A sign recognizing the forced labour of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War was unveiled alongside the Trans-Canada Highway near Revelstoke, British Columbia and the ceremony included a 97-year-old man who helped build the road.

“It’s been 76 years since Griffin Lake road camp,” recounted Stony Nakano. “I was here from May 15 to about the first week of September in 1942.”

Prior to his time in the camp, Nakano spend the first 21 years of his life in the area between Vancouver and Harrison Hot Springs. For a young man beginning his adult life, Nakano revelled in the experience of spending a summer in the mountains. “Straightening the road out around these mountains, I thought it was an essential job and I enjoyed doing it and made a lot of friends. It was a good part of my life and I remember it very well.”

Following his four months of forced paid labour, making 25 cents an hour, Nakano continued east and spent four years in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Nakano’s father immigrated to Canada from Japan in 1907 and the internment of Japanese-Canadians devastated him. “My dad, he got everything taken away. It was the saddest part of his life.”

Howard Shimokura is a member of the committee responsible for the Highway signs honouring the labourers and says the markers act as a reminder of a dark period in Canada’s history.

“These eight signs that we put up, this is the eighth and final one, commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Japanese-Canadian internment which took place at locations close to these signs,”  explained Shimokura. “The whole point of this exercise is to memorialize and bring forward the history of the Japanese-Canadians.”

“The Government of Canada decided all persons of Japanese origin were to be treated as enemy aliens and therefore forced to be expelled from the west coast of British Columbia. Any persons living within 100 miles of the coast  were to be removed forcibly by the government and interned in internment camps.”

Laura Saimoto’s family on her mother’s side and father’s side were interned during the Second World War. She says the unveiling ceremony filled her with joy and gratitude.

“This project of commemorating the internment history with actual markers at the actual site has been a community dream and a family dream for decades,” said Saimoto. “It’s a dream come true today.”

Saimoto says racial discrimination stills exists in the present day, citing the immigration policies of the United States, and that steps must be taken to ensure we learn from the past to ensure the same mistakes are not made again. “Freedom is not something that we take for granted but something that we actually earn and have to protect and work towards.”

As the number of  internment camp survivors diminishes as the decades progress, Shimokura says it is incredibly important that their stories stay alive. “Most of this history has been forgotten. Very few people know about the history of the internment period. What we wanted to do with this project is to bring forward the story and create more public awareness of this episode and to offer a teaching moment for young people in particular.”

For 97-year-old Nakano, visits to the mountains are still enjoyable and he was honoured to see the tribute sign.  “Today is really exceptional to me and I’m very glad I came.”

With files from CTV’s Stephanie Wiebe