Canadian recalls life as an ‘enemy alien’

Tad and Jenny Oyagi, both 88, in their home at the Momiji Seniors Centre in Scarborough.
Tad and Jenny Oyagi, both 88, in their home at the Momiji Seniors Centre in Scarborough.

Tad Oyagi remembers the Sunday morning, 74 years ago, when his life changed.

“I was having a Coke with my friends,” he said. “I even remember the song they were playing on the radio, ‘The Smoke Went up the Chimney Just the Same.’”

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese Imperial aircraft attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Canada was already at war as an ally of Great Britain against Nazi Germany. Fearing sympathy for the Japanese cause inside Canada, the federal government declared all Japanese Canadians enemy aliens. Almost 22,000 Japanese, most of them Canadian citizens, had their belongings confiscated and were forcibly removed from their homes.

Oyagi, along with roughly 2,000 others, was sent to Lemon Creek, one of many internment camps scattered about the West Kootenays in B.C. The internees lived in shacks made from raw lumbar and covered with tar paper, with no running water or electricity.

“In the winters, when it went down to -40 Celsius, there were three, four feet of snow, up to about the window,” Oyagi said. “Inside was all frosted, almost like outside.”

Though Oyagi found the five years at Lemon Creek some of the most trying years of his life, he admitted they also gave him experiences he treasures to this day.

“I hadn’t even completed high school when there was an opportunity for me to teach,” he recalled. “For two months, I went to a teacher’s training school, came back, and taught Grade 7. I was 19 at the time, but I got them through … and I’m kind of proud of that.”

Tad and his wife, Jenny Oyagi, who was also interned, got together in Toronto following their release from the camp in 1946. Over the years, they have helped organize numerous Lemon Creek camp reunions, trips and even a cruise. The first reunion in Toronto in 1980 drew over 600 former internees. Tad Oyagi said the reunions helped to rekindle good friendships, they also reminded him of the irony.

“While (fellow Canadian citizens) were fighting abroad for freedom,” he said, “we were fighting against our own government for ours.”