The Shimizu family at the monument outside the federal building in Prince Rupert. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

The Shimizu family at the monument outside the federal building in Prince Rupert. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

Ottawa apologizes to Japanese family in B.C. after chopping historic cherry trees

Plaque installed in Prince Rupert to honour the memory of Shotaro Shimizu

After the cherry trees fell, the Shimizu family legend found its historical beginnings.

“When I grew up, and when my grandfather passed away, I remember whispering of cherry trees, but it was like a myth, short on details and specifics,” Gregory Shimizu said at a presentation on his grandfather’s cherry trees held inside the federal building in Prince Rupert.

Two years ago, going through a box of old photos and documents, he found letters dating back to the 1950s and 1960s with more details on the trees. He took photos and figured he would return to the story in time.

“Then we all learned some of the more prominent trees had been mistakenly cut,” he said.

On March 23, contractors were removing trees next to Prince Rupert’s federal building as part of a landscaping project commissioned by Public Services and Procurement Canada, the agency responsible for federal properties. A federal employee ran outside the building and told them to stop, although some of the damage had been done.

Before the incident, people walked by the trees at Second Avenue West and Fourth Street. Many admired the beauty of the cherry blossoms, but not everyone knew the history. Now, the story of Shotaro “Tom” Shimizu and the trees are set in stone on a plaque outside where one of the trees used to stand.

READ MORE: History behind the cherry trees the feds cut down in Prince Rupert

After losing everything when he was sent to an internment camp, 14 years later and nearly blind, Shotaro Shimizu decided he would donate 1,500 cherry trees to beautify the city that helped him get on his feet when he first came to Canada.

Then on March 23, the same date he was forced to leave Prince Rupert, some of the cherry trees were cut down in error. On Nov. 15, in an attempt to right the wrong, the government planted two more trees and installed the plaque.

“It should outlast all of us, it should outlast the building that it’s next to. The trees may last as long as the plaque but the history of Mr. Shimizu’s generosity isn’t going to be forgotten,” said Dan Del Villano, regional manager for Public Services and Procurement Canada.

The federal government installed a plaque to honour the memory of Shotaro Shimizu. The wood resting on the plaque is from the cherry trees that were cut down in March 23. (Matthew Allen / The Northern View)

Shimizu history and internment

Seven members of the family were present to witness the unveiling. First, there was a presentation inside the federal building where the full history of the family was told through 90-year-old Henry Shimizu, Shotaro’s son, and his grandson, Gregory.

“On March 23, 1942, my family and I were trucked down to the CN railway along with 600 other people who were mostly women and children and older men,” Henry said to city council members, federal employees and media.

“There were about 15 passenger cars and a kitchen car. Able-bodied men had been sent ahead to work in camps in the Interior of B.C. as well, people like my father and Mr. Nishikaze, were sent to build the internment facilities.”

His family lost their restaurant, hotel, as well as three houses. Henry remembers residents coming down to the station to say goodbye.

“My Grade 7 teacher, and a few of my classmates came down to see me off. One of my classmates asked me where I was going, I said ‘I didn’t know’ — and I never returned,” he said.

They stayed in the internment camp for four years, and then the war ended and they were allowed to go to Edmonton, but not the west coast. Restrictions weren’t lifted off Canada’s Japanese until 1949.

“I think they forgot us,” Henry said.

By then, they were allowed to return, but there was nothing left for the Shimizu family in Prince Rupert.

None of the family really know why Shotaro decided to donated the 1,500 cherry trees to Prince Rupert.

“That’s still mystifies me to some degree but he also had a soft spot for Prince Rupert. After all, he lived here for 36 years, that’s probably the longest period that he spent in one place,” Henry said.

“The other thing was that he arrived here as a penniless second son from Japan and he didn’t expect to be so prosperous with his restaurant and his hotel and his houses.”

Despite losing everything, Shotaro felt it was necessary to beautify the city that had once given him so much.

Silver lining

Gregory Shimizu and his fiancée Twilla MacLeod at the unveiling of the plaque. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

Residents who witnessed the trees being cut down were at the unveiling of the plaque. Some of them had reached out to Gregory, including councillor Reid Skelton-Morven, who tried to return some of the salvaged wood to the family.

Patrick Davis, who spent over a decade living in Japan, was upset when he saw contractors chopping the trees down. He said the federal government needs to have better policies to avoid another incident such as this in the future.

Some of the trees received grafts in an attempt to save them. “These will never recover the way they were in our lifetime but I think it’s a good gesture,” Davis said.

Gregory and his fiancée Twilla MacLeod found a silver lining. MacLeod said it means a lot for the family to be in Prince Rupert — for some of them it was their first time. Henry’s brother, Kaien, was there too. Yes, he was named after the island his father loved.

But the trees themselves, and now the monument, have reopened the story that was once a family myth shared by few.

“It’s a hidden history. People had these in their lives for 60 years not knowing where they came from, they just exist, and its fun for people to just enjoy something not knowing where they’re from and then having a whole other chapter of history open up so I think it’s even fun for them and to know that there’s trees that will still survive and they can learn more about them as we learn more about the Rupertites that saved them,” Gregory said.

READ MORE: Government makes amends for chopped cherry trees

A new cherry tree was planted to replace the one that was removed in March 23, 2018. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)



shannon.lough@thenorthernview.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

cherry trees

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples encourages groups and organizations in the city to take advantage of Duncan’s DOVID-19 grants program. (File photo)
Still lots of money left in Duncan’s COVID-19 grant program

Council has approved just three applications so far

Ultra runner Jerry Hughes circles the track at the Cowichan Sportsplex as he nears the end of his six-day Canadian record attempt and fundraiser in November. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Six days on the Cowichan Sportsplex track for ultramarathoner

Record bid misses, but fundraiser a success

Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA Doug Routley was passed up for a cabinet position by Premier John Horgan. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA Routley left off the list of NDP cabinet ministers again

Premier Horgan opts for some newcomers in key positions over experienced MLA

Protesters stand in front of a truck carrying logs to the WFP Ladysmith log sort. (Cole Schisler photo)
Protesters block entrance to Western Forest Products in Ladysmith

Blockade cleared by Ladysmith RCMP around noon, December 2

Cowichan RCMP rally against gender-based violence. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Cowichan RCMP mark campaign against gender-based violence

16 days of activism runs until Dec. 10

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation at the legislature, Nov. 30, 2020. (B.C. government)
Hockey team brought COVID-19 back from Alberta, B.C. doctor says

Dr. Bonnie Henry pleads for out-of-province travel to stop

Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital took in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health as part of a provincial agreement. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria hospital takes in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health

Royal Jubilee Hospital takes patients as part of provincial transport network

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Premier John Horgan on a conference call with religious leaders from his B.C. legislature office, Nov. 18, 2020, informing them in-person church services are off until further notice. (B.C. government)
B.C. tourism relief coming soon, Premier John Horgan says

Industry leaders to report on their urgent needs next week

An RCMP cruiser looks on as a military search and rescue helicopter winds down near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
B.C. Mountie, suspect airlifted by Canadian Armed Forces from ravine after foot chase

Military aircraft were dispatched from Comox, B.C., say RCMP

An 18-year old male southern resident killer whale, J34, is stranded near Sechelt in 2016. A postmortem examination suggests he died from trauma consistent with a vessel strike. (Photo supplied by Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
“We can do better” — humans the leading cause of orca deaths: study

B.C. research reveals multitude of human and environmental threats affecting killer whales

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Most Read