Tashme: A forgotten internment camp remembered

The Tashme internment camp housed thousands of Japanese-Canadians between 1942 and 1946; now one man is working to honour that history in the Sunshine Valley

By Grace Kennedy | November 15, 2021 |6:24 am

It was the fall of 1942, and Chizu Negoro was on a train to Hope. Her husband, Shinichi, was travelling with her, as were sons Hitoshi and Takashi (10 and 7), their toddler daughter Kazumi, and their year-old baby girl Emi.

They had little with them. The family had been forcibly removed from their home to Hastings Park in the summer, along with thousands of other Japanese-Canadian families. Their gramophone, 119 records, Emi’s baby bath, and the kids’ see-saw were left behind at their home in Vancouver. Shinichi’s coat hanger machine was left too—the self-employed coat-hanger-maker had been labelled an enemy alien and shipped to a road camp in the North Thompson earlier that year. (He was only reunited with his family in Hastings Park after a cave-in at the worksite killed the man next to him. Shinichi was allowed to accompany the body back to Vancouver.)

In early October, all six members of the Negoro family were loaded onto aging rail cars, along with 144 others. They got on in Vancouver. They got off in Hope, the inside edge of the 100-mile exclusion zone, and walked over the station platform to climb into waiting trucks. From there, the Negoro family would make the 22km journey through the mountains to Tashme: the largest Japanese-Canadian concentration camp in Canada.

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The Museum: Beginning

It is September, 2021, and I am driving my car through the pounding rain on my way to the Sunshine Valley, 22km outside of Hope. The mountains loom on either side of the Hope-Princeton Highway, a road built with the forced labour of Japanese-Canadians like Shinichi Negoro.

Turning off the highway, a green-and-gold heritage sign marks the entrance to Sunshine Valley—the site of the former Tashme internment camp, where more than 2,644 men, women, and children were interned during the Second World War. But my destination is further into the community: the Tashme Museum, a small white barn located in front of a set of tennis courts and the orange-roofed recreation centre.

A wooden doorway with the words Sunshine Valley Tashme Museum" overtop of it centres the picture of the white building. The paint is peeling, and a large stump is on the right of the doorway.
Ryan Ellan’s barn, now the main building for the Tashme Museum, was originally the butcher shop for the Tashme internment camp. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Curator Ryan Ellan opens the door. He started the Tashme Museum five years ago, when it was little more than a 10-by-10 display wall in his sign shop showroom.

“I’m living in a surreal world,” he says, sitting in the main area of the museum. A model of the Tashme camp is in a glass case beside him. A video describing the camp is on loop on a TV over his head. The wooden walls, the floor, and the ceiling are original from before the Tashme internment days.

Ellan bought the barn in 2007, wanting to move his printing shop from Langley up to the Sunshine Valley where he had spent so many summers as a kid. The building had been constructed in 1938 as a milking barn, and converted to the butcher shop at the Tashme internment camp. Ellan had heard stories about Tashme from his Japanese friends’ families in Steveston, and he knew the history of the building. He didn’t expect all the junk though.

“The building was piled floor to ceiling of junk. You had to crawl your way in and crawl your way out,” he remembers. “We spent a month and a half just cleaning the building out.”

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Working through the layers, Ellan began to find items dating back to the internment camp years: hand planers with Japanese inscriptions, a rusting spoon, lanterns, and glass bottles. They were hidden beneath the floorboards and in the old walls of the barn. Ellan packed them up in boxes, and placed them in the attic.

“My goal was to restore the building for my business, not a museum,” Ellan says. But one thing led to another, as it often does. He worked with filmmaker Brendan Uegama to help create the internment documentary Harry’s Glasses at a real internment camp location. Uegama introduced him to the Nikkei National Museum, which asked him to participate in its biannual bus tours of internment camps across BC.

“A lot of these artifacts that I found… they just lived in boxes. And every time someone would come by for the internment bus tour, I’d sort of spill these items on a table somewhere and talk about them for 10 seconds, and then they’d go back in a box,” he says. “That never sat right with me.

“I just felt these items need to be out all the time, and to be a little bit more honoured than just living in a box.”

A display of items from the Tashme internment camp, including a rusted spoon, several glass bottles, two oil lanterns, a letter from the British Columbia Security Commission, and a card with an image of mountains on it.
Some of the items found in Ryan Ellan’s barn, dating back to the Tashme internment camp days, are now on display in glass cases at the museum. 📸 Grace Kennedy

In 2015, Ellan printed a display poster for his showroom, showcasing some of the history of Tashme. He decided that wasn’t enough. Over the winter of 2015-16, Ellan boarded up his showroom and started to create the Tashme Museum: a private museum funded from his own pocket. In August 2016, he opened his doors to the public for the first time.

Over the years, Ellan has collected more historic Tashme buildings and brought them to his property. Today, the museum includes the butcher shop, which has been repurposed into the main museum, and a replica shack. It also includes the original RCMP building, currently a storage space for the museum, and the original Anglican Church, currently under renovation. Tashme is the second-most intact internment camp in BC, with nine buildings still standing in various places around the Sunshine Valley, although many of them are used for other things now.

The Negoros: Arriving

It had been a bumpy ride up to Tashme for the Negoro family. The Hope-Princeton highway was still under construction, and the convoy of trucks travelled for two hours on a wagon trail through the mountains. When Chizu Negoro and her family arrived at the camp, they were struck by rows of small houses in a farmer’s field. Tashme had previously been a 1,200-acre dairy farm owned by mining executive Amos Bliss Trites, but was leased by the Department of National Defence for $500 a month during the war.

(Originally called 14 Mile Ranch, the name Tashme would come from the combined last names of three BC Security Commission officers: Austin Tayler, John Shirras, and Frederick Mead.)

The former farm buildings were converted into apartments for single men and women, a store, a school, and a butcher shop. A hospital was under construction, as were the traditional Japanese bathhouses. Outhouses were located behind the shacks—one four-privy outhouse for every four houses. And 347 shacks stood at attention in varying stages of construction.

A mountainside in winter. In the valley in front of it, hundresds of shacks are lined up in rows. People walk on the snowy street in front of the houses.
Hundreds of shacks were built at Tashme to house Japanese-Canadian families who were forcibly removed from British Columbia’s coastal areas. 📸 Nikkei National Museum 2012-45-1-12

But that’s not where Chizu and her family spent their first nights at the camp. They stayed in a tent. Not all of the houses were complete—and when they were finished, none would be considered liveable by normal standards. A thin layer of tar paper was the houses’ biggest defence against the elements, and the green wood used to construct the buildings would shrink as it dried, creating gaps where chill winter air would blow in.

The first winter was brutally cold, hitting -21 C in Hope and possibly even lower in Tashme due to its mountainous height. Nearly everyone in Tashme was unprepared for the winter, as most of their winter clothes had been left behind in their homes. They were given green firewood to heat their shacks; it spluttered and hissed in the stove. The six Negoros spent that first winter sharing a four-bedroom shack with another family.

 The image shows an internment camp in the wintertime with a snow covered road and a row of wooden buildings covered in snow. There are mountains shrouded in fog in the background. There are two unidentified people standing in front of a snow bank.
The shacks at Tashme, covered in tar paper, during the depth of winter in 1942. 📸 Nikkei National Museum 2013-20-1-9

The Museum: Remembering

Ellan is standing in the doorway of a replica Tashme shack. The room is cold, but warmer than it would have been in the internment camp days. The tin roof overhead is a new addition to keep to Sunshine Valley building codes. (“If we had an authentic shack, I would need somebody living here, burning wood constantly just to keep the snow off and the roof from collapsing,” he says.)

To our left: the replica room of a single woman, a nurse at the Tashme hospital. In front of us: the joint kitchen and living space, with a little stove that would have been responsible for heating the whole building. Rooms for the grandparents and kids are at the end of the house, with bunk beds built against the walls. Nearly all of the items on display are from Tashme, either gifted to the museum by the Nikkei National Museum or by Japanese-Canadian families.

The interior of a small bedroom. Bunk beds are built onto the wall on the left side. A young girl's doll is on the bottom bunk. A scouts uniform and hat is hanging up on the wall.
The children’s bedroom in the Tashme Museum’s replica shack. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The house feels like a pioneer cottage. It is anything but.

“There were no barbed wire fences or German Shepherds, anything like that,” Ellan says about the camp. “Bottom line, after ’43 if you wanted to walk away from Tashme, no one’s going to stop you. But where are you going to go? The next stop is a week-and-a-half walk through the bush to Princeton—and you didn’t dare go west, because if you were caught in the exclusion zone, particularly if you were a Japanese-Canadian male, you were sent to prison.”

Japanese-Canadians were not allowed back to the West Coast until April 1949, and the federal government didn’t formally apologize for its treatment of Japanese-Canadians until 1988. Today, many families choose to return to Tashme to revisit their history.

“A lot of those meetings end up being very emotional,” Ellan says. “Tashme was for the longest time a forgotten camp, because there was no signage or recognition in the valley… But I’ve been told many times that the museum is very healing, which is wonderful to hear.”

“I could never dream that the museum would turn into what it has,” he continues. “I want everybody to come through the door to be aware of this history.”

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The Negoros: Living

After the first harsh winter, the Negoros fell into a routine, as did most interred at Tashme. They moved into their own house on the boulevard, and Shinichi would eventually make extensive renovations to it: building a loft for his sons, excavating a root cellar beneath the floor, creating a Japanese furo where they could wash. Water was collected from a common tap located between every two houses, until Shinichi tapped into the piping beneath his house and extended it up into their kitchen.

Children attended Japanese language classes. Boys aged 12 to 16 joined the First Tashme Troop of Boy Scouts, which would eventually become the largest scout troop in Canada. (Hitoshi would at one point be named the “ideal scout” and honoured in a ceremony.) Avid baseball players (including members of the famed Vancouver Asahi team) formed three leagues for summer play. Poets started the Tashme Poetry Society.

18 boys and girls and one male teacher stand on wooden stairs leading up to a door in a wooden building. The girls are all wearing long winter coats.
The Grade 7 class of 1945 at Tashme. Hitoshi Negoro is among the 18 students, according to a handwritten signature on the back of the original photo. 📸 Nikkei National Museum 2013.58.1.13.a-b

Negoro boys Hitoshi and Takashi didn’t go to school until January 1943, when the barn that had been housing single men was converted to classrooms. On Jan. 18, 600 children showed up for an opening assembly welcoming them to school. The temperature was -22 C outside during the assembly, and fell to -28 C overnight. The heating system wasn’t finished. The students were sent home, with Takashi eventually returning to school on Jan. 26 and Hitoshi on Jan. 27.

Once construction on the internment camp was nearly finished in December 1942, work was found for men at Tashme’s sawmill, farm fields, and stores. Tashme women were hired as teachers, stenographers, and nurses’ aides. They were paid a basic wage of 25 cents an hour (compared to the average white wage of 62 cents an hour for men and 37 cents an hour for women), although specialists could earn a little more. Food was purchased with coupons, and Chizu would send one of her sons to the store with a $10 bill in hand to exchange it for a coupon. Commodities sold out quickly: those wanting to purchase items would wait for hours in a long queue to do their shopping in one community store.

This is a 1945 Canadian propaganda film, which describes the conditions of Japanese-Canadians during internment in a positive light and explicitly states that they were not held in internment camps. It is included in this article for its video footage of life at Tashme.

Tashme was self-sufficient on a bare bones basis. Shinichi Negoro thought it could be more. So in early 1943 he brought a plan to the BC Securities Commission: establish a shoyu and miso factory in Tashme and export the products to other internment camps and Japanese communities further east.

In June the factory opened, and by October there were 26,000 pounds of miso ready for sale. Shinichi would spend his days managing the five or six Japanese-Canadians working at Tashme’s miso factory—earning the same 34 cents an hour as his workers, despite having additional managing and supervisory duties. (The profits earned by the factory were taken by the BC Securities Commission.) By that time, Chizu was six months pregnant and taking care of their almost two-year-old daughter Emi on her own. Her five-year-old daughter Kazumi was likely in the half-day Kindergarten class run by the Anglican Church.

The Museum: Growing

Ellan leads me through the museum to a boarded off area: the former Anglican-Church-turned-Kindergarten-classroom, still under construction after Ellan moved it to his property. In the internment days, Kindergarten teachers would have slept in a small addition on the back of the building. Today, Ellan is transforming it into a classroom space for the students who come through his small museum.

“We need a less formal space in the museum, because we have 30 kids pulling up, piling out of a bus,” he says. “We need that space where they come, sit down, take off their jackets and backpacks. That’s what this space is going to be for.”

A man with dark hair, who is wearing a mask, stands in a relatively open room with historic photos on the walls.
Ryan Ellan, here seen standing in the main museum space. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The Kindergarten building will also include a washroom, something missing from the Tashme Museum at the present, and an office space for volunteers. The goal is to get it ready for July 2022—and there isn’t much room for error.

“This has to be ready,” Ellan said, looking at the construction. “We have a possible wedding here in September of 2022.”

The bride and groom are a Japanese-Canadian couple, and the bride’s grandparents were married in that same Anglican Church back in 1944. The couple will be having a western-style wedding, but they also want an intimate, Japanese-style wedding in the former Tashme church building too.

This is what Ellan hopes will continue at the Tashme Museum in the years to come: connections for families linked to Tashme, as well as introductions for people who had never heard of it. Already 17,000 people have visited the museum, and Ellan has been helping to create more events at the museum to introduce people to its history.

“What do you see for the future of this place?” I ask. We are standing outside in the rain now, looking at the fuki growing in front of the replica Tashme shack.

Ellan laughs a little. “Hopefully it is more and more exposure and more visitors,” he says. “It’s just like I said, it’s a bit surreal with the amount of exposure and the support and the visitors that we are already getting at this point.”

The Negoros: Leaving

Time passed. Chizu gave birth to their third daughter Shigemi at the end of the relatively mild January in 1944, the first Negoro child to be born in a hospital. A landslide further isolated the camp in March. A new elementary school opened in September. War overseas began to wind down. And RCMP officers began to canvass all residents 16 and older about their post-war plans: to move east, or to go to Japan.

The population of Tashme began to decrease in April 1945, as residents began to move east of the Rockies. Others opted for a “repatriation move” to Japan, and families from other internment camps began to arrive at Tashme in anticipation of the long trip to that country. The Japanese Committee at Tashme started a petition to lobby the government to stop the deportation, but was unsuccessful.

Photograph shows people reading the Vancouver Sun on the street. The headline reads: Official PEACE
In Vancouver, where many Tashme residents had lived before they were removed from their homes in 1942, residents stop on the sidewalk to read the Vancouver Sun announcing the war was over with Japan. 📸 Vancouver Archives CVA 586-3956

In September of 1945, the war against Japan concluded. The War Measures Act expired, but a new act was used to keep Japanese-Canadians in place. It wasn’t until June of 1946 that Tashme began to close. Hospital and medical services were discontinued, and by the end of August, its property was turned over to War Assets for sale and disposition.

The Negoro family was the last to leave. They chose neither to go over the Rockies, nor to be deported to Japan. Instead, they partnered with four entrepreneurial Japanese men from Ashcroft who wanted to start their own miso factory. When the RCMP and administrators left Tashme in the fall of 1946, the Negoros were busy filling large barrels with soya beans. The four men purchased the leftover inventory, and decided to bring Shinichi and his expertise with them to Ashcroft.

At the start of November, their last day in Tashme, Chizu and Shinichi loaded their meagre personal effects into the one-ton truck destined to take them to Ashcroft. Shinichi and his sons took a walk through the camp, a feeling of ghostliness pervading the now-empty community. Then Chizu, with Emi and Shigemi, stepped into the front to ride with the driver. Shinichi, holding Kazumi and sitting beside Hitoshi and Takashi, sat in the back. Slowly, they made their way down the Hope-Princeton highway, the camp that had been their home for the last four years receding into the trees.

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Information on the Negoro family came from writings and recordings by Takashi Negoro, as well as records collected by the Landscapes of Injustice project, which has case files for every Japanese-Canadian who was dispossessed during WWII. To search other Japanese-Canadian families, visit the Landscapes of Injustice project website.

A travelling exhibit based on the Landscapes of Injustice project will be at the Tashme Museum until the end of December. For more on the Tashme Internment Camp and its history, visit the Tashme Historical Project (unaffiliated with the Tashme Museum).

Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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