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New Denver’s Nikkei centre turns 20

As the Nikkei Memorial Internment Centre in New Denver marked its 20th anniversary Saturday, one of its founders recalled how a key building was nearly lost.

Roy Inouye, past president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, told the large crowd that Kyowakai Hall, built in 1943 as a communal bathhouse but used instead as a community centre, was going to be burned down in the early 1990s.

Inouye convinced Buddhist church elders to instead preserve the building for its historic value — but had no idea where the money would come from.

Fortunately, the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation, created a few years earlier to administer a $12 million community fund that was part of a federal settlement, came to the rescue. Their view, Inoyue said, was “Let us not think of it as a project for New Denver. Let’s make it a national project.”

Today Kyowakai Hall is home to a series of exhibits on the internment of Japanese Canadians in West Kootenay. It is also still a functioning Buddhist temple.

The centre itself, Inouye said, is the only one of its kind in North America. It has since been declared a national historic site.

“Thanks to the residents of New Denver for taking care of the Japanese Canadians during their interment and for taking care of the site now,” Inouye told those gathered. “We must have these sites that the atrocities put upon the Japanese people by the government will never happen again.”

Thousands of Japanese Canadians were exiled from the Lower Mainland to the interior during World War II, to be housed in ghost towns and camps in difficult conditions, many crammed into poorly heated shacks.

Project manager Ken Butler recalled that it only took about a year to put the entire centre together, which included moving original shacks onto the site.

Interpreting the story was a challenge, he said, but was helped by the discovery in a local garage of a trunk filled with documents that “told the story of upheaval and traumatic events that transpired.”

Former internees who still lived in New Denver were a “guiding influence” on the project. “There were many times during the interview process with elders that all you could do was cry,” Butler said.

He also recalled the influence of Roy Tomomichi Sumi, who designed a peace garden for the centre in a style known as karesansui (“dried-up water scenery”).

Sumi was interned at Rosebery and took seedlings from his gardens to Vancouver, where he worked for the Nitobe Memorial Gardens at the University of BC. Some of those plants then came back to New Denver for the Nikkei centre.

This story will appear in the West Kootenay Advertiser.

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