My grandfather, Kumanoski Okano, came to Canada in 1896 and he was followed by my grandmother, Vio [?] Kimura Okano in 1903. In 1912, the family moved to Salt Spring Island permanently… My grandparents owned 200 acres on Salt Spring. They had the virgin forest and the valley where they farmed and then the waterfront at the bottom of Sharp Road. And they were very, very successful… I think there were about six or seven of these gigantic greenhouses, and they grew tomatoes. They had berries and vegetables on their farm, and my uncle had cows, milking cows. We lived across the road from my grandparents.
On March 17, that was Saint Patrick’s Day, we see this RCMP officer driving into our property, on one of those trucks, and he had come to pick up my dad. And by that time, because my parent’s sensed that we were going to have to move somehow, my mother had everything prepared for my father to go… So he was prepared to go, but the trauma of that day still is with me. So every time I talk about this, I kind of get emotional. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell this part of my story; it just really affects me.
My father was a Japanese National. He did try to get naturalization papers, but at that time it was almost impossible… There were about four or five other men who were nationals on the island. So on that day my father was snatched from us. I remember my father when he saw that truck coming in, he lined us up in order of our birth and shook each of our hands and said “be good, help mother” and so on and so forth, all the way down and then he walked out. So you know, we were running after him. And I’m sure at the time, every cell in my mother’s body must have been exploding with pain, but she’s a very strong person, even if she was very little. We followed dad out to the truck, it was a pick-up truck, and we saw him try to get onto the back of the pickup truck, but then, instead of being allowed to get on the truck himself, this RCMP officer just shoved him onto the pickup truck, and we saw him flying flat on his stomach. Then dad got back up on his knees, because we all ran towards the truck when this happened, and then he said “it’s ok, it’s ok” and he was smiling as best as he could. Then he got up, and he was standing, holding on to the cab of the truck and then the RCMP officer just gunned the motor and we saw him flying back again. We ran after the truck, we were waving and waving and waving and I guess we were waving because we thought as long as we’re waving and he’s waving back we’ll stay connected somehow, but then he kind of disappeared into a void.
We found out later, that he stayed a couple of nights at Hastings Park and then was put on the train and he went to Yellowhead Pass… When we met him many months later, he told us that when they got to this camp they just dumped all their belongings onto the siding where there was snow still. They were forced to live in these railway boxcars with strangers, and my mother had bought him all new clothing and he said that one of his nice wool underwear was stolen while he was there…
We left on April the 22nd 1942, so it was a little over a month after my father disappeared… There’s story that my sister tells, I’ve got it all written down, of the day that we left, and the preparation she and my mother did to get ready for this day. She was only fourteen years old, but as soon as my father was taken away she just became an adult… I was seven. We were taken to the wharf in Ganges. Ganges was the main centre of Salt Spring Island, and there the custodian was waiting for us, giving us orders of what to do…
We got on to the ship called the Princess Mary, it was a CPR ship, and my grandfather was in a state of shock, so my mother had to buy him a stateroom to lay him down cause he could hardly stand. He was in his early 70s… We got to Vancouver. The CPR ship came around into Vancouver harbour, and the busses were waiting for us. My older sister remembers the smell of diesel, because the busses I think were running on diesel. She said even today when she smells diesel, she remembers being picked up by the busses, to be taken to Hastings Park. By the time we got to Hastings Park it was dark. The lights were on. When we got off we all had to register with the RCMP to let them know that we were there. There were 72 people. And most of them were Canadian born children… We were told that the children could take one suitcase each, and my mother had two… We weren’t allowed to bring anything, like toys or dolls. I remember my sister had a Shirley Temple doll and she put it on the shelf of the closet in her room. She still talks about that doll.
When we got to Hastings Park and we registered, I think the shock of my mother’s life was being told that we have to live in this barn, because we lived in an immaculately clean home. We had a bath every night before we went to bed. As we were being led into this barn, we could smell the horrible, horrible smell. I think my uncle Jim’s barn was sterile, compared to what we were being led into. My mom said, “I’m not going in there. What do they expect of us? What do they think we are?” But then, either there or outside, right? So we all put something over our nose and we all walked into that smell of urine and feces, and the floors weren’t really clean at that time, so we could feel the straw underneath our feet. Then we found out that my grandfather was going to be separated from my grandmother and that put a lot of fear into my grandmother because she didn’t know what was happening to him. Each child was given a bunk, there were five children at that time. My youngest brother was only a year and a half.
…My grandmother stayed with us too. I could still hear the moaning of the older women, and it was so noisy because the children were crying. The night that we landed there was no food for us. My baby brother liked to lick butter, so my mom had a pound of butter in the suitcase, so that’s what she had to give him to keep him quiet. Later on, they had a table at one end of the building where the mothers could give their babies canned milk. Where they were feeding us, all the furniture was rough hewn. We sat down and we were given this tin plate and tin cup and my mother looked at the food and she didn’t think that it was really edible. She said, “we can’t eat this food” so we ate just the toast.
The food was gruelly like porridge, and we saw plums, stewed prunes I guess and then I guess there was some canned milk diluted. We were allowed to leave the compound, if we registered, so my mother… used to take us by on the streetcar to Japantown, which was still open, and she would feed us at the restaurant. She was able to do that because she had money, but if you didn’t have money, you’d just have to eat the slop right?
We were just concentrating on surviving there. My mom always kept us outside during the day, hoping that our hair and clothing would be aired out. My sister Rose and I stuck together; we never played with any of the other kids. We used to go by the barbed wire fence, looking out, watching the traffic, watching the activities outside. Near the fence was a pond and there were some ducks in there. We used to go and play with the ducks, and give them whatever we had. It was my sister Rose’s birthday in a few days, actually it was May the 2nd, so my mother decided that she’s going to buy her a present. We went, got a pass, and went downtown. My mother took us to Woodward’s, but in front of Woodward’s was a sign, a big sign, that said “no Japs allowed” so she put us back on the tram and we went back to Japantown where she bought my sister a beautiful purple coat with a tam.
When we got there, there were no mattresses on the beds because I think we were some of the first to get there and they still hadn’t filled the ticking, that they called the mattress. I remember the two gray army blankets, it had a dark stripe in the middle and that was our bedding. Two per bunk. I was an asthmatic child, so the doctor told my mother that by the time I’m six I’ll be dead… As soon as we got into the barns my mother was so afraid that I was going to die from all the dust and the straw and everything else, and the filth and so somehow I survived that.
As children we were afraid to go the bathroom, because there was nothing. When we got there, there was just this running water along the trough between our bunk and then the stalls that some people had to live in. We used to hear the water constantly, because the water was flowing, because people were using it constantly right? As children we were really afraid… Ray Iwasaki, one of the fellows from Salt Spring said that he used to go the top of the trough, because he says “I didn’t want to see people’s waste coming by me as I was going”. My mother had to hold each of us when we had to go and there was no privacy. I think later on they had something like a board in front of it, so you can more or less sit, but I mean, if you’re a child you’re sitting on this piece of board you’re going to flip over, right? So, we tried not to. I’m sure we all held our need to go to the bathroom as long as we could, cause we didn’t want to go. They scattered lime to keep the smell down, but that lime itself was smelly. So not only did we deal with the filth where we were sleeping, but the smell of the waste going down these troughs.
Our metal bunks were in the open (not the livestock stalls). I mean, they were just rows and rows and you couldn’t even walk in between, that’s how close they were. And the lack of privacy was terrible for my mother… It was dehumanizing. It was noisy. The children were crying, and the elderly women. I’m picturing my grandmother. She was a very, very strong person. My mother was strong, but my grandmother was stronger, and yet she was just so lost and we heard her sobbing. She was so afraid of what was happening to my grandfather.
I think since we were one of the first to get there, I don’t think the whole place was full. Just part of it. My mother always had my brother on her back, just to get out of the barn. A lot of people were outside, because I think they were just trying to get away from that filth.
I just want to tell you about what the impact of what this Hastings Park experience did to us. First of all – when you are put in to a barn to live that signifies that whoever was in power thought of us as animals and I think they thought that they could do this to us by labelling us in a certain way. You know, this is something that I can’t forget, and my brothers and sisters can’t forget. When you think of internment, the first thing we think about it Hastings Park because it was so traumatic. That dehumanizing experience is something you can’t forget.
We weren’t there long enough and we didn’t experience the changes. I know there were a lot of changes because when I talk to other people, they’ll say that they did this and that, but we didn’t because we weren’t there long enough. We were there very early, and they shipped us out quite quickly – after two and a half weeks. So we ended up in Magrath, Alberta too, after Greenwood.
Excerpt from an interview done February 7, 2013. Complete interview at www.nikkeimuseum.org