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Rediscovering the Sugar Beet Fields 77 Years Later

During the week of October 7, 2019, a shiny white highway bus containing some 43 Japanese Canadians once again travelled the roads and streets between Lethbridge, Raymond, Picture Butte and Taber, some 77 years after approximately 2,250 exhausted and traumatized Japanese Canadians arrived in dusty, dilapidated railway cars as part of the federal government’s forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast in 1942. This first sugar beet bus tour was a collaboration, with me providing some of the narrative and the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby providing logistical and historical support. The National Association of Japanese Canadians also supported the project by helping to fund a videographer who is hoping to create a documentary film about the tour.

The tour participants consisted of a wide range of ages with many different backgrounds: there were a few who had actually been among those who had been uprooted to Southern Alberta in 1942; many others had family members or relatives who had been involved; and there were others who had no direct link to the sugar beet fields but who were interested in the history and its impact on Japanese Canadian culture. While the majority of those on the tour were now living in B.C., nine participants came from Ontario, and the remainder from other parts of Canada, from Japan and the U.S.

My motivation for pushing for this tour to take place and helping to organize it was a desire to ensure that this important part of the Japanese Canadian experience was not forgotten. We need to know that notwithstanding the rabid racism and fears in B.C. that precipitated the forced removal and the terrible pain and massive economic and human losses it created, not everyone was evil and the removal forced both Japanese Canadians and those already living in Southern Alberta at the time to discover each other.

The tour started in Calgary with a delicious Japanese-style dinner hosted by the Calgary Japanese Community Association on the night before the bus departure, giving the participants a chance to see the Calgary Japanese Community centre and to meet many local residents. On Tuesday, October 8th the tour departed during an early fall snowstorm. Early October had been chosen for the bus tour because it best coincided with the sugar beet harvest season, giving everyone a taste of some of the harvesting conditions that those working in the sugar beet fields experienced. That afternoon, the tour was welcomed at the Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens in Lethbridge. After a bento lunch at the gardens, David Tanaka gave a historical overview of the Japanese settlement in Southern Alberta, starting from the first sugar beet workers and miners during the first decade of the 20th century.

On Wednesday, October 9th, the tour went to the Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge and then travelled to Raymond for a tour of the Raymond Museum and a visit to the former Buddhist Temple building established in 1929. Raymond and Hardieville, near Lethbridge, were where most of the 534 pre-war Japanese Canadians had settled and played an important role in helping to ease the way for the Japanese Canadians removed from the coast in 1942. The site of the former Raymond sugar factory and the Raymond cemetery were also visited, providing ample evidence of how significant the Japanese Canadian presence had been in the area for more than a century. That evening, the Raymond Judo Club played dinner host to the tour and several local residents, including Robert Takaguchi, Hanae Iwaasa-Robbs and Tim Hironaka related their own stories and described the on-going Japanese Canadian presence in Southern Alberta.

On Thursday, October 10th, the bus travelled through Hardieville, with Pat Sassa providing a historical narrative, and then on to Picture Butte. After visiting the site of the former Picture Butte sugar factory, the tour saw their first sugar beets as they were being piled after being harvested. Near Diamond City, the group visited a functioning sugar beet farm, formerly owned by Norris Taguchi, now in his 90’s. At the farm, we learned how sugar beets had been harvested in the past while being shown the fully automated harvesting systems now being employed. The highlight was to handle a sugar beet, to see its white interior and to taste its sweetness. Then we went on to visit the only functioning sugar beet factory in Canada, located in Taber and operated by Rogers/Lantic Sugar.

That evening, the group was hosted by the sugar factory to a sumptuous Alberta prime rib beef dinner as part of a special “Nikkei” menu prepared by the Taber Heritage Inn. Most of the vegetables included in the menu were locally produced, many by Japanese Canadian farmers. The principal owners and managers of the Heritage Inn chain are from the Kanegawa family and over dinner they related their story of how they progressed from being sugar beet workers to owning several businesses including a hotel chain with some 12 hotels. Pat Shimbashi, a successful potato entrepreneur, described his family’s journey from their pre-war experiences in Southern Alberta to current success. On Friday, October 11th, the bus tour concluded with a visit to the McCain’s potato plant near Coaldale. After lunch, some of the participants remained to visit with relatives and friends while the remainder returned to Calgary to catch their flights.

As for reactions to the tour, June Asano, from Scarborough whose mother had been removed from Langley, B.C. said, “It was amazing, educational and highly emotional. I was finally able to realize just how hard the work must have been for my mother.” Makiko Suzuki, whose grandparents were among the Mission, B.C. farming families that were relocated to the area, called the trip: “a revelation. I learned so much about the history and about the sugar beet, fascinating.” Ed Hayashi, who was five years old when he was forced to move to the sugar beet fields with his family in 1942, said that, “the trip brought back many memories, but at the same time I learned a lot about how we got there. Things are very different today from what it was like then.” Max Holt, from Raymond, explained that “it was a new experience for the local residents as well, but both learned to respect each other.” Tim Hironaka, a judge of the Alberta Provincial court, whose parents and grand-parents were pre-war residents of Southern Alberta, “it’s important for people to remember there was a Japanese presence here prior to the war, that the war added to that presence and that we have progressed and continue to contribute to the community today.”

In my own case, I draw from both aspects of the Southern Alberta Japanese Canadian experience: my father’s family were early pioneers, coming to work in the sugar beets in 1908 and then starting their own farm in Raymond. My father was also one of a small group of Japanese Canadians who were able to enlist in the Canadian Army prior to Pearl Harbour and participated in the Normandy landing and most of the other major battles in Europe. My mother’s family were forced to leave their just completed home in Langley to live in an old log shack in Hill Spring in 1942. The forced removal was an injustice, but as a result, my father met my mother and a new Japanese Canadian experience began.


*A version of this article was originally published by The Bulletin: A Journal of Japanese Canadian Comuinity, History + Cuture on November 5, 2019.


© 2019 David B. Iwaasa

Calgary Canada cjca farmers Japanese Canadian NAJC Nikkei National Museum sugar beets tour World War II