Honouring the Japanese Canadians who worked Ontario farms during and after the Second World War

Thousands of Japanese Canadians were interned in B.C. and sent to do menial jobs in other provinces. Stony Nakano, now 97, looks back at his postwar life in Chatham-Kent
By Mary Baxter - Published on Nov 08, 2018
At his home in Hamilton, Stony Nakano holds up a photo of the road-construction camp he was sent to by the B.C. government during the Second World War. (Mary Baxter)



HAMILTON — During the Second World War, the federal government expelled more than 22,000 Japanese Canadians from the coast of British Columbia and confiscated their property and businesses. While many were interned in camps in the British Columbia Interior, some — predominantly young men — were sent to work menial jobs in other provinces.

Stony Nakano was one of those men. He was born in Ruskin, 60 kilometres east of Vancouver, on the strawberry and poultry farm his parents had purchased in 1919. In 1942, Nakano, then 21, was ordered to report to a temporary internment camp before being sent to work on roads near the province’s border with Alberta.

After the war, the federal government gave Japanese Canadians an ultimatum: relocate east of the Rockies or move to Japan. So Nakano went to Ontario, where he began building a new life.

In September, Chatham-Kent and the National Association of Japanese Canadians unveiled a plaque and planted a sakura cherry tree in Mitchell’s Bay to commemorate men like Nakano, who worked on area farms during World War II and beyond. Most came in 1942 and 1943 after joining the Ontario Farm Service Force, an agency that recruited agricultural labourers during the war. Others, like Nakano, arrived after the war. Japanese Canadians’ mobility and voting rights were not restored until 1949.

TVO.org spoke with Nakano, now 97 and living in Hamilton, about his experiences.  

What did you think when you learned you were going to be internally exiled?

I was happy because I knew we were going somewhere else, but we weren’t sure where. All we knew was Vancouver and Harrison Hot Springs. That was our world, right? So I signed up to go to the road [construction] camp.

We were told we had to report at Hastings Park [in east Vancouver]. We stayed in the Hastings camp for about four days, in an old cow barn. They just had sheets hanging in there. Smelly old place. Bunk beds all over.

What was the road camp like?

It was south of Revelstoke, B.C. We worked for about two or three hours in the morning, when it was cool. The foreman wasn’t after us with a whip, or anything. We did whatever: some people were reading, writing letters, cutting hair, hiking in the bushes. They never kept track of us. We were getting maybe 55 cents an hour in the logging camp [where he worked] before evacuation. At road camp, we worked for 25 cents an hour. I got 30 cents an hour because I knew how to fell a tree.

We had to make an outhouse. We made a steam bath. Isn’t that something?

The cabins were just tar paper. I slept in the upstairs bunk, and it was about 100 degrees up there. But I didn't stay in the winter; I just stayed there three months. Then I went to Alberta. They wanted us east of the Rockies, but they didn’t check things out very good. When we went out there, we didn't even have a place to stay. We didn't even have a job at first.

What was it like working in Alberta?

At one logging camp, we went home at lunch and just had turnips to eat, so we went on strike.

They tried to move you out of the bush camps on March 31. Springtime gets muddy. The truck could get stuck going down 20 miles to the railroad station. We get halfway down to town and we get stuck. The foreman says, “You guys get off the truck — you'd better start walking.” It was the darkest moment in my life.

Summer months, we worked on the farms. One year, I worked on the biggest wheat farm in Alberta — 24 sections.

You had to report your address, and the security-commission representative, a guy named Russell, an air force captain or something, he was very blunt. [When we went on strike at the bush camp], he gave us hell.

Why did you move on to Ontario?

My family was in Tashme [Canada’s largest internment camp, southeast of Hope, B.C.], but then Tashme was going to close up, so it was either go to Japan or go east. My father wrote me and said he wanted me to go east and find a place for everyone. So I came east.

I came to London first; I stayed there for about two months. The security commission always found you a job that nobody wanted. In London, it was the federal foundry. You'd get all dirty grinding, and the first time, we didn't wash up and went home. Everybody looked at us on the bus. We didn't know we were all dirty. We had goggles on.

I went around looking for a room for rent, and that’s the only time I noticed discrimination. The lady had a sign, “Room for Rent.” When I went to apply for it, she says, “Well, the room is rented, but we forgot to take the sign down.” Some people maybe stared at you a little bit, but it didn't bother me at all.

Why did you settle in the Chatham area?

The family couldn't get permission to come to Toronto. We stayed in the Chatham area for four years. We all worked. We sometimes picked tomatoes and tobacco. You’ve got to thread these tobacco stalks, and then you hang it in the barn with a four-foot lath. It's hard work.

What do you think about what happened to you and your family?

I’ve got no grudge. I’ve seen the country. I’ve been all over. I feel sorry for my dad. He cleared his own land, and he got it all taken away. He didn't get any apologies, because we got redress money in 1988. Dad passed away in 1972. So he didn’t get anything.

A lot of people still ask if I was born in Japan. They don’t know why I came out here, how I came out here.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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