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New Denver event marks 30th anniversary of internment centre

The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre was created in 1994 on the preserved site of a wartime camp where Japanese Canadians were imprisoned

Cary Sakiyama of Vancouver brought his kids to New Denver this past weekend because he wants them to understand what their Japanese-Canadian ancestors went through during the Second World War.

"Some of us never had a chance to talk about this history with our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents," he said. "And so a lot of the young people nowadays are actually wanting to know about what happened."

Sakiyama is the president of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association and was one of the speakers at the 30th anniversary of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in New Denver this past weekend.

Sakiyama told the Nelson Star he was born in Revelstoke where his father was interned at a road camp. His grandparents and an aunt were also imprisoned in internment camps in Greenwood and Lemon Creek.

"They were deemed enemies, enemies of Canada, and they lived through that," he says. "And I need to honour that. I need to remember that."

The Nikkei Centre in New Denver is a National Historic Site dedicated to telling the story of over 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were forcibly relocated from their homes during the Second World War. The government sold their belongings (houses, farms, vehicles, fishing boats) to fund the camps.

The centre contains several of the original buildings from the camp as well as period artifacts and interpretive displays. It is the only internment facility in Canada in which the camp buildings were preserved.

Kevin Okabe of Calgary, executive director of the National Association of Japanese Canadians and one of the speakers at the New Denver event, says the centre is very significant for this reason. 

"There are areas around B.C. that are markers, but ... to preserve the actual buildings that were around since that era, it's quite remarkable."

Those buildings consist of a number of wooden shacks, each consisting of a kitchen and two bedrooms. They often housed more than one family with no electricity, running water, or insulation. Retained as part of the museum and open to the public, they still contain the original furniture and housewares, and are now surrounded by the Heiwa Teien Peace Garden.

The New Denver internment camp opened in 1942, but it was not until 1949 (four years after the end of the war) that restrictions on Japanese Canadians' freedom of movement were lifted. Some Japanese Canadians continued living in New Denver until well into the 1990s.

Okabe said history gets lost if people don't talk about it.

"A lot of them in the families never talked about the stories and what occurred because it was quite a traumatic experience," he said. "But definitely the younger generation now is starting to investigate and revisit their heritage, and some that's already been lost."

The anniversary weekend consisted of a ceremonial birthday cake cutting, a performance and workshop by the Vancouver drum group Uzume Taiko, a showing of the film The Japanese Problem, demonstrations of martial arts and calligraphy, a celebration dinner, and tours of the site.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Japanese Canadians lived in New Denver until the 1950s. It was actually the 1990s.

Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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