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Golden Miles of History

The East Lillooet Japanese Canadian World War II Interment Camp Site

On December 7, 1941, an event took place that had nothing to do with me or my family and yet which had devastating consequences for all of us - Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in a surprise attack. With that event began one of the shoddiest chapters in the tortuous history of democracy in North America.

- Dr. David Suzuki, Metamorphosis: Stages in a Life

When the Second World War extended to the Asia-Pacific regions the Canadian government culminated decades of prejudice against Japanese Canadians by declaring them "enemy aliens" and immediately confiscating their radios, cameras, vehicles and fishing boats. Under the War Measures Act, residents of coastal communities were to be forcibly removed. Men were sent to road construction camps while women, children and elderly were sent to malodorous and unsanitary livestock barns... before being incarcerated in hastily constructed internment camps and abandoned resource towns beyond an imposed 100-mile coastal restricted zone.

Families who were more financially resourceful negotiated to stay together in "self-supporting" camps. The three camps in the Lillooet area - Minto, Bridge River and here in East Lillooet - were all in this category.

Despite inflammatory editorials in the local newspaper opposing their presence, in April of 1942, the first arrivals in East Lillooet onstructed sixty-two tarpaper shacks that came to house over three hundred people while their former comfortable homes, possessions and properties were auctioned off.

Living conditions were inadequate in East Lillooet. Kerosene lamps provided light and wood stoves were used for warmth and cooking.

After resident Sadajiro Asari found and repaired a pump, the Japanese Canadians were able to use an old wooden irrigation flume to carry water up from the muddy Fraser River to wooden storage tanks. From there, water was carried in gallon cans to each household then filtered through gravel, sand and charcoal before it could be used. Drinking water was trucked in separately.

The uninsulated shacks were freezing cold in the winter and broiling hot in the summer but Tokutaro Tsuyuki recognized Lillooet's climate to be ideal for tomatoes and organized an agricultural cooperative enterprise that allowed the internees to eke out a living and survive. To this day, fields the internees pioneered are famous for their superior sun-ripened tomatoes.

The Fraser River which runs through the town of Lillooet is a St'at'imc First Nation fishery so the internees were forbidden to catch any of the spawning salmon teeming in the river below but sympathetic St'at'imc helped by smuggling sacks of salmon in on horseback via a back road into the camp.

Each family had a strip garden and a chicken coop which provided eggs & poultry. Three general stores in Lillooet regularly delivered all other basic supplies. The community built a school where high school graduates instructed young children while older students worked on correspondence courses.

The pride of the Japanese Canadian community was Vancouver's Asahi Baseball Team, winners of the Pacific Northwest Championship for five straight years. Kaye Kaminishi was a rookie on the team who organized baseball games among the East Lillooet internees. Forbidden to cross the bridge into Lillooet, Kaminishi challenged their police guard to organize a team in town for a friendly game. The mutual love of baseball sparked an acceptance of their shared humanity and the town became desegregated.

Due to ongoing racial prejudice, the War Measures Act was unjustifiably extended until 1949 forbidding Japanese Canadians from returning to the coast, so some internees from other camps came to live in East Lillooet until they had the means to start again.

To learn more about Japanese Canadian Internment in the Lillooet area, visit our Museum/Info Centre & Miyazaki House in downtown Lillooet, tour the Minto Internment Camp Site at Gun Creek Campground and the Bridge River Internment Camp Site at Shalalth or go to www.nikkeimuseum.org