A ‘Showplace’ of Forcible Relocation

Japanese T.B. hospital on Lake Slocan; New Denver, BC. Circa 1943. John W Duggan fonds. 1994.60.19. Nikkei National Museum.

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This is the third post in the Perennial Problems series exploring the intersections of environmental history and histories of health

During the Second World War, the government of Canada confiscated Japanese-Canadian property and forced nearly 22,000 Japanese-Canadians to leave the Pacific Coast for “interior settlement centres” or “camps” as well as other locations east of the Rocky Mountains.[1] The camps were mostly located in the picturesque Slocan Valley of the West Kootenay region in British Columbia. In his book, The Enemy That Never Was, former Japanese-Canadian internee Ken Adachi recalled the irony of such a beautiful place being the site of racialized isolation. He stated that “the interior camps were psychologically deceptive places in which to live. The magnificence of the outdoor setting and the echoes of a romantic past were but candy wrapping, hiding a grim reality.”[2]

Climate and environmental conditions of internment sites are common topics in memories that Japanese-Canadian internees, like Adachi, share about their experiences. Yet, there remains a gap within historical work on internment. Historians have pointed to the importance of place type and spaces of internment but, there has been little attention given to the natural environment – the snow, trees, and rivers – as a critical aspect of the lived experience. [3] Due to the centrality of environment as captured in first-hand accounts, I argue that we must examine the central role environment played in internment history, particularly with respect to health care.

For instance, despite the number of historians who have shown the importance of choosing sanatorium sites with lots of fresh air, trees, and water, there is an obvious disconnect between the minimal consideration the government gave to environment when selecting a site versus the critical role environment played in the health and health care at the Sanatorium, or the “San,” at New Denver.  

The Sanatorium at New Denver, 1943.
Irene (nee Anderson) Smith photographic collection. 1996.155.1.73. Nikkei National Museum

The New Denver “San” was situated on the east side of Slocan Lake, in the upper Columbia River Basin. [6] It was to have a 100-bed capacity, solely for the accommodation of Japanese-Canadian tuberculosis cases. The building, the Canadian government reported, “was constructed as a permanent building as though it could be used after the war as a TB Sanatorium.”[7] Because of these factors the “San” was labeled a “showplace” of modern medicine by the International Red Cross and an achievement of the Canadian government; it was framed as a positive outcome of a racist policy. [8]

But I argue that the creation of the “San” at New Denver had little to do with environment, and more to do with the necessity of building such a facility in order to evacuate all Japanese-Canadian people from Vancouver, including those in tuberculosis treatment centres. The permanence and segregation of the building was in line with the goal of permanently relocating the Japanese out of Vancouver and the racialized understandings of tuberculosis as a medical problem of the ‘other’. As historian Maureen Lux demonstrates in her work, sanatoriums were “a site of exclusion and isolation,” and the social function of the institution emerged clearly as tuberculosis became more associated with ethnic minorities, the working class, and the poor. [5] 

New Denver, 1943. The Sanatorium is the large building in the foreground.
Harold (Katsutaro) Hayashi collection. 1992.32.19. Nikkei National Museum

Government records also seem to suggest that environment was not a primary concern when the Slocan Valley was chosen for sites of internment. Rather, they show that these ‘ghost-towns’ were chosen because they offered infrastructure that could quickly and cheaply serve as shelter for the Japanese-Canadian community, within a region where anti-Asian sentiment was, comparatively, less hostile and the need for labourers, it was hoped, would trump any racial opposition. [4] Records reveal that the environment was of secondary concern to financial and logistical matters of initial relocation efforts. Indeed, when the “San” is reported on, its financial success and medical grandeur are typically the only factors highlighted.

At the same time, it appeared that the Japanese-Canadian physicians treating their own ethnic community in the Slocan Valley were not as concerned with tuberculosis as their neighbours. Instead, the Japanese-Canadian physicians within the camps in the region remembered that during the first winter of internment they treated an unusually high number of cases of appendicitis. They attributed this to “something to do with the [abrupt change of] environment.”[9]

Overview of an internment camp; Slocan, BC.
Ryota and Shizue Kawasaki collection
. 2010. Nikkei National Museum.

What we can discern is that the environment of the Slocan Valley did impact the success of tuberculosis treatments at New Denver. The ‘fresh-air’ of the mountains and lakes aligned exactly with the mainstream treatment of tuberculosis at the time. The proximity to x-ray technology and operators also afforded the Japanese-Canadian internees access to quick diagnoses, and the “San” was ultimately a medical facility dedicated to their care. But, the irony of these positive outcomes must be considered alongside the harsh reality of the broader policy of internment. Indeed, the overcrowded fourteen-by-twenty-eight foot wooden shacks, which sometimes housed two families, offered little insulation and protection from the snow, rain, and cold, and demonstrate that the very construction of these interior settlement centres had the potential to contribute to a rise in infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, among the community.[10]

Both environment and health care lenses are vitally important to expanding our knowledge of the experience of internment for Japanese-Canadians. Both allow us a window into the everyday experience of internees, including health care providers and patients, who responded to environmental conditions of the Slocan Valley. Furthermore, because of the extent to which the environment is mentioned by Japanese-Canadians in their recollections of internment, my doctoral research aims to provide a critical analysis of the role that environment and climate played in health care during internment.


[1] For the breakdown of where else Japanese-Canadians were as of October 31, 1942, see “Removal of Japanese from Protected Areas,” Report issued by British Columbia Security Commission, March 4, 1942 to October 31, 1942, pp 28-29, Department of Labour Fonds, Government of Dominion of Canada, RG24-G-3-1-a, Vol. 20292, File 934.009, published by the authority of the British Columbia Security Commission, Library and Archives of Canada (LAC), Ottawa.
[2] Ken Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), 251.
[3] Recent attention to the environment and internment in the Japanese-American camps is seen in Connie Y. Chiang, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration (Oxford, 2018).
[4] “Removal of Japanese from Protected Areas,” Report issued by British Columbia Security Commission, March 4, 1942 to October 31, 1942, pp 22.
[5] New Denver, pp. 3-4, Report on Inspection Trip to Vancouver and through Japanese Projects; June 15-30, 1945, British Columbia Security Commission, Department of External Affairs Fonds,Series G2-Vol 3006, file 3464 AN 40, pt 2, Library and Archives of Canada (LAC), Ottawa.
[6] Ernest L. Maag, “Report on visits to settlements of Japanese removed from the Defence Area on the Pacific Coast in the Province of British Columbia,” International de la croix-rouge delegation au Canada, 19 February 1943, 11, in Visits by Various persons to Japanese Internment Camps and Settlements in Canada – Arrangements and reports, 1942/04/10 – 1943/04/25, Department of External Affairs, RG 25, Series G-2, Vol. 3006, file 3464-AN-40, pt. 1, Library and Archives of Canada (LAC), Ottawa.
[7] Maureen K. Lux, Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 11.
[8] Patricia Roy, The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese In Canada, 1941-67 (Vancouver B.C.: UBC Press, 2007), 26 & 41.
[9] Barry Broadfoot, Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame: The Story of Japanese Canadians in World War II (Don Mills, Ontario: Paper Jacks, 1979), 208-210.
[10] Patricia Roy, “If the Cedars Could Speak: Japanese and Caucasians Meet at New Denver.” BC Studies. No. 131 (September 2001): 83.
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Letitia Johnson

Letitia Johnson is a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Her doctoral research looks at the experiences of Japanese-Canadian medical care providers and Japanese-Canadian patients at various internment spaces in British Columbia and Alberta, nuancing our current understandings of the experience of internment for Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War and the significance of such to Canadian health care policy history.

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