British Columbia

Sweet irony: zen garden memorializes forced labour on Alberta sugar beet farms

The new art exhibit Beta Vulgaris: The Sugar Beet Projects explores the dark history of Japanese internment in Canada.

Beta Vulgaris: The Sugar Beet Projects runs Feb. 10 to May 27 in Burnaby, B.C.

The project was made using almost 2,000 kilograms of sugar. (Doug Kerr / CBC)

Shortly before she died, Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon's grandmother told her a story about sugar.

Her grandmother was sitting in a diner in Calgary on her way to southern Alberta and had ordered a cup of tea.

She asked the waitress for a sugar cube, but the waitress refused because she was Japanese-Canadian.

It was during the Second World War, and she and her family had just been uprooted from their strawberry farm in Mission, B.C.

Sent to sugar beet farm

Because they were farmers, they were given a choice.

Stay together and be assigned to a farm in Alberta, or be separated and have the men go to labour camps and the women and children go to internment camps.

Their's was just one of the thousands of Japanese-Canadian families who were forced into internment by the government between 1941 and 1949.

Their family chose the former and were sent across the Rockies to work on a sugar beet farm near Picture Butte in Southern Alberta.

Now, decades later, McKinnon has created a testament to her grandmother's past struggle in a new museum art exhibit constructed out of heaps of sugar — the very commodity denied to her grandmother all those years ago.

"There's this irony in place, that they were being sent to work in a sugar beet field," said McKinnon. "In a sense I'm supplying my grandmother with 4,000 pounds of sugar."

Irony indeed

McKinnon — a landscape architect — has her exhibit showcased at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, B.C.

The exhibit is a karesansui — a Japanese zen garden. Except this zen garden is made out of almost 2,000 kilograms (more than 4.000 pounds) of granulated sugar.

Sculpted metre-long boulders, wrought out of molten and burnt sugar, dot the garden. An accompanying video and soundscape created by McKinnon's cousin, Keri Latimer, plays in the background. A platform overlooks everything and is meant for quiet contemplation.

The exhibit is called Beta Vulgaris: The Sugar Beet Projects

The exhibit includes a platform intended for quiet contemplation. (Doug Kerr / CBC)

Beta Vulgaris — named after the Latin for beet — is meant as a retrospective examination of this dark and exploitative chapter in Canadian history, but also as a warning, she said. 

"This history is also very current," said McKinnon. "There's a rising fear of migrants, of difference, of people who are seemingly taking people's jobs."

"That's kind of where the internment started."

McKinnon's great-grandparents and grandparents eventually did make it to Picture Butte. They were tagged and examined by local farmers before being auctioned off.

At the farm, her family was made to live in an old granary with no insulation. In the winter, many people grew ill.

"A lot of people died from that illness," said McKinnon. "It was hard, and the labour was tough too, it's very difficult to grow and harvest."

Working sugar crop fields, both cane and beet, is notoriously brutal work. Despite the hardship, her family survived and McKinnon's mother was born on the farm.

Five years after the Second World War, the internment ended, but McKinnon's family stayed and continued to work on the farm until they had saved enough money to purchase it.

Her great-grandparents both lived the rest of their lives there and members of McKinnon's family still farm beets today.

The exhibit will be on display at the museum from Feb. 10 to May 27.

With files from The Early Edition