– Erin Nishikawa, Ontario
My grandma was a pack rat. She kept everything, from old magazines to stuffed animals. When she moved out of the house that my mom and three aunts grew up in and into a small apartment, I remember being amazed at her numerous collections. She had shelves and shelves of karaoke tapes and CDs, and the biggest pin collection that ever existed that hung on her bedroom door. At the time, I never wondered why she kept all these things, I only looked forward to picking the next pin for my own collection, and playing with the little origami ornaments she had all over her house. It wasn’t until I learned more about my grandma’s history, and about our country’s history, that I began to understand why.
My grandma was born on June 7, 1925 in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Her parents had both moved to Canada from Japan when they were younger. As an adult, my grandma was less than 5 feet tall, so I can imagine how cute she must have been as a child! Growing up as the only girl in a traditional Japanese family, my grandma did most of the chores around the house, whereas her two younger brothers were spoiled.
The government decided that all Japanese Canadians should be removed from their homes and sent to internment camps. My grandma and her family were allowed to pack one small suitcase of clothes and another suitcase of bedding and belongings per person.
World War II began in 1939, but it wasn’t until March of 1942 that life changed for my grandma and her family. In December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, United States, which led to the US and Canada’s entry into the war. Because of this, the government decided that all Japanese Canadians should be removed from their homes and sent to internment camps. My grandma and her family were allowed to pack one small suitcase of clothes and another suitcase of bedding and belongings per person. Everything else, their home, boat, vehicle, business and all other possessions were taken and sold by the government. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to lose everything except for what I was able to pack in two suitcases, but I now understand why my grandma saved everything in her later life.
The Japanese Canadians were interned in camps around British Colombia. My grandma and her family were first taken to a temporary camp where they lived in animal stalls in Hastings Park. The conditions were horrible; my grandma described a terrible stench and maggots under the floors. She said they would play softball outside for as long as they could so they could get away from the smell. After two months there, the family was moved to a permanent camp in Slocan where they lived in a cabin with another family. The cabins, which housed two to three families, were small with bunk beds on both sides and a little kitchen in the middle. There were common buildings where everyone came to eat and visit, and shared toilets as well. My grandma and her youngest brother shared the top bunk while her mom and other brother shared the bottom. Men and boys over 16 did not live at the camps with their families, but were sent to work elsewhere, so her father was separated from their family. My grandma was 16 so was put to work as a schoolteacher for younger children.
For four years, my grandma and thousands of other Japanese Canadians lived in internment camps. Finally, in 1946, my grandma’s family was released from the camps, only to be met by the government forcing them out of British Columbia. The government did not want the Japanese to return to BC so gave them a choice: either move east, or be sent back to Japan. My grandma was born in Canada; this was her home. She sent a letter to her friend in Toronto and got a lucky opportunity when her friend invited her to Toronto to take over her job as a live-in housekeeper. She chose to move east, despite the fact that the rest of her family could not afford to go with her. After four years of being held in the internment camp in BC, my grandma left the province for Ontario, without knowing where she was going, or when she might see her family again.
I only ever knew my grandma as a happy, caring woman. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned how strong, determined and resilient she was.
Despite facing further racism when she arrived in Ontario, my grandma worked extremely hard and was able to make a full and happy life for herself. Her mom and brothers finally made it to Toronto in 1948, two years after she arrived. She met my grandpa and got married in 1949. She had 4 daughters. My mom and aunts tell me that she worked three jobs while they were growing up. She was a talented seamstress and an avid gardener. And she loved to save things. I only ever knew my grandma as a happy, caring woman. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned how strong, determined and resilient she was. She never looked back at her life with anger or resentment. I hope that I can be all of these things too. I will always remember her as my always-smiling grandma.