The Creative Arts in Japanese-Canadian Internment Camps, New Denver, BC (1942-1946)


The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre
306 Josephine St. New Denver, BC

“People make art even under the most extreme conditions of deprivation and oppression: in refugee camps, prison wards, homeless shelters. Even without material resources, with only their bodies as tools, humans demonstrate wonder, agency, strength and creative power, giving meaning to the past and present, reimaging the future.”

 -Adams & Goldbard 2005, p. 112

In the heat of World War II, hysteria followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the US ordered the imprisonment of all Japanese-Americans. Japanese-Canadian citizens were also forced to leave their western coastal homes for interior internment camps. Over 23,000 Canadian citizens were separated from their family and friends and relocated. They lost their homes, possessions, livelihoods, civil liberties and their dignity. After being centralized at Hastings Park in Vancouver, Japanese-Canadian citizens were sent by train to New Denver camps in the West Kootenays, British Columbia. 

Although internment camp life was challenging, with limited access to basic resources, including clean drinking water, heat, and night lighting, the creative capacity of Japanese-Canadians was never in question. Carpenters, gardeners, landscape artists, dancers, singers, origami artists and actors contributed to the creativity enacted and expressed in the camps. Through musical concerts, traditional plays, community singing, and festivals were performed as a way of staying connected to each other utilizing the comforts of their cultural traditions. Papier-mâché masks, paper flowers and lanterns, costumes and wooden stages contributed to the magic of the dances and plays.  Kabuki plays, elaborately presented well-known Japanese stories of historical significance or moral dilemma. O-bon festivals honouring the dead, also took place in most relocation camps throughout the US and Canada. Gardening to beautify the bare dwellings, while producing sustenance for their families, also played a significant role in the camps.  

Many children received education that allowed them to enter colleges and universities, following their release. At least two artists documented their childhood experiences of the four years spent in the Canadian camps: Shizuye Takashima (1928b - 2005)  and Doctor Henry Shimizu (1928b -). Both artists went on to study at universities, Takashima became an art teacher and prize winning author, and Shimizu, a medical doctor.

It took 40 years for the government to reconcile and make amends through the Redress Settlement of 1988 for the losses and injustices experienced during this dark time in American and Canadian history. The prisoners’ experiences were memorialized through photographs, interviews, artwork, storytelling, and the re-creation of special memorial gardens.  Documentation of the hardships in the camps captured the slow process of re-development, as lanterns replaced candles for night reading and only much later, electricity and piped-in water became available.

Following the end of war, as the detainees got on with their lives outside the confines of the camps, several of the camp houses were preserved and in 1994, these buildings and a garden became the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre at 306 Josephine Street in the “The Orchard”.  Nearby, there is also the Kohan Reflection Garden located by the lake.

Unfortunately, less than ten years after the Japanese-Canadian internment, New Denver, BC facilities were re-opened from 1953-1959 to house 174 Russian–speaking Doukabour children who were separated from their parents and became wards of the province. They were forced into a fenced residential school, seeing their parents through the fence, once hour every two weeks in another cultural war lasting 6 years.

Photo: Watercolour by Shizuye Takashima for the cover of her book, 1971. “In August is O-bon, the festival for the dead, to wish joy for their souls and to remember them.”


Suggested Reading:

Adams, D. & Goldbard, A. (2005). Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development.

Gagnon, M.K. (2006). Tender Research: Field Notes from the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, New Denver, BC. Concordia University. Canadian Journal of Communication. 31:1.

Hirasuna, D. The Art of Gaman: Arts and Craft from the Japanese American Internment camps 1942-1946. Toronto: Ten Speed Press.

Takashima, S. (1971). A Child in Prison Camp. Montreal: Tundra Books.


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