar beet fields experienced. That afternoon, the tour was welcomed at the Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens in Lethbridge. After a bento lunch at the gardens, David Tanaka of the Japanese Garden society provided a historical overview of the Japanese settlement in Southern Alberta, starting from the first sugar beet workers and miners during the first decade of the 20th century.
On Wednesday, October 9th, the tour went to the Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge and then travelled to Raymond for a tour of the Raymond Museum and a visit to the former Buddhist Temple building established in 1929. Raymond and Hardieville, near Lethbridge, were where most of the 534 pre-war Japanese Canadians had settled and played an important role in helping to ease the way for the families from the coast. The site of the former Raymond sugar factory and the Raymond cemetery were also visited, providing ample evidence of how significant the Japanese Canadian presence had been in the area for more than a century. That evening, the Raymond Judo Club played dinner host to the tour and several local residents such as Robert Takeguchi, Hanae Iwaasa-Robbs, Max Holt, Gloria Kamitomo and Tim Hironaka related their own stories and described the on-going Japanese Canadian presence in Southern Alberta.
On Thursday, October 10, the bus travelled through Hardieville with Pat Sassa providing a historical narrative, and then on to Picture Butte. After visiting the site of the former Picture Butte sugar factory, the tour saw their first sugar beets as they were being piled after being harvested. Near Diamond City, the group was able to visit a functioning sugar beet farm, formerly owned by Norris Taguchi, now in his 90s. At the farm, we learned how sugar beets had been harvested in the past while physically being able to see the fully automated harvesting systems now being employed. The highlight for many tour participants was to handle a sugar beet, to see its white interior and to taste its sweetness. Then we went on to visit the only functioning sugar beet factory in Canada, located in Taber and operated by Rogers/Lantic Sugar.
That evening, the group was hosted by the sugar factory to a sumptuous Alberta prime rib beef dinner as part of a special “Nikkei” menu prepared by the chefs of the Taber Heritage Inn. Most of the vegetables included in the menu were locally produced, many by Japanese Canadian farmers. The principal owners and managers of the Heritage Inn chain are from the Kanegawa family and over dinner they related their story of how they progressed from being sugar beet workers to owning several businesses including a hotel chain with some 12 hotels throughout Western Canada. Pat Shimbashi, a successful potato entrepreneur, described his family’s journey from their pre-war experiences in Southern Alberta to current success. On Friday, October 11, the bus tour concluded with a visit to the McCains Potato Plant near Coaldale where most of the French fries served at Macdonalds’ restaurants throughout Western Canada and in Asia are produced and a Japanese-style lunch at O-sho’s restaurant in Lethbridge. Here, some of the participants parted from the bus tour to visit longer with relatives and friends while the remainder returned to Calgary to catch their flights home.
As for reactions to the tour, Makiko Suzuki, a bus tour participant whose grandparents were among the Mission farming families that were relocated to the area, called the trip: “a revelation. I learned so much about the history and about the sugar beet, fascinating.” Ed Hayashi, who was five years old when he was forced to move to the sugar beet fields with his family in 1942, said that, “the trip brought back many memories, but at the same time I learned a lot about how we got there. Things are very different today from what it was like then.” Stewart Foss, Raymond Town Councilor and Board Member of the Raymond Museum, stated that “it was good to be reminded of what had happened here and that it is a part of history that we need to learn from.” Tim Hironaka, one of the speakers in Raymond, a judge of the Alberta Provincial court, whose parents and grand-parents were pre-war residents of Southern Alberta, said, “it’s important that people remember there was a Japanese presence here prior to the war, that the war added to that presence and that we have progressed and continue to contribute to the community today.”