Prince Rupert Cherry Blossom Gift Remembered with Plaque
Historic gift came to light when trees were accidentally cut down
By DAVE KIFFER
December 05, 2018
In March, Public Services and Procurement Canada contracted with a Terrace firm to make improvements to the Prince Rupert federal building at Fourth Street and Second Avenue West. On March 23, the contractor began to remove cherry blossom trees on the site, chopping down several of them. One of the employees in the building noticed the cutting going on and immediately ran out to stop the contractors.
That led to an investigation that uncovered a story not well known to many of the locals. The Northern View in Prince Rupert noted in a story in March that although many residents had admired the half century old cherry trees, very few knew the story behind them. It involved a long-time resident of the community who had been interned during World War II and never returned, but still wanted to do something for the community that had been good to him for more than 30 years.
Shotaro “Tom” Shimizu first came to Prince Rupert in 1907 to work on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway line which was being constructed. (See “100 Years Ago, Grand Trunk Railroad Came to Northwest BC.” SITNEWS, April 1, 2014)
After a decade in the community, Shimizu opened a 30-room hotel and restaurant called New Dominion on Third Avenue in 1917. Shimizu’s 81-year-old son Henry remembers working in the restaurant.
“I was only 13 at the time and the only thing I ever did was fold napkins for the various tables with my cousin,” Henry Shimizu told The Northern View earlier this year. “We used to put them in a glass cup and we would put them on all the tables.”
The New Dominion remained open through the depression and during the early stages of World War II, as workers came to Prince Rupert to help build ships for the war effort, but after the Pearl Harbor attack, Canada followed the United States’ lead and removed its citizens of Japanese descent from the West Coast.
On February 26, 1942, the Shimizu family was notified it would be relocated and on March 23, 1942, the family left the community on the very railway that Tom Shimizu had helped build three decades earlier.
Henry Shimizu said that several of his classmates came to see him off at the train station.
“They thought I was going on a vacation or something, but I didn’t have any idea where I was going,” he told The Northern View.
The family joined 27,000 other Japanese-Americans at an internment camp near New Denver, an old mining community in Southeast British Columbia near the Alberta border.
They spent four years at New Denver. During that time, the hotel/restaurant was seized and sold by the federal Custodian of Enemy Property. When they were released in 1946, there was nothing in Prince Rupert to return to.
“I remember an official saying that I was a Canadian-born, enemy alien which never made sense to me,” Henry Shimizu told The Northern View in March of 2018. “How can you be both Canadian and an enemy alien?”
Even if the family wanted to return to Prince Rupert, it couldn’t because Japanese were restricted from returning to the city until 1949.
The Shimizu’s resettled in Edmonton, Alberta and got on with their lives.
But family members say that Tom Shimizu kept fond memories of Prince Rupert. He had even named one of his sons, Kaien, after the island that Prince Rupert is on.
“He enjoyed Prince Rupert and felt that he had prospered to some degree,” Henry Shimizu told The Northern View. “And he wanted to give something back for what he had received.”
In 1959, Tom Shimizu arranged for 500 cherry blossom trees to be given to Prince Rupert. They were planted at the cemetery, Port Edward School, the Miller Bay Indian Hospital and the federal building. Private citizens also received trees for their gardens.
A year later, he sent 1,000 more trees to the community. Tom Shimizu would die in 1981, never having returned to Prince Rupert.
“He was creating this thing that people could see that couldn’t be taken away,” his grandson, Greg Shimizu told The Northern View.
And yet, because the story of the gift had been forgotten, some of it was taken away.
Seventy six years to the day that the Shimizu family was literally “railroaded” out of Prince Rupert, the contractor began chopping down the cherry blossom trees next to the federal building.
When officials realized what had happened, they made arrangements to replace the trees and to also do grafting onto several other damaged ones in attempt to save them. Officials in Ottawa also reached out to the Shimizu with an apology and invited family members to Prince Rupert for a re-dedication of the federal building trees and to unveil a plaque on the site commemorating the gift of the trees by Tom Shimizu.
On Nov. 15, 2018 seven members of the Shimizu family were in Prince Rupert for the plaque dedication.
“When I grew up, and when my grandfather passed away, I remember whispering of cherry trees, but it was like a myth, short on details and specifics,” Gregory Shimizu said at the Nov. 15 dedication, adding that a couple of years ago, he had found letters from the 1950s that confirmed the story. Then the family got word some of the trees had been mistakenly cut.
Officials said they were happy to have a chance to undo at least some of the damage.
“It should outlast all of us, it should outlast the building that it’s next to,” Dan Del Villano, regional manager for Public Services and Procuremant Canada, said during the Nov. 15 ceremony.
Family members thanked the community for commemorating Tom Shimizu’s gift.
“It’s a hidden history,” Gregory Shimizu added at the ceremony. “People had these (trees) in their lives for 60 years not knowing where they came from, they just exist and it’s fun for people to just enjoy something not knowing where they’re from and then having a whole other chapter of history open up, so I think it’s fun to know that there [are] trees that will still survive.”
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