Finding 19 lost Japanese labour camps: Testing the limits of Google Earth

At Black Spur, they were able to determine the positions of the original buildings by figuring out where the photographer was standing. / PHOTO COURTESY LEANNE RIDING

by LEANNE RIDING

Special Contributor

I was unloading gear from the car at Pyramid Falls. David was putting on his backpack. Art looked past me. “We got company.”

A black bear was swaggering across Yellowhead Highway 5. The bear gave us the side-eye and tumbled off the road into a berry bush. After stripping off the fruits, it crashed down to the riverbank and nonchalantly detoured below the car. Then — oh no!!! — went the same place we were planning to go, downstream into a dense alder thicket. There was a schedule, a work plan, and a budget. Now there was also a bear.

That whole afternoon, our whooping bear warning calls made echoes in the cottonwood trees. We found lost roads, old tin cans and the graceful pods of Columbia Lilies. And no bear.

We had planned our afternoon using Google Earth and it had prepared us for surprises but not for blundering into animal dens.

Like that time near Lucerne when one of the trees turned and looked at me. Blinking down at me in surprise was a bull elk the size of a horse. Before I had time to do something foolish, the elk spun around and hurried to Yellowhead Lake. It stood in the sparkling water, eyes glued to the spot where I had barged into it.

My dad Art Carson, my friend David from Toronto, and I were looking for the locations of 19 Japanese labour camps built in 1942 in this region.

Seventy-five years ago, in paranoid fashion during WW2, our government cruelly uprooted and imprisoned about 1500 Japanese men in a remote, beautiful, and bear-filled place.

A group of workers posed by a building under construction at Lempriere in 1942. / PHOTO COURTESY VALEMOUNT MUSEUM AND COLUMBIA BASIN IMAGE BANK.

Hundreds of photographs of Japanese internment camps were taken in 1942, and placed in digital archives across Canada. Some of the photos were taken along the Yellowhead Pass – Blue River route. The men took loads of portraits of each other. On a typical evening after dinner, Art and I sat down in front of computer screens, made plans and calculations, and examined photographs. We peered over the shoulders of the men, at the mountains behind.

The landscape in photographs has a personality and identity, too. Sometimes the trees change, but the shape of the mountains beneath doesn’t. Google Earth allowed us to rotate the landscape in three dimensions. If we could get the right angle, there was a good chance we could figure out where the picture was taken and hence the location of the camp. GPS, land use data, aerial photography, satellite imagery and 3-D visualization could help us narrow down our search.

At Thunder River and Black Spur, we lined up photo printouts with mountain slopes, and stood in the exact spot where the photographer stood. Wouldn’t it be a blast to recreate some of those old photos!

“At the peak of the road project, the region’s population was about half to two thirds Japanese. Briefly, more people living here spoke Japanese than any other language. Roughly 1500 enemy aliens were shipped in, and then shipped out again in the space of a few months. For the few hundred living here, it must have been something else.” — Leanne Riding

Google Earth can’t compete with a human guide, of course. With roughly half of our search area parkland, ranger Mike Dillon of Jasper National Park led us to several hidden archaeological sites, including a site with large unidentified pits.

“It’s a ten-holer!” I said. In other words, a communal toilet.

Sometimes we got a lucky break. One camp near Yellowhead Lake had us stumped. We did our usual Google Earth remote inspection. On the scheduled day, we drove as close as we could and spent the afternoon crashing through wet bushes—in the wrong place.

The stove pipe is made of a black powder can. This was probably part of the water heater in an ofuro. / Courtesy Leanne Riding

“Ow!” Art shouted. “Yellowjackets! Time to go!”

We were crestfallen. Probably this camp, like many others, had been completely erased by pipeline construction. Then an email arrived from Lisa Uyeda of the Nikkei National Museum, inquiring about a possible garden somewhere near Red Pass.

“As I mentioned to you earlier,” she wrote, “my great-grandfather helped construct the garden.” Several photos followed. They were photographs of our missing camp. Art fired up Google Earth and made some keen observations about mountain slopes, railway history and natural forces of erosion. We returned to the area the next day.

The camp was not erased, simply overgrown. Although the elaborate water features and incredible gardens were gone, they left traces. After this experience we realized numerous camps had such gardens and a few were designed by master gardeners.

Yes, software could tell us whether an area matched historical photographs. But we also had to rely human help, such as the experienced guiding of my Dad. Google Earth contains nothing about mosquitoes, thickets of devils club, rotten windfalls, frigid whitewater, washouts, unstable slopes, hornets nests, sheer cliffs, quicksand, swamps, man-made pitfalls in old mill ruins, or wild animals. Soft leaves in a satellite image turn into flesh-ripping spruce thickets up close. Enclosing trees messed with GPS satellite reception. Our mesh mosquito hats were stifling.

Oh, and there were black bears everywhere. Rustling sounds in tree groves full of bear poop reminded us not to be surprising. “Keep talking. Make lots of noise.”

I have a curious memory. I’m told that it never happened, yet it seems so real.

In my false memory, Joe Sakakibara led us to a grove of spruce trees and told us to look for depressions. The depressions used to be ponds, and the grove used to be a garden. We walked over to the railway. Joe explained that instead of walking to work along the railway track, the prisoners had to struggle through deep snow beside it. Jasper residents had complained that they might sabotage the track.

Chiyoje “Joe” Sakakibara, from Miyagi prefecture in Japan, is my grandfather. He married Miyo, a Canadian-born Japanese girl with

At Thunder River, they learned that the popular rest stop started out as a Japanese labour camp. Art and Leanne shown above. / Courtesy Leanne Riding

similar Miyagi-ken origins. However, as far as I know he was not sent to the Yellowhead Pass. (Miyo was interned in the enormous Tashme camp near Hope, B.C. and Joe was living in the Okanagan, outside of the coastal “Exclusion Zone,” or evacuation area.) Although there are gardens, I’ve been told he never visited them with us. The memory is completely false.

Somehow, a false memory sums it all up. Historical knowledge of the labour camps is patchwork. I couldn’t find any full reports about the locations of the camps, or what they became in later years. No complete studies had been done.

I’ve wanted to write about the camps for a long time. What was the experience like for the men? What was the experience like for the people who lived here? Who were the women and children photographed at B12 Tete Jaune in the local anthology, “The Yellowhead Pass and its People”? Similarly, what was happening in Albreda on Canada Day? I contacted Laura at The Goat and we discussed whether some pieces could be written.

Slowly it dawned on me that there was field research to do before any writing could take place. If nobody knew where the camps were, that was something I could find out.

While tracking down 1942 photographs from the region, I was forced to skim through entire collections. To my shock, an incredible number of photographs were taken in this region in 1942. More often than not, a photo of “an unidentified road camp” turned out to be somewhere in the Yellowhead Pass.

Unidentified photographs are just the tip of the iceberg. The labourers sent here in 1942 spoke mostly Nihongo (Japanese). Who knows what might be recorded in Japanese-language documents.

At Black Spur, they were able to determine the positions of the original buildings by figuring out where the photographer was standing. / Courtesy Leanne Riding

Fun fact. At the peak of the road project, the region’s population was about half to two thirds Japanese. Briefly, more people living here spoke Japanese than any other language. Roughly 1500 enemy aliens were shipped in, and then shipped out again in the space of a few months. For the few hundred living here, it must have been something else.

The Japanese labour camps date to 1942. They were the first camps built in the long sad story of the Japanese Canadian internment. The men arrested and sent to them had no idea what to expect. Because the Yellowhead – Blue River road project was the first of several labour camp systems created that year, it was all a bit experimental.

Their job was to open a road connecting Jasper and Blue River. A few years after they finished, part of the North Thompson section was wrecked by landslides. It was many more years before a really good road was finally built.

All of the men were Issei (born in Japan), except for a few Nisei youths who wanted to stick with their dads or brothers. The word Issei (Pronounced “EE-say”) means “first generation.” Their Canadian-born kids were mostly Nisei (“NEE-say”) or “second generation.”

Shopkeepers, fishermen, lumberjacks, miners, priests, university students, newspaper editors, and even retirees were arrested and sent to the Yellowhead – Blue River labour camps. Most of the Issei spoke only Japanese. We know that they missed their families and worried about them. Protesting wasn’t part of their culture, but they sometimes went on strike.

“For three quarters of a century, nobody tried to figure out where all of the Japanese labour camps built between Jasper and Blue River were located. A big part of the history of Japanese Canadian internment was fading into oblivion. The job was too complicated and far away for serious professionals, and too much of it was “not my department.”” – Leanne Riding

History tells us that a guardhouse, with armed guard, was built at Lempriere camp under pressure from local veterans of WWI in Valemount. We also know that strikes and unrest occurred at Gosnell camp and in other places.

Even though photographs were frowned on—in Vancouver, cameras were confiscated—the Issei managed to take many photos. Mostly, these were portraits of each other, meant for inserting in censored letters to friends and family. The photographs seem to have been processed locally. Lots of the pictures have kuma, or bears, in them.

At the end of the summer of 1942, the government allowed married Issei to rejoin their families. Single Japanese men stayed behind to finish the work. For the next few years, some Issei and Nisei worked in the North Thompson Valley in permit-based labour. The history of the later workers hasn’t been looked at by anyone yet. Senior citizens, women and children had by then been rounded up like cattle in the big barn at Hastings Park and sent from there to other internment camps.

A old picnic bench at the Red Pass site. According to testimony, it was probably recycled from the labour camp./ Courtesy Leanne Riding

The camps were fascinating for locals. The interned built traditional Japanese communal baths called ofuro. Camps with gardens and water structures attracted local visitors. In Valemount’s archives are photographs of women and children visiting the azumaya or “tea house” at Tete Jaune. Sometimes the Issei encouraged visits, performing traditional Japanese plays and folk songs. Spiritually, the men were a mix of Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian faiths but didn’t have much access to priests and ministers. Camps such as Gosnell were reported to be visited by local church people.

The Japanese men created baseball leagues which included former members of the famous Asahi team. They played matches against each other and also against local teams. When the town of McBride finally accepted a baseball invitation, suddenly the Federal government closed the northern section camps. Did the game ever happen?

The buildings in the camps varied widely. Sometimes existing houses were used, such as the old Grand Trunk railway station at Lucerne. In other places, new log cabin bunkhouses were built. Sometimes men lived in tent houses salvaged from the single men’s relief camps of the Great Depression. Elsewhere, bunk houses were built with planks and tar paper in relief camp style. At Geikie a house was made of a Chautauqua fairground tent—basically, a circus tent. After the Japanese men left, useful materials were salvaged again. Even the old Mortenson’s storefront in Valemount contained wood recycled by Ole Mortenson from bunkhouses near Tete Jaune.

For three quarters of a century, nobody tried to figure out where all of the Japanese labour camps built between Jasper and Blue River were located. A big part of the history of Japanese Canadian internment was fading into oblivion. The job was too complicated and far away for serious professionals, and too much of it was “not my department.”

Art Carson was the right person at the right time to look for the camps. He is an expert outdoorsman and guide, a historian, a Valemount resident and is married into the Japanese Canadian community. I’m a Japanese Canadian descendant through my mom Lynne, and did the archival research and writing. We received a good chunk of financial support from the Columbia Kootenay Arts Alliance and Valemount Arts Council, because a small part of the research area was in the Columbia Basin. The CKCA is familiar with Japanese Canadian history, as much of it took place in the Kootenays.

In 2015, we drove 2000 km and narrowed down the locations of all 19 labour camps in the region. We also found an additional Japanese labour camp that was used as late as 1944. In 2016, my Dad and I explored the route of the road built with Japanese labour. (This route, with variations, would become today’s Yellowhead Highway).

Leanne Riding  in Simon Fraser University special collections looking at their Blue River collection.

Famously, a man named Saroo Brierly once became obsessed with Google Earth. His story is now a major motion picture called “Lion.” As a child in India, Saroo got lost and separated from his family, and was finally adopted in New Zealand. When he grew up, he used Google Earth to search for his long-lost family. We were using the tool for a more common use. The software was helping us conduct a simplified, non-destructive form of archeology.

We aren’t archaeologists. As seen in other fields, technology is making a lot of hard jobs easier and blurring the boundaries between professionals and amateurs. Use of Google Earth is sometimes treated with contempt as “armchair archeology.” For us, it made the impossible possible.

For a Japanese Canadian, exploring the overall injustice holds great importance. Yet for a local person, the more important matter can be: What are those bumps in the ground? Should we be protecting them? What else can I learn about this?

We gathered detailed GPS coordinates, site access information, maps, land usage data, photographs, and other helpful information. We mapped the precise locations of some fragile archaeological sites. For community members wishing to explore the data we gathered, you can get involved through the Valemount Museum and Archives. The collected research will be housed there.

My grandparents never wanted bitterness as their legacy. The story of Japanese internment camps is many things, such as a wartime story of discrimination and punishment, and a story of resilience. We see in grainy photographs the men dressed in their best suits to let their families know they are doing ok — sitting in Japanese gardens they built by hand from wild soils, far from their homes and families.

We also have the interactions of the internees with locals. Simon Fraser University has a record of Mrs. Frye cleaning snow off the roofs at Albreda camp. Moms brought their kids to Tete Jaune camp, and draft horses were loaned to the same camp from Mt. Robson. Men and women were apparently socializing in Red Pass camp. Even McBride – a tough town – was ready to play a game of baseball with the prisoners.

It is important for communities to be able to tell a story from their own perspective, warts and all. These remarkable exiles surely changed us just as we changed them.

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