Legends of Myself 6

Posted on September 1, 2010

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Continued from Legends of Myself 5

8.  The Emptying of Essington

The world that my father grew up into was a world deeply divided on racial lines.  The racial hierarchy implicit in his schooling was explicit outside of school.  The fishing communities of the British Columbia coast were utterly ghettoized.  Spokeshute had an Indian reserve, which meant it had an Aboriginal ghetto built in.  But even communities without land set aside for the use of Indians by force of law, had neighbourhoods much the same set aside for different groups by force of worldview.  A White sector.  A Chinese sector.  A Japanese sector.

And always the Whites were in charge.

Even the work was specialized in by certain races and genders.  Indian fishermen were hired by canneries partly to encourage Indian women to come and work in the cannery plants.  The Indian women had specific tasks, just as other workers had specific tasks.  When, at the turn of the century, for instance, a machine was introduced which chopped and gutted fish to prepare them for canning, so many Chinese were thrown out of work that they referred to the machine, in the blushless racism of the day, as “The Iron Chink.”

All the races were defined by laws.  The Indians had the Indian Act and Indian agents.  Restrictive immigration laws kept out the Chinese, and consequently their numbers were diminishing.  They also kept out the Japanese men—but not the women—so that through births, the Japanese numbers were growing.  The right to homestead land was a privilege reserved for White men, and only Whites had the vote.  Thus, only Whites could be sheriffs and postmasters and lawyers, and, whether defined by law or not, all the cannery licenses were granted to them.

Through the laws that they passed, the Whites could even decide whether there was a motor on your boat when you went fishing.

My father was raised in the fishing industry in the 20th century, in the industrial era.  Yet the boats he saw fishing on the Skeena when he grew up were motorless and had to be towed to the fishing grounds.  This was because all the fishing licenses were attached to the canneries ,and the cannery owners on the Skeena didn’t want the expense and trouble of converting over to a motorized fishery.  Elsewhere on the coast, motors were already permitted, as they were eventually on the Skeena, but not until the 1930s.

My father learned to fish in small boats with a triangle of sail and oars to propel them, and with a tiny cabin to live in until the weekend came and fishing was over.

I don’t know what my father thought of the world he had grown up in.  I don’t know whether at some early era of his childhood and youth he accepted the racial hierarchy which wrapped and bound the lives of every person of colour in Port Essington and every place near it.  But I know that eventually he rejected it.   He despised racism and all it meant.

Yet he never spoke to me about the single most important incident that ever happened in Port Essington.

In December of 1941, the Japanese airforce struck at the US Naval base at Pearl Harbour.   Although the attack happened thousands of miles away in a colony of another country, its repercussions on the Japanese of Port Essington was devastating.  At that time nearly half the population of the village was Japanese, with most of the rest being Tsimshian, some scattering of others, and a small minority of Whites.

After Pearl Harbour, the Canadian government quickly passed laws requiring the Japanese to surrender their guns and weapons.  I know my uncle Gus witnessed this happening in Port Essington, because he spoke about it, although I suspect he never really understood what he was seeing.   He interpreted the sight of half the village piling their weapons in one place as a sign, somehow, that the Japanese, his lifetime neighbours, had intended to use those weapons for something more sinister than what everybody in that time and place used weapons for—hunting.  My uncle might have assumed, since the Japanese were treated as if they were guilty of something, that in fact they were guilty of something.  I heard him once relate as if true, speculations, current in that day, of what that something might be.

Half a village stacked their rifles in a pile.  How dangerous that stack must have appeared, coloured with racist innuendo, and with news of war all around.  Uncle Gus saw and interpreted wrongly, but the Japanese were fishing rivals, a people apart, and he had no moral attachments to them which might have engaged his sense of things, woke him up and told him what they felt, who they really were, told him that they were merely being oppressed.

Canada at the same time passed laws requiring all Japanese, whether foreign or Canadian-born, to register with the government, and another law confiscating Japanese-owned fishing boats.  (To be held in trust, and auctioned)  And early in 1942 the order came down that all were to be moved 100 miles from the coast.  The law meant it was no longer legal for the Japanese to live in Port Essington.

In March of 1942, a train left Prince Rupert carrying  every Japanese citizen of the town away.  It stopped in Port Edward and picked up the Japanese there.  It stopped at the canneries around Inverness and picked up the Japanese there.  Then it stopped at Haysport, just across the river from Port Essington.

All the Japanese, no longer possessing boats, must have paid the ferry to reach Haysport.  But the ferry could not have carried everyone.  Other boats must have been hired, ten, a dozen, more, from the Whites and the Indians who could still own boats.  They carried across the river what slender goods the families were permitted by law to bring.

When the train stopped at Haysport, there must have been more people waiting at that little station than had ever waited there before or since.  There couldn’t have been enough space in the little waiting room.  Families must have lined the gravel railbed and waited, staring perhaps across the two-mile wide Skeena at their former home.  What did they think to be leaving it?

When the train departed, it carried away nearly half of Port Essington with it, and the people whom it carried away were never to return.  It is said in the local histories that the building of the railway in 1914 destroyed Port Essington.  That is probably true.  But that train in March of 1942 must have been the final blow.

That terrible day is seldom mentioned in the local histories, most of which tend to the nostalgic.

Yet what a strange and empty place Port Essington must have been in the sober morning after.

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Continued at Legends of Myself 7