May Toyota has many happy memories of her early life in the Cowichan Valley.
But Toyota, 82, said her world changed dramatically in 1942 when her large family of 15, as well as hundreds of other Japanese Canadians living in the Valley, were forced into internment camps in the province’s interior after the Second World War began.
Toyota’s family was part of the thriving Japanese community in Paldi, just north of Duncan, that were living in the Valley at the time, whose men were working for the Mayo Lumber Company.
She said she was just nine years old when her family was interned and thought their time in the camps was “lots of fun”, but noted that her parents and siblings didn’t return to the Valley after the war ended.
“We all went to Ontario, and this is one of my first times in the Valley since then,” said Toyota, who was among dozens of Japanese Canadians originally from the Valley who attended the renaming of Duncan’s Pocket Park to Heiwa Park on Sept. 23.
“I think this recognition of the Japanese history in this area is just wonderful. There was an injustice done then, but I now have three daughters living here and I’m going to reconnect with the Valley.”
The area in Duncan between First and Fourth streets, close to the newly dedicated Heiwa Park, was where many Japanese Canadians lived in the city before the war.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, racial tensions ran high and more than 400 Japanese Canadians were removed from the Valley and sent to the infamous internment camps, and most didn’t return when the war ended.
In 2014, Duncan’s city council supported a proposal by Coun. Sharon Jackson to rename Pocket Park, located at the bottom of the Cairnsmore Street stairs, to Heiwa Park in remembrance of those who were sent to internment camps.
On Sept. 23, a memorial stone and bronze plaque were unveiled in a ceremony at the park, and Japan’s Consul General in Vancouver, Asako Okai, was among the approximately 60 visiting Japanese Canadians who attended the ceremony, with some coming from as far away as Montreal.
Okai said she was “touched” by the park commemoration.
“This is very heartwarming and I congratulate the City of Duncan for this,” she said.
“Despite the history, the heart of the Japanese people is still here. I’m very moved by this reunion.”
Mayor Phil Kent said the Japanese Canadians who lived in the area before the war were an integral part of the community, “although it wasn’t recognized at the time.”
“In the spirit of the remembrance of the many contributions this community made to the Valley, and the injustice of the internment camps that they were sent to, we come together today,” he said.