August 21, 2012 at 8:49 pm

by Addie Kobayashi

The following is an edited version of the Introduction to Niagara by Tom Matsushita, Exiles in Our Own Country: Japanese Canadians in Niagara, Addie Kobayashi, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Nikkei Network of Niagara, 1998 

Along the Toronto to Niagara Falls corridor are names like Beamsville, Grimsby, Vineland and St. Catharines, names unfamiliar to tourists and even to many Ontarians.  For decades the experiences and fortunes of Japanese Canadians who settled there remained untold.  In 1998, their stories were captured on tape and in a book:  Exiles in Our Own Country: Japanese Canadians in Niagara, a poignant reminder that the newcomers arrived not by choice or by immigration but were exiles from their home province of British Columbia.  Although the history of Japanese Canadians in Niagara is only seventy years old, it is a significant chapter of their contributions to the rich and varied history of the Niagara Region.  The history began with a gross injustice against Japanese Canadians, but as it unfolded it became a story of success and acceptance and is worth knowing and preserving – a record for future generations.

My husband Bill and I moved to St. Catharines in 1989 and lived there for nine years.  Shortly after our arrival came a knock at our door and standing there was Jack Kobayashi with our mail in his hand and a warm welcome.  We soon learned Jack was a respected and popular local pharmacist, and thus we were introduced to the Japanese Canadian community.  My interest in their histories led us to form The Nikkei Network of Niagara and with funding from the NAJC we produced the first Niagara Region telephone directory in 1996.  With a limited budget and the generosity of the NAJC and friends we then undertook interviews with local residents and eventually produced the book.

Among the first known arrivals in 1942 were Mr. and Mrs. Masao Nishikawara and their three sons who were employed at C. H. Prudhomme and Sons, owners of a large nursery, fruit orchard and basket factory in Beamsville.  The Nishikawaras were permitted to leave a government detention camp in the British Columbia interior in exchange for agreeing to move to Ontario.  From 1942 to 1945, a significant number of Nisei arrived in Niagara but few remained for long.  Ko Teshima settled in Beamsville and the Kuraharas in Grimsby where Harry worked for forty-six years in a basket factory.  They were the exception.  Most people moved to urban centres such as Hamilton and Toronto as soon as permission was granted.

Consequently, the majority of Japanese Canadians who became permanent settlers in the peninsula arrived during and after the second half of 1945 as the war in the Pacific was coming to an end.  Local farmers continued to suffer from a severe shortage of workers and were only too happy to hire Japanese Canadians with large families recently expelled from their home province and had few choices open to them. Among the farms hiring them were C. H. Prudhomme of Beamsville, Ted Tregunno of St. Catharines, Martin Boese Sr. of Port Dalhousie, In some cases the families have kept in touch with their former employers throughout the years.

Toshio Uyede had been sent to Schreiber and Glencoe, Ontario, and then made his way to Niagara with his wife Fumiko and the Uyede family to the Tregunno Farm in 1945, the first Japanese Canadians to settle permanently in St. Catharines.  Lois, their daughter, was the first sansei (third-generation) born and raised in Niagara.  They were soon joined by the Kawabe, Toyota, Kinoshita, Sano, Kajiura, Adachi, Murata and Morimoto families, all of whom were employed by Tregunno Farm. The Kobayashi, Nishimura, Miyagawa and Nagami families went to farms in neighbouring areas.

The newcomers had been living on the west coast of British Columbia or on Vancouver Island when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  Among them were farmers, loggers, gardeners and sawmill workers. Some were landowners, shopkeepers, bank employees, salesmen, or fishermen, many owned their own boats. They were generally successful people.  But the federal government’s policy of expelling Japanese Canadians from the Pacific coast followed by the confiscation and sale of their homes, businesses and possessions – sold at auction for ridiculously low prices – meant that when they arrived in Eastern Canada they were often penniless.  To be continued…