Three Valley Gap sign unveiling ceremony commemorates interned Japanese-Canadians’ highways contribution

The project marks 75 years since the Japanese Canadian internment during the Second World War

Road camp workers at Griffin Lake road camp 1942. Photo courtesy Laura Saimoto

This story first appeared in print in the October/November 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. On Friday, Sept. 28 at 1:30 p.m. there will be a Revelstoke-Sicamous Highway Roadcamps Legacy Sign unveiling at the Rutherford Beach Rest Area near Three Valley Gap. Attendees will included Minister of State George Chow, Deputy Consul General of Japan Masayo Tada, and ‘living history’ senior Stony Nakano.

By Laura Hodge

It’s a part of Canadian history that’s not widely talked about.

In 1942, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, Japanese Canadians were declared a national security threat and labelled as “enemy aliens,” despite the majority being Canadian by birth.

A 100 mile restricted zone was set up around the West Coast of Canada as part of the War Measures Act.

Over 22,000 Canadians of Japanese descent were forced out of their homes on the West Coast of B.C. and made to sell their belongings.

Separated from their families, around 1,700 Japanese Canadian men were taken eastwards to road internment camps, where they were forced to build many of Canada’s highways, including the Revelstoke–Sicamous Highway 1.

Those who refused to be separated, or who refused to work, were arrested and sent to Prisoner of War camps in Ontario.

Wood gang at Taft road camp, Taft B.C. ca. 1942 Photo courtesy of Jan Nobuto

Finally, four years after the end of World War II, in the April of 1949, the internment camps were dissolved and Japanese Canadians were released.

On September 22, 1988, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney issued an official apology and a compensation package to all of those affected.

It’s a piece of Canada’s past that not many know about, but a series of commemorative road signs aim to change that.

After a four-month nomination period, members of the B.C. public chose 56 historic locations with significance to Canadians of Japanese descent as part of “the government’s continued efforts to recognize and celebrate the diversity and multiculturalism of B.C.”

On Friday, September 28, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in partnership with the Japanese Legacy Committee will unveil a new Highway Legacy sign at the Rutherford Beach Rest Area near Three Valley Gap.

The sign remembers those who were interned at the Revelstoke–Sicamous road camp and who worked hard to build the Revelstoke–Sicamous Highway 1 that many of us use today.

“The organizing committee’s goal is education. They see this sign project as an opportunity to learn the lessons about the mistakes of our history, which happened in our own backyard not so long ago so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. The next time you get onto the highway, send a quiet nod of thanks to those of the past and present who helped build our great highways.”

The Revelstoke-Sicamous road camp consisted of six camps: Solsqua, Yard Creek, North Fork, Taft, Griffin Lake and Three Valley Gap, which housed a total of 500 Japanese Canadian workers.

The men spent two years and four months improving, aligning and reconstructing various sections of 44.5 miles of the Trans-Canada Highway west of Revelstoke for a salary of 20 cents per day.

The men interned at this camp set up hockey, baseball and basketball teams — with their hockey team receiving particularly high recognition. The men at Three Valley Gap even built a flower garden and a Japanese bath (nihon buro) so they could rest and rewind after a tough day of labour.

The head engineer for the project lived in Revelstoke and when the men were granted permission to visit their families in 1943, he issued permits to allow them two weeks of leave.

The camp was the first one to be shut down as many men either left to be reunited with their families or found work that paid better.

The Revelstoke-Sicamous sign is one of eight interpretive signs located around B.C. to commemorate the men held at the internment and road camps.

As written in the project’s fundraising letter by Howard Shimokura and Chuck Tasaka:

“It is about racism, about social injustice and how, acted out and driven by fear and hysteria, they can shatter families and communities. It also teaches us about hardship and struggle, models the courage, love and resilience of the human spirit in overcoming adversity. By sharing our stories, the Japanese Canadian story becomes the story of each and every one of us. We can be inspired to learn from the mistakes of our past to make a better tomorrow.”