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A meditation on loss, refugee-making, and the feast of grace

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The Mennonite family – ten children – is stuffed into a boxy 1930 Chrysler, the younger ones standing or sitting on laps. Southern Alberta’s chinook wind sandpapers the car’s windows as it leans and sways in the gale. In a roadside field, a Japanese family – children crawling, parents bent low – is hoeing and thinning the sugar beets on a Mennonite-owned farm.

The little boy asks, “Why are they working on Sunday? Don’t they believe in God?” The reply: “They want to, so we let them.”

Two orders-in-council, one in the 1920s, the other in 1942, brought these two peoples to Coaldale, on land appropriated from Indians: Mennonites from Russia, Japanese from British Columbia.

The Mennonites in Russia had been swept into the anarchy of the post-1917 Communist Revolution. In Canada, the Borden government had closed its doors to “undesirables” such as Hutterites, Doukhobors, and Mennonites. But when Mennonite representatives petitioned the government to ease restrictions, Liberal minority leader Mackenzie King told them an election was on the horizon and if his party formed the government he would open the door for Mennonites from Russia.

He kept his promise. Soon Mennonites had settled on CPR irrigation farms in Coaldale, Alberta to again build community: church, Bible school, cheese factory, hospital, cooperative insurance, credit union. Community was life itself.

At this time, the Japanese in British Columbia had already enjoyed Canadian citizenship for two, three, and four generations and were thriving in the Valley. Then, in 1942, the Mackenzie King government passed an order-in-council stripping 22,000 Japanese of their rights, classifying them all as enemy aliens. It gave the government authority to evict, detain, disfranchise, deport at will. They were a danger during war with Japan – this, at least, was the story, fabricated.

The Japanese were rounded up, crowded into cattle pens at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, dispersed to camps in the B.C. interior and to labour on the prairies. Houses, businesses, farms, furniture, mementos, libraries, cars, and machinery were auctioned off at pennies on the dollar. “Let the Japs pay for their own camps,” it was said.

Two orders-in-council: one rescued, the other created, refugees. Both were enacted for expediency, not justice. Canada needed farmers and Mennonites seemed to qualify. Canada did not need the Japanese so they were declared enemy aliens. And, as the narrator of the novel Obasan would later recall, “all our prayers disappear into open space.”

That fall,
in Coaldale, six Japanese girls and boys become the little boy’s Grade 2 classmates. Together they recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning, then sing “God Save Our Gracious King.” German is the Mennonite boy’s first language and he envies the Japanese classmates their clear, unaccented English.

Earlier in the century, in September 1907, a mob of more than 9,000 people marched on Vancouver’s city hall, under a “For a White Canada” banner, to hear speeches about the “yellow peril” in B.C. Rev. Dr. H.W. Fraser addressed the crowd. His own pulpit would soon be in the hands of a Jap or Chinaman, he said, unless steps were taken to stop the influx. It was pure Anglo-Saxon blood that had made the Empire, he declared; it would never be made with a mixture of Asiatic blood.

After the rally, white thugs roared into the so-called Shanghai Alley, shattering every storefront in Chinatown and Japantown. They returned subsequent nights, terrorizing residents and looting stores. The police stood idly by.

The boy in the Chrysler on the way to the Mennonite Brethren Church service and its marvellous singing – 1,000 voices strong – sees the dust-assaulted figures bent over their hoes, but understands little more than their story framed in “they want to.”

He is pleased that his people want to gather and sing. That windy Sabbath, the arched church dome rings with “Stimmt an mit vollem Klang – Come, we that love the Lord, And let our joys be known… We’re marching to Zion.” Across the wind-swept field the Japanese refugees have little to sing about.

On Monday,
the boy’s father takes him into the Coaldale Chinese café to meet Mr. Nagasaki. They sit in a wooden, high-backed booth: two boys – one Japanese, one Mennonite – feet dangling from the bench. Mr. Nagasaki, sand-scarred face wrinkling in smile, orders two large bowls of ice cream for “my boys here.” He counts out the nickels and dimes of beet-thinning money to the owner and the boys draw down into ice-cream heaven.

The Mennonite boy hears snatches of conversation – his father suggesting, “Why don’t you let me help you find a car? It’s a week before harvest time; I can pick you up tomorrow and we can go to Lethbridge.” To murmured response, his father offering, “Well, I can help you with half the payment. My milk and cream check comes on Friday… Oh, no, no, pay me whenever you can.”

At the cheese factory the boy had heard an uncle noting Mr. Nagasaki was a Buddhist. Riding home in the car, he asks his father, “What’s a Buddhist?” His father pauses, then replies, “I don’t know much about that but I think a Buddhist is a good man.” Of course – a big bowl of ice cream “for my boys.”

The boy overhears stories percolating out from the Japanese living among his people. An uncle from the Fraser Valley visits Coaldale and, reporting on the massive Valley flood, remarks that some Japanese in their diaspora sent aid to those on the lands taken away from them. The Coaldale United Church appoints a Japanese pastor and an “English” lady declares to a Mennonite neighbour that she’s leaving the church because “I’m not going to have a Jap tell me about Jesus.” After the war, Japanese who did not sign up for deportation were denied employment but a cousin from Ontario relates that Toronto Jewish merchants violated the policy and gave the Japanese employment. At a family gathering an adult cousin comments that beet crop yields are highest on Japanese-tended fields.

Returning to Coaldale, the boy – now a grown man – follows the road the wind-blown 1930 Chrysler had chugged from the CPR farm to the Coaldale MB Church. He’s driving a Japanese-built Toyota. Parking at the roadside, he opens the windows to the sun-drenched morning air. Bees still hum busily in the shoulder-high sweet clover, a meadowlark trills its love of life from a nearby fencepost, the chinook stretches a blue arch over Big Chief Mountain and opens a sky-full of long-submerged remembering.

It must be Shirley crawling along the beet rows alongside the stooped figures, a mere speck in a vast pitiless sky; in school, a fresh linseed-oiled classroom floor, beside the Quebec heater a stack of poplar firewood; scrolled down over the blackboard a map of a round world flattened, studded the world over with Commonwealth countries in red; coats and lunch pails beside the door; Shirley in a desk across the aisle.

Ah, Shirley. He still sees her solid-coloured dresses of teal green, blue, watermelon red, and yellow, matching socks in narrow strapped shoes, glistening black hair held back by bead-studded barrettes, obsidian eyes, and sun-burst smile; a neat desk, no inkwell spillage. Shirley spreading her lunch in anticipation while he hunkers ashamed behind his syrup pail of Zwieback and Schinkefleisch – buns and ham. She, curious, offers to share, then declares his Zwieback delicious. At home his sister wonders over his increased appetite and requests for more Zwieback in his lunch.

Then the church dome, swelling with song, mutes the growling wind scraping at the windows: “Wie suess toent Sabbatglockenklang! How sweetly chime the Sabbath bells! The vales and hills resound…” But his voice is numbed; the song layered over with Shirley crawling through the swirling dust, sunk in ineffable sadness.

Now the chinook wind moans through the Toyota’s grill. Where have all the Japanese children gone? Was there ever any answer blowing in the Coaldale wind?

After the war, the Japanese were banned from returning to B.C. “Let our slogan be, ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the sea,’” declared MP Ian Mackenzie. But none of them stayed in Coaldale either.

In all the horror visited upon the Japanese Canadians, no acts of violence or criminality by them were ever reported. After enduring injustice, the Japanese Canadians made of themselves and of Canada a better people and place, thus rendering a last word on what was done to them.

Joy Kogawa was a six-year-old in a mostly white, middle-class Vancouver neighbourhood, her mother a teacher, her father a minister, when they were shipped to a camp in Slocan Valley, B.C., the men to labour camps. Later the family was moved to Coaldale, where Joy was initiated into the chinook wind’s ferocity and the back-wrenching sugar beet harvest.

She became a poet and novelist, increasingly intent on knowing and understanding her people’s upheaval, on breaking the silence, as she put it in Obasan, “to induce healing.” Today Kogawa’s family home in Vancouver is being restored as a historic site, to also tell of a people made refugees in their own country. Poetry, novels, house – these stones cry out.

David Suzuki spent his formative years in an internment camp in the B.C. Interior. After the war, he and his family were shipped to Ontario, with “only what we could carry in a suitcase.” The scars of innocence betrayed and family impoverishment never entirely leave you, he noted in an interview many years later. Today that refugee boy is a tireless voice for sustainable ecology, warning of ultimate homelessness for us and all things on this planet.

Tomiko (Nakamura) Corbett’s grandfather was a contemporary of Rev. Fraser during the 1907 rally in Vancouver. The family was interned in the Kootenays, the father shipped to a labour camp. At her 1996 acceptance speech as newly elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Corbett spoke of Fraser and her grandfather. “I understand where we have come from, and I marvel at how it has changed,” she said. “I just think it’s a different world, and for that I praise God. It’s still not a perfect world, and that should make us aware when we treat others as less than human.”

The chinook
gathers force, keening in the grill of the car. The meadowlark has flown to protect its young nested in the prairie grass; the bees have vanished from the wind-blown clover. Closing the Toyota windows, the man follows the Chrysler to the building that was the Mennonite Brethren Church of his childhood, and is now the Gem of the West Museum. Where the earlier immigrant MB church was largely exclusionist and sectarian, the former Sunday school rooms now draw an inclusive circle, featuring the various ethnic and religious groups in Coaldale’s history: Ukrainian, Hungarian, Dutch, German, Commonwealth, Vietnamese, and Aboriginal.

The artifacts, and particularly the pictures, are not merely facts now, but balloon for him into true narrative of lives lived. How could he have lived at the narrative’s living centre, not knowing, seeing nothing but surface reflections?

Here a picture reflects a teenaged male quartet with a preacher ready to missionize on the Indian reservation nearby. To the assembled Aboriginals they had harmonized, “Tempted and tried, we’re oft’ made to wonder, Why it should be thus all the day long…Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine.” After the preacher urged them to get saved, the Indians hosted the visitors with refreshments. An Aboriginal matron concluded with, “May the Great Spirit guide you safely to your home.” How could he have sensed the irony, embedded in the sham of Treaty 7?

Man – and boy, so to speak – leave the Gem of the West Museum and walk to the cemetery. The evening light casts long, tapered tombstone shadows. Names, inscriptions, dates, and epitaphs tell surface stories; narrative lies interred.

Everyone is gathered here – the religiously powerful, the floundering lost, the outsiders, the loving believers, the careful insiders – funnelled, so to speak, into eternity. Order and silence seem to prevail.

But behind the shadows, the tombstones give voice. To those thrust aside for one reason or another. To refugees of all kinds. To beloved Abraham Wilms, poet and lay preacher, rising before a stern church assembly labouring over how to treat the breakers of rules, with “We forgive gladly and stretch out the hand of fellowship.”

Suddenly Preacher Wilms’ stone cries out about the eternal Galilean of Luke 22. “Jesus got into trouble because he sided with the poor, the excommunicated, the spiritually disoriented, and the shunned outsiders. His answer is an invitation to a banquet, not rule enforcement; inclusion, not separation. The righteous reject the invitation because Jesus eats with sinners when he should be shunning them. But, my brothers and sisters, Jesus invites all, all of us sinners, into the circle of his grace and peace. With Jesus’ servants we say: There is still more room at the wedding feast of grace.

“All is prepared,” Wilms trumpets. “All is ready; come to the banquet!”

The setting sun flashes beneath the chinook arch. The church windows blaze incandescently as though backlit in high voltage. Wilms is concluding his sermon. “Let us sing the song about the wedding feast of grace, Horch dein Heiland laesst dich laden – Hark, your Saviour bids you welcome.”

Above the shadowed tombs a thousand voices fill the sky.

Jack Dueck is a storyteller and speaker from Waterloo, Ont. He grew up in Coaldale, Alta.

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