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Not forgetting our Japanese neighbours

Ruskin school students, 1936–1937.   - Contributed
Ruskin school students, 1936–1937.
— image credit: Contributed

One Book Whonnock is an initiative by Jean Davidson and Sue Adair to get residents of eastern Maple Ridge to share and enjoy a good read, to discuss a book with each other and to learn more about the subject in the process.

The book Obasan, by Joy Kagawa, deals with measures taken by the Canadian government against the Japanese living in coastal British Columbia during the Second World War.

As the One Book project develops, it is becoming clear how valuable this discussion is. Few of the current readers are aware that in the 1920s and 1930s, Japanese, born overseas or in Canada, formed a substantial part of the population of Whonnock and Ruskin. They were not just a minority. School photos give us an idea of the number of Japanese living in the area in the 1930s. A Ruskin school photo of 1936-1937 shows only a handful of white faces among the 27 students.

In Whonnock, slightly more than half the students in Miss Ferguson’s classes were Japanese at that time.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, December 1941, the Canadian government evicted the Japanese from their lands and homes and sent them away to live in camps in the Interior.

With the white population looking on, the Japanese of east Maple Ridge, with no more than they could carry, boarded a train that stopped at Ruskin.

After the war, old-timers did not talk much about the former Japanese residents and what had happened to them.

Speaking about the history of the Ruskin school, probably in the late 1950s, local historian Charles Miller only mentioned the “influx” of the Japanese in the Ruskin area in one sentence. He could hardly have overlooked the pre-war presence of the Japanese kids attending that school, but in the 1950s neither Miller nor his audience were ready to be reminded of the Japanese or their fate.

Until they were evicted, the hard-working, energetic and frugal Japanese turned even poor soils into fertile agricultural lands and produced the best strawberry crops we’ve ever known. They were very active in the lumber industry as well, but Japanese were not allowed to fish the river. Anti-Japanese sentiments and anti-Japanese discrimination had been part of life in B.C. for a long time. Protection was thought necessary since the Japanese were believed to be stealing the livelihood of the white man – perhaps a fear of Japanese superiority.

The Japanese in Maple Ridge did not escape racial discrimination or anti-Japanese sentiments. In his book History of the Haney, Nokai, Yasutaro Yamaga gives us an example. It was custom to choose the May Queen and the Maids of Honour from Maple Ridge’s elementary schools. But a May Day planning committee in 1927 decided to include the youngest and smallest girl attending MacLean High School as a Maid of Honour.

The committee asked Mr. English, principal of MacLean, for his recommendation. The reply from the principal, read at the following meeting:  “As the youngest and most pretty, I recommend Yaeko Fujishige.”

That response shocked and enraged many of the women representing the elementary schools at the meeting. Normally children of Japanese descent were not given any prominence during events held at their schools, and now a Japanese girl would be a Maid of Honour?

The reactions were fierce:

“She must be a citizen of England.”

“Children whose parents don’t have voting rights are not eligible.”

Defenders of the principal’s choice were attacked from all sides. After two hours of angry debate, a motion was tabled to ignore the principal’s choice and have the selection done by the votes of MacLean’s students.  At that point, Mrs. Poole, who chaired the meeting, had enough. She pounded the table and said: “We should be ashamed of ourselves. I ask that the mover and the seconder withdraw the motion. If you will not do it, I resign not only as chair but also from the school board.”

Mrs. Poole, mother of well-known Louise Poole, was school trustee and vice-president of the May Day Committee. Not a word about the controversy appeared in the Gazette, although the editor of the weekly, Mr. J. J. Dougan, was present at the meeting.

On the front page of the Gazette of May 26th appeared a detailed report of the coronation of Queen Olga of Whonnock – the future wife of Teddy Lee – and the festivities of that day.

A list with the names of Maids of Honour included the name of high-school student Yaeko Fujishige. She was the first and perhaps also the last student of Japanese descent to be nominated for that position.

 

– by Fred Braches, a local historian who lives in Whonnock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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