Sixth in a series
In the early 1990s I was administering the Langham. A procession of Japanese Canadian visitors and the then-current “fight for redress” by the Japanese Canadian community made me acutely aware that dark, dramatic and historic episodes of Canadian wartime history had played out in Kaslo and within the Langham itself. We were able to scare up some funding and a dedicated crew. The Japanese Canadian museum and archival display was born, to commemorate these times and their lessons.
While hardly a Canadian family was immune to the horrors of World War II, few groups suffered greater disruption than the Japanese Canadians. Twenty-two thousand Canadians of Japanese ancestry, the majority Canadian born, were forcibly removed from the West Coast in the months after Pearl Harbor. Basic civil rights and freedoms, assumed by most of us to be “constitutionally enshrined,” were denied to persons of Japanese racial background from 1942 through 1949.
All had their homes, businesses and possessions confiscated. Most of these displaced persons were interned in ghost towns or instant communities in Kaslo, New Denver, Slocan City, Greenwood, Lemon Creek, Popoff, Sandon or Rosebery. Kaslo became home to some 1,200 internees. Over 80 of these internees were housed in the old Langham.
Kaslo in 1942 was severely depressed with a population of less than 500, predominantly elderly and children. Most of “fighting age” were serving the war effort overseas or in the cities. Many Kaslo buildings were totally derelict, the result of the Great Depression, a metals market that hadn’t been hot since World War I, and a local economy that had been stagnant for over 20 years.
Townsfolk were extremely impressed when an advance party of some 20 skilled Japanese tradesmen upgraded the town’s largest derelict buildings in short order. Then, through the summer and fall of 1942 sternwheelers and buses disgorged waves of disoriented Japanese-Canadians. These quiet, courteous, distressed folk were generally elderly, women and children and bore no resemblance to the Japanese ogres of wartime propaganda. Most proved model citizens, rather than threatening aliens and Kaslo changed overnight.
The Langham was one of the first large buildings in town to be upgraded. A new roof, new stoves, window and door repairs, closely set double bunks filling all the sleeping rooms of the second the third floors, a kitchen in the rear of the ground floor and an ofuro or Japanese bath in a lean-to at the rear of the building — all were completed in short order. Residents were generally mothers and children, with two bunks to the room and communal cooking facilities where the Langham theatre is today. Suddenly, for the first time in decades, there was no room at the inn.
The diversity of the Langham group ranged from isolated upcoast fisher families to young and cultured Vancouver hepcats. The sleeping rooms were just that, with no room to hang about during the day.
On the ground floor was the small office of United Church minister Kosaburo Shimizu, a spiritual advisor and counselor and liaison to the Security Commission authorities. With the assistance of the churches and commission, the internees quickly developed educational, recreational, health and social programs.
Also on the Langham ground floor lived a group of teenage boys who formed a playground maintenance and landscaping crew when not in school. With the closing of the Kaslo internment centre in 1945 this chapter in Langham and Japanese Canadian history ended.
Although life there was a series of trials for many, the Langham days are vividly and at times fondly remembered by many of the internees, whose descendants continue to flock to the museum.
The Japanese Canadian museum and Archival display remains at the Langham Cultural Centre. Open year-round from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. with admission by donation, it poignantly documents these times when two-thirds of Kaslo’s population was Japanese Canadian and the Langham was home to 80 reluctant guests. The themes are racism and adaptation. Stories of the internees are told in authentic voice from interviews and extracts from newspapers of the day. An eight by 12 foot sleeping room has been replicated to approximate its condition in 1943, when it was home to a mother and her six children.
The museum is financed directly by the Langham Cultural Society and private donations with only minimal provincial funding. Your tax-deductible donations are welcomed c/o the Langham at Box 1000, Kaslo, V0G 1M0.
Next: Legends of the Langham, revisited
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the Langham received no government funding.)