British Columbia·Point of View

Mom, you lived through the internment of Japanese Canadians. We'll get through this pandemic, too

Third-generation Japanese Canadian Laura Saimoto thanks her mom for her strength and perseverance in the winning entry in The Early Edition’s contest to celebrate the women in our lives this Mother’s Day.

To mark Mother's Day, Laura Saimoto thanks her mom for her strength and perseverance

Ritsu Saimoto waves to her daughter through a window at the Sunrise of Vancouver retirement community building. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

This column is a point of view by Laura Saimoto, whose mother was moved to an internment camp for Japanese Canadians in 1942. It's the winning entry in The Early Edition's contest to celebrate the women in our lives this Mother's Day. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As the COVID-19 crisis was emerging in mid-March, I started to feel a sense of déjà vu as I watched the news and life as we knew it started to shut down: the travel ban, the school and business shutdowns and the fear and uncertainty hanging in the air. 

But this had never happened to me before, so why the déjà vu?

It dawned on me that what I was feeling was what my mother, her family and the entire Japanese Canadian community in B.C. must have felt during and after the Second World War, when they were rounded up and relocated to internment camps.

I've been an advocate of promoting the education of Japanese Canadian history, so I know the facts, have seen many of the archival photos and heard many of the stories, including those of my own family. My mother's family was interned in Bridge River and East Lillooet, and my father's side in Minto. 

Laura Saimoto is a third-generation Japanese Canadian who was born and raised in Vancouver. She's pictured at left with her sister and mother. (Laura Saimoto)

The pre-war Japanese Canadian community was amazingly vibrant, with a population of 8,000 Japanese Canadians and more than 400 businesses along Powell Street. 

The Japanese School and Hall, as a second language school, had a student population of over 1,000.

But soon after Pearl Harbor, a curfew was imposed, the Japanese School closed and everything was boarded up.  Student numbers at Strathcona Elementary dropped from 1,200 to 600 as Japanese Canadian children were told not to attend. 

Due only to their ethnicity, the homes, properties, boats, and businesses of Japanese Canadians were confiscated and sold off by the federal government.

Overnight, people lost their livelihoods, education, homes, freedom of movement — essentially, their rights. There was no emergency benefit or EI wage subsidy back then. They lost everything material and did not know what was going to happen next. 

Feeling the deep fear of both the short- and long-term implications of COVID-19 now, I can only imagine what the Japanese Canadian community experienced with the suspension of all civil rights back then. 

The recent images of makeshift triage hospitals in Central Park in Burnaby instantly reminded me of photos from Hastings Park from 1942, where makeshift beds were set up in the animal stables at the PNE to detain Japanese Canadians before they were shipped off to internment camps. 

The government forcibly relocated 22,000 Japanese Canadians to deserted farm fields or ghost towns 100 miles east of the coast to isolate them from being a security threat to the nation, and kept them there until 1949. 

During that time, there was no freedom of movement, there were no schools in the camps, and initially no jobs. 

Ritsu skipped a couple of grades, and was able to graduate high school at the East Lillooet Internment Camp in a dress made by her mother. (Laura Saimoto)

And yet, when I look at the photos of the internment camps, all the community members are well dressed. The children look happy and healthy. Community life was rebuilt and each of the internment camps built their own self-sufficient economies, growing their own food and starting their own businesses.

Each day since the COVID-19 crisis started, I look at the beautiful photo of our mom from her high school graduation in the East Lillooet internment camp in 1949. 

To me, it encapsulates everything that my mother taught me about life. In spite of the extreme hardships of that time, her family and the community rallied together and built a life. 

Despite their poverty, my grandmother had taken her Singer sewing machine up to the internment camps, sewed clothes for other community members, and made a beautiful graduation dress for my mother. Older students taught younger students and took high school courses by correspondence, echoing today's remote learning.

My mother skipped a couple of grades and was able to graduate high school in an internment camp. Upon returning to Vancouver, she worked hard to catch up and graduated from UBC to become a home economics teacher. 

Ritsu Saimoto graduated from UBC despite the gaps in her education because of her internment. (Laura Saimoto)

This Mother's Day, looking at my mom's grad photo in East Lillooet, I feel a deep appreciation for both her and my grandmother. Now in her late 80s and with dementia taking her short-term memory, my mom chats with us via Skype at her seniors' care home.

Her strength of life-force continually reminds me of what she once told me: "If we can get through this, we can get through anything." 

Thank you, Mom.

Laura Saimoto hasn't been able to spend time with her mother, Ritsu, because of COVID-19. It's been challenging because Ritsu, who is now in her late 80s and has dementia, doesn't understand a pandemic is happening. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

To hear Laura Saimoto share her mother's story on The Early Edition, tap the audio link below:

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