Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A small town in rural Ontario harbored a World War II-era secret. Should it find a way to preserve a dark moment in its history, or let the past disappear for good?
CHATHAM-KENT, ONTARIO—The Eatonville Roadhouse is a two-story stucco building—light blue, the color of a sky veiled with clouds pulled thin. It’s one of the few structures along the stretch of paved road that intersects my parents’ gravel path. Around it, the landscape is flat for miles; farmland unfurls in all directions. Wind turbines churn above soybean fields, rolling the sea of bushy plants.
I spent much of my childhood in this Canadian farming town cuddled up to the shore of Lake Erie. Over the course of almost two decades here, I tried to learn everything I could about the land and the 4,563 people who lived on it. I loved the old fishery, the annual buffalo festival; I liked to think that I held the place inside of me—that I’d learned to smell storms blowing in, heavy and slow, that I could feel the wind change direction.
Then, last winter, my dad mailed me a clipping from the Chatham Daily News, a local newspaper: “Japanese Canadians Want Property Preserved.” The story described a contentious city council meeting to decide the fate of the Roadhouse, which had slid into disuse and disrepair. The owners wanted to raze the structure, but somewhere along the line, it had been added to the local heritage registry; demolition couldn’t proceed without a sign-off from council.
Did you know, my dad penciled in the margin, that the building down the road had been a World War II-era work camp for Japanese men forced from Canada’s western coast?
I hadn’t known. I must have passed the building hundreds of times, and never detected a hint of its former life. According to the newspaper, most current residents seemed just as surprised. Some remembered that the building had once been a hotel, a speakeasy, and lodging for migrant laborers, but they didn’t recall this darker interlude. The internment story had largely faded, and now its physical traces threatened to vanish, too.
The American version of this story is more familiar: During the course of World War II, some 120,000 people of Japanese descent were rounded up and sent to internment camps. President Roosevelt had authorized the mass detainment, via a presidential executive order, in February, 1942, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. Most internees were American citizens, second-generation nisei born and raised in the U.S. In Canada, a similar program forcibly relocated 22,000 people of Japanese descent, many of whom were dislodged from British Columbia and sent to Ontario.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never overturned Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 decision that upheld the legality of the executive order that sent citizens into camps. Perhaps that’s largely because, as Matt Ford pointed out in The Atlantic last year, “federal and state governments have not attempted the mass internment of an entire ethnic group since then.”
But nativist anxieties are once again simmering, across the U.S. and globally. Beneath this anger and fear pulses an undercurrent of estrangement—many Americans on both ends of the political spectrum are stung by a sense that they don’t recognize people and places they thought they knew. The language of a pointedly intolerant era—fascism, mass deportation, and all manner of racial and ethnic hatreds—has re-emerged in our daily political discourse. President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t abandoned his idea of a central registry for Muslim immigrants, and in a recent Fox News appearance, the Trump backer Carl Higbie explicitly invoked Japanese internment camps as a blueprint for the sort of system Trump could implement. “You’re not proposing we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope,” Megyn Kelly said.
“I’m not proposing that at all,” Higbie told her. “But I’m just saying there is precedent for it.”
Some veterans of the internment program see troubling parallels between this contemporary rhetoric and the sentiments that flared in 1942. Marielle Tsukamoto was five years old when she was removed from California and sent to barracks in Jerome, Arkansas. “It’s our responsibility to speak out and not let someone be treated as less than a citizen,” says Tsukamoto, who now guides school groups on tours of the Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII exhibition at the California Museum. Some 75,000 kids have tromped through since 2001, passing through recreations of barracks and listening to Tsukamoto describe packing a single suitcase and leaving beloved pets behind.
She hopes to ignite in students a feeling of civic engagement and duty—sticking up for themselves and marginalized people around them. Otherwise, she says, “We could lose the country as we know it.”
For Jerry Hind, a local historian in Chatham-Kent, the story started with a notebook.
Hind’s wife picked up a box of farmers’ diaries at an auction nearly two decades ago. They sat in his cottage until Hind, newly retired, set about leafing through them on rainy afternoons. He often needed a magnifying glass to decipher the scrawl. Hind became invested in the cast of characters—houseboys arrived from England, a farmer who chronicled his daily activities—and decided to retrace their steps. He reached out to the men’s relatives—and stumbled on the story of the Japanese-Canadians who had been kept in the roadhouse. “I thought, ‘Gee, that happened in Canada?’” Hind says. “Why didn’t I know about this?”
The internees arrived in 1942. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Canadian federal law mandated a “defense zone” of 160 kilometers along the perimeter of British Columbia, imagined as a buffer against covert communication with enemy submarines. As a result, many Japanese families were evicted to ghost towns or assigned to road camps, tasked with expanding highways. Chatham-Kent is part of Canada’s agricultural belt, so the internees housed there were enlisted to help with the harvest, relieving white men who were off at war. Between 1942 and 1943, 55 men lived at the roadhouse and worked the nearby fields, picking apples, harvesting wheat, and clearing brush in the provincial park.
Pre-war, there were only a few hundred Japanese-Canadians in Ontario. When the relocation order came into effect, their ranks seemed to balloon overnight. Hind recounts local lore about mounted police directing traffic upon the men’s arrival in the nearby town of Dresden; the streets were clogged with residents who turned out to gawk.
I met Hind at his cottage in early August, and we sat around a table covered with newspaper accounts of local men’s service during the World Wars (Hind is working to collate their stories). He’s fastidious—the photocopied pages were striated with highlighter and marginalia. I sat with him for an hour, then two, looking out at the lake beyond his backyard clotheslines. He showed me photos of the Japanese laborers straddling bales of hay, or near the now-shuttered fishery, brimmed hats shielding their eyes from the sun. One man wore a crew-neck sweater with the insignia of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
About ten years ago, Hind connected with a handful of men—most of whom are now deceased—who had been held in nearby camps. They remembered anti-Japanese sentiments running high in the city of Chatham, the closest metro area; newspapers warned of the “yellow menace” nearby, and the internees were only allowed into town under armed guard.
At the roadhouse, they built a Japanese bath and formed a baseball team. Their lone guard—a World War I veteran—slept most of the time, they recalled, clutching a revolver “so rusty, it probably wouldn’t fire,” Hind says.
By 1949, Japanese-Canadians were permitted to return to the country’s west coast. But careers, families, and roots had fractured, and many never went back; instead, they settled in urban centers like Toronto and Hamilton. As far as anyone can tell, none of the men from the Eatonville camp stuck around the area.
Decades later, the National Association of Japanese Canadians successfully negotiated a redress settlement, which was granted by the federal government in September 1988. As part of a $300 million package, which also earmarked funds to establish a race relations foundation, 13,000 surviving internees received reparations of $21,000 each. (That same year, Ronald Reagan approved restitution of $20,000 to survivors in the U.S.)
At some point in the intervening decades, Chatham-Kent collectively forgot about the men in the Eatonville Roadhouse. The region’s obliviousness to the building’s history mirrors a national amnesia. Ken Noma, the heritage chair of the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC), attributes some of this oversight to lack of archival materials. There are relatively scant first-person accounts of life in the camps, he says. One exception comes by way of Yoshio (Yon) Shimizu, who was removed from Victoria, British Columbia, three days after his 18th birthday. Shimizu collected letters to the editor of the New Canadian—an English-language newspaper for Japanese readers that continued production during the war. He compiled these internees’ stories of frozen windows and threadbare cabins into a book, The Exiles, published in a limited run in 1993. In 2011, Shimizu recounted his family’s experience to The Globe and Mail, recalling a farewell assembly in his school’s auditorium, where students tearfully recited the Lord’s Prayer. He shared memories of his experience tidying a tarpaper shack in Schreiber, Ontario, and then harvesting sugar beets and hauling brush.
But Shimizu’s account is rare. “There’s been a huge gap,” Noma says. “I don’t think Ontario is aware of the history.”
Meanwhile, the roadhouse itself began its own disappearing act.
When it was built in the 1920s, the structure had some Art Deco flair—relatively rare in rural Ontario—but the crinolated roof is long gone, and the former dining room has been stripped of decorative glass panels. The foundation has kneeled; the structure is etched with jagged cracks. White boards flap loose from the windows; sun-bleached grass and leggy wildflowers tuft up from the gravel. Inside, the ceiling is bloated with water damage and rot. The bunk beds that the internees once slept on had long ago been replaced by ratty corduroy couches.
The building’s advanced state of neglect presents a challenging case for local preservationists. When Chatham-Kent’s mayor, Randy Hope, was asked about it by a reporter for the Chatham Daily News, he admitted that he’d also been unaware of its historical significance. "I, like most, thought it was just some ugly building," he said.
The more the roadhouse decayed, the more its history seemed to recede. “You forget it’s there, because it’s just part of your day-to-day existence,” says Lisa Gilberts, a historian who serves on the municipal heritage committee. “You don’t even look at it. Once in a while, you might say, ‘Oh, that building’s not looking that great.’”
John Taylor, the chair of municipal heritage committee, grew up in Ridgetown, just a short drive down the road. “The importance of the building was never presented to me in school,” he says. “It seemed to fall between the cracks.” The application for a demolition permit spurred a closer look at the building’s history and future, Taylor says. “That’s when we intervened, and said, ‘Wait, just a minute here—this building has a history, and we need to look at that.’”
But the report conceded that the building’s owner—a member of a wealthy local farming family who has not responded to my requests for comment—opposed the designation. That may have tipped the scales against the building. “Our council, unfortunately, has gone on record as saying that they will not allow designation of the building where the owner of the property does not want it designated,” Taylor says.
In February, the council rejected the Heritage Committee’s proposal in a vote of 17-1, giving the green light to demolition.
When I talked to people around Chatham-Kent last summer, many were quick to point out that their town is full of good intentions. This is a place so peaceful and law-abiding that the local crime blotter lists a stolen pot of geraniums. The relocation program of 1942 wasn’t their idea: It was a federal order that, through an accident of history, deposited its victims on their doorstep. Should today’s residents wrestle with the question of their own accountability in this national shame, more than a half century later?
That’s a question without easy answers. But now that locals have recognized the history they’ve inherited, they have to decide what to do with it.
Except for the two tarpaper cabins still standing on an internment site in British Columbia, the physical traces left behind by the Japanese-Canadian relocation program have all but disappeared. The Eatonville Roadhouse is the last tangible remnant of this part of Ontario’s history. Does that mean it needs to be saved?
“People attach a lot of authenticity to the actual site,” says Erica Doss, a professor of American Studies at the University Notre Dame and the author of the book Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. But Doss adds that a token relic doesn’t go far enough. Interpretative materials—things people can read, participate in, or think about—distinguish these sites of national trauma from sunnier tourist locations. In the U.S., many former internment sites are under the purview of the National Parks Service; the 814-acre Manzanar camp at the base of California’s Sierra Nevada, for instance, draws some 95,000 visitors annually.
Doss says that though these sites attract tourists, they’re also critical “memory resources,” encouraging visitors to confront uncomfortable parts of history—and avoid repeating them. “Otherwise, it becomes like going to Disneyland,” Doss adds. “We don’t need to create materials where people are entertained. We should be educated. We should feel shame. We should say, ‘I will never let this happen again.’”
Since the path to demolition was cleared, a handful of local and national groups have made preservation efforts. Acting on behalf of the NAJC, Noma tried to make inroads with the owner and the provincial government. Noma says the owner—whom he describes as “very supportive and very sympathetic”—might be amenable to suggestions, if he didn’t have to bankroll the rehabilitation himself; the NAJC doesn’t have the financial capacity to purchase and renovate the property, either. Mayor Hope says that that the municipality can’t fund such projects when they’re struggling to preserve old cemeteries and shore up roads. “If I’m forced to fix a bridge or fix an old museum or an old house, I can tell you which way council’s going to go,” he says.
Several proposals for reusing the structure emerged, including returning it to its former function as a restaurant, with murals to narrate the building’s heritage. Others suggest turning the site into a museum. Jerry Hind wants to make it part of a self-guided driving tour that would wind past the locations of other camps and a basic training center that sent 40,000 soldiers off to war. Maybe the area could be decorated with flags, he adds, or cherry trees.
The nearby Tecumseh Parkway, which links regional sites associated with the War of 1812, offers a possible blueprint. But that project’s development totaled more than $620,000, cradled by federal funds. There’s little to suggest that the roadhouse effort could rustle up that much cash. Mayor Hope says he’s open to ideas and committed “to telling the story,” but he notes that the preservation effort will require some compromise. “You may not be able to preserve the building today.”
Many locals expected demolition by last spring. The building is still standing, but it may just be biding its time. “It could be gone tomorrow,” Gilberts says. “You’ll drive by one day, and the next day, it’s gone.”
Still, for those who spent the war far from home in this corner of Canada, a memorial may soon be the only artifact testifying to a painful past. Places can lose their memories, just as people do. Before I left, Hind showed me a group portrait he’d found of the men from the camp. Someone had tried to annotate the photograph. There were a few names, but more question marks, and beneath them, in shaky scrawl: "I remember their faces."