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Friday October 30, 2009

Japanese-Canadian helped rebuild Montreal community after the war

Special to The Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- A community rebuilding after a natural or man-made disaster often possesses that one person whose quiet generosity and behind-the-scenes work helps it get back on its feet.

Sam Toguri was that person for Montreal's Japanese community after the Second World War.

Mr. Toguri served as the founding president of the Japanese Canadian Citizens' Association's Quebec chapter to help the community recover from the devastating wartime years of evacuation, internment and resettlement.

When families that had lost so much arrived in Montreal looking for work, a social network and a place to call home, Mr. Toguri's hand often went up to help.

But these were not newcomers; they were Canadians who had been branded enemy aliens by their own government and had lost their property, livelihoods and, during the four years before they would all be resettled, some of their dignity.

A long fight for redress, something in which Mr. Toguri was also involved, would continue into the 1980s.

Sam Toguri was born in Prince Rupert, B.C., to Japanese immigrants. His parents, Tokizo and Tomiye, possessed a strong work ethic and high expectations for their children, who were raised somewhat differently than most other Japanese-Canadians.

The children were taught such things as how to make their point at the dinner table and how to find edibles in the forest.

There was much playing of musical instruments, as their mother experimented with different cuisines.

In the spring of 1942, life changed. The family was given 24 hours to pack by the B.C. Security Commission under the federal War Measures Act. They were first shipped off to Hastings Park, a livestock holding pen that had been converted a week earlier to house British Columbians of Japanese origin. The interned would see their homes and businesses sold off, and find themselves banned from settling in their home province. The fruit of a father's 35 years of cutting timber and pipefitting in sawmills had vanished.

Sam, at the time, was a second-year undergrad at the University of British Columbia, one of 43 Japanese-Canadians at the school forced to halt their studies. The most humiliating moment for him came when he had to give back the uniform that he wore for the Canadian Officer Training Corps, a group at UBC of which he had been proud to be a member.

The Toguris, six of their children with them (their eldest was studying in Japan), would be later shipped to Slocan, a former ghost town, where collapse-prone tents would eventually be replaced by tarpaper shacks. In the winter, their ice-covered doors would often have to be hit with a hammer to be opened.

The interned were permitted to go east and, in the fall of 1942, 21-year-old Sam joined friends who had settled in Montreal and found construction work.

But with most of his family still in Slocan, (his sister Etsu had found work as a domestic in Toronto), life was difficult. When Sam visited the family, he would forgo the practical gifts and make sure he gave his younger siblings toys and costume jewellery. His parents shielded the young children from the difficulties, with his sister Grace McFarlane remembering flower gardening, candy-cane making and lakes to swim in. The two youngest siblings, Allan and Miki, were born during the internment.

When the war ended, Mr. Toguri's family went to Toronto, where the majority of Japanese-Canadians were resettling. His father, 13 years older than his mother and in his late 50s at the time, earned a living as a plumber, carrying his pipes and tools on the streetcar. "He held his head high," Ms. McFarlane said.

Meanwhile, the Japanese in Montreal were greatly helped out by a priest, Claude Labrecque, whose missionary work in Japan gave him a strong connection to their culture. A community centre on Sherbrooke Street near immigrant-friendly St. Laurent was donated, where language classes were given to children, meetings conducted and social dances held (that's where Mr. Toguri would meet his wife).

If for an event someone suggested ice cream be given out to children, Mr. Toguri would buy it. If wood needed to be purchased for a concert stage in the community centre, Mr. Toguri would donate it. Same went for a communion rail in the centre's chapel or building advice for the new centre the community bought with some of the settlement money given by the Mulroney government.

Mr. Toguri, who became a civil engineer in the late 1940s, had a successful career working for a land developer. His two children, who were enrolled in various Japanese cultural activities, knew his credo well: "You have to know where you came from in order to know where you're going."

His later years were spent continuing to give time to his fellow Japanese-Canadians, as well as, among other things, travelling twice a year with his kid sister, Miki, to France.

Sam Toguri Samuel George Toshitoki Toguri was born in Prince Rupert, B.C., on July 25, 1921. He died in Montreal on Sept. 11, 2009, from cancer. He was 88. He leaves his son James and daughter Tokiko, as well as brother Allan, and sisters Etsuko, Makiko, Grace and Miki. He was predeceased by his wife, Keyoko, and brothers Eizo, Jim and David.

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