Journey through the past
Four B.C. millennials patch together their families’ stories of displacement through the travel trunks and chests they carried
VANCOUVER— They carried them on ships from war-torn and defeated Germany and Japan.
They carried them on a renegade trek across B.C. fleeing assimilation.
They carried them into internment camps as everything else of theirs was seized and sold.
They carried them as their homes were burned to make way for modern Vancouver.
For generations, countless people who call this land home have carried their valuables on the move — in wooden chests and trunks.
Now, four millennials of diverse backgrounds are yearning to connect with their family stories through those same travelling chests.
This Canada Day weekend, StarMetro Vancouver explores some of B.C.’s seldom-acknowledged “people’s histories” of migration, displacement, survival and struggle. Here are some of those stories.
Xats’alanexw (Victor Harry), 39
Canada called it “Kitsilano Reserve,” but to the Squamish people, it was always the fishing village of Senakw.
Authorities destroyed it in 1913, displacing its residents across to the north shore of the Burrard Inlet; what’s left today is a museum parking lot and the base of Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge. Victor Harry’s ancestral name, Xats’alanexw, is the original inspiration for its current name — Kitsilano.
“When I go to Senakw, I always pray,” he says. “The house where my great-grandfather was born in and lived was right under where the Burrard Bridge is today. But it was gone after they built it. My great-grandfather, (Chief) Alvie Andrew was actually the last one to be born in Senakw area of our Squamish people. He was the one who actually put my first ancestral name on me when I was 13.
“Our people were nomadic and would go to different spots to fish. Eventually, people stayed there; the government said, ‘You’re going to stay there and be called a reserve now.’
“But later the city wanted the land to develop everything around that area. They told them to pack up their things, what they had, and get on a barge and move. The city brought the police as well, to enforce that they had to leave the area. They had to leave their houses, and a lot of them were knocked down or burned.
“According to my great-grandfather — he was on that barge — they only took certain things, like spiritual objects and sentimental stuff. Ever since the potlatch was banned under the Indian Act, he’d been hiding ceremonial masks, sacred objects to our people, up in his roof.
“I have a box with a keyhole I got from my great-grandfather, his initials are carved on it and it carried his ceremonial mask and the scallop shell rattle they used in ceremonies. I still have that box today.
“My grandpa said, ‘Everything survived for a reason.’ It’s the stuff that was given to our people — gifts, we believe, from the Creator. It’s a tie to what we have.”
Nicole von Szombathy, 35
For Vancouver credit union employee Nicole von Szombathy, her family’s history was brought to the surface when two large shipping crates were discovered in her grandmother’s West Side garage.
Her mother hails from Japan, and emigrated to B.C. in search of a new life. Her father’s side of the family came from Germany after the Second World War, bringing with them their pos- sessions bound for Canada. Here’s how she tells it:
“After the war, it was a time of mass migration. My German grandfather fought in Russia at one point. He ended up walking away at one point and hiding out in a farmhouse. You weren’t allowed to speak about the war with him at all. He suffered depression — they wouldn’t have called it that — and the war was an off-limits topic. Obviously, it was traumatizing.
“I don’t know why they picked Vancouver, but I think they just wanted to give my dad and uncle a different opportunity and somewhere they wouldn’t potentially be drafted if it ever came to war again. They must have landed on the East Coast and taken a train over here with these chests.
“The truth is, I didn’t even know they still had these trunks with them until we were cleaning out their garage. These raw wooden crates appealed to me. They had the old shipping labels with my grandfather’s name on them. It’s amazing to think about what my families would have chosen to crate over here.
“When we stumbled across these chests in the garage, my dad told me, ‘We can’t open them until we’re all together, there might be something really cool in them.’ We thought there’d be hidden family treasures. So me, my dad, mom and brother were there we finally opened them. One was filled with just random doorknobs; the other one with old ledger books; my grandfather was an accountant. It was literally just junk! We were all so excited — for garbage!
“Some people have to pack up and leave on a whim, others have time to deliberate.
“I think about what I would take, in the heat of that moment of leaving, if I had just a few crates. It’s so different from our perspective now, when you think about how that generation didn’t have things stored on a computer or a smartphone. I don’t print photos anymore, so now those things don’t feel so tangible.
“Obviously, I’d bring a few clothes I’d want once I arrived in the new place, but for the sentimental pieces it makes you think about what really has meaning to you.
“It sounds sort of silly, but one thing off the top of my head is a tiny little beaded animal — a good-luck charm given from my grandmother to my mom. When I was scared of something as a kid, she passed it on to me. We hold on to such things. All I know is these trunks came over on a boat, and I want to know more of their stories.”
Dana Smith, 37
The first Doukhobors fled to Canada from Russia in 1897, with the help of War and Peace novelist Leo Tolstoy. Their pacifist, anti-government and antichurch brand of Christianity saw them persecuted by Russian tsars after they refused to be drafted for war. Dana Smith, a Vancouver massage therapist, grew up in Blewett, B.C. — close to the largest settlement of Doukhobor exiles in the Kootenay region. Her ancestors were among those in the diaspora who bris- tled at the pressure to assimilate into Canadian culture or pledge allegiance to the Crown; many children were forced into public schools or apprehended and placed in camps.
From the 1920s until the 1950s, a faction within the community resisted assimilation through a series of bombings, sometimes burning their own and neighbours’ homes. In 1952, the B.C. government forced many into internment near New Denver, B.C., only expressing regret in 2004 for the abuse they endured. Her father, fled California during the Vietnam war, fearing a return of conscription and helped draftdodgers escape to B.C. “My mum’s grandparents came from Russia to Canada, to B.C., by boat and then across the land. The Doukhobors didn’t really dig what was happening with industrialism and war.
“They weren’t part of a community per se, they weren’t living communally, but they had a property that was in our family until just the last year or two. They farmed it and gardened it and tended orchards on it.
“But growing up, there was some sort of ‘Shush’ that was part of the culture. There’s not a lot of Doukhobor pride anymore, and there was maybe a little more shame when I was growing up. People didn’t come together and celebrate like they used to; here used to be choirs and really defining events, weddings and funerals.
“There was lots of not-awesome things because it was an insular community, including histories of child abuse and alcoholism. And there was all this press and media perception the world has of the community as well. There was a sort of quiet retreat from the dark history. Maybe I wasn’t curious enough, or maybe I felt I shouldn’t ask about it.
“But I’ve seen pictures of my mum, who said, ‘That’s when we were in Kelowna on the Trek, that’s when we were in wherever.’ It was always a thing in my family, ‘I remember when … on the Trek.’ There was always just an assumption that I knew what the Trek was. Only recently did I ask what it was about.
“They were afraid and trying to avoid things that weren’t working for them, that had to do with them taking away their children. My mum has memories of going to visit cousins who were in this enclosure and they’d hold hands through the fence. They were trying to get to the coast to leave. They wanted to go back to Russia.
“There’s a family house that my great-grandparents built; my mom grew up in that house, except when she was on the Trek. Some of the older possessions in the house my mom suspects was brought over from Russia with them. One was a small chest that had old newspapers from the 1950s lining the bottom of it.
“It’s quite light, and smells like an old wooden chest. It’s woody and has an old, good smell that’s not dusty but the kind that’s loved.
“I’d like to think the chest was taken on the Trek. Although of course I’d also love to think it was brought over on a boat with all these Russian renegades and filled with blankets and heirlooms and a wooden ladle and embroidered scarves. But possibly my mum’s father made it, he was a wood-worker who made lots of beautiful things.
“Let’s be real here: trunks are the worst way to actually store things today. But actually, it’s the perfect dimensions for a an 8.5-by-11-inch paper, so it’s my filing cabinet for Telus bills, the vaccination history of my daughter, and tax returns, all the things that connect me to the government — things that are very much not Doukhobor! But I have a spiritual practice, and the implements I use sit on top of it, it’s sort of my altar.”
Kayla Isomura, 24
One of the darkest chapters in B.C.’s history is the forced internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War — their homes, businesses and possessions seized by the government that falsely promised to keep them safe. Instead, they were sold off as entire generations, were rounded up and herded off the coast with just a few suitcases or boxes.
Photographer Kayla Isomura’s family were among those in Vancouver who were forced on short notice to report to the Hastings Racetrack, today on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds — then turned into a temporary holding camp — with few possessions.
The trauma internment inflicted on her parents and grandparents inspired her to create a photo exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, B.C., where she’s a curatorial intern.
She invited other fourth-generation Japanese-Canadians like her to pack a suitcase with 70 kilograms on short notice, and documented what they’d bring today — and what they’d be forced to leave behind: “I was wondering what my grandparents and my greatgrandparents would have brought with them to internment camps during World War II. But I never knew them. I don’t know how much was lost between the moving to internment camps and how much people lost on the way.
“My dad’s parents and his grandparents were interned. My dad’s dad’s family before the war was living in Vancouver; they were sent to Greenwood, B.C. Then on my dad’s mom’s side, they were actually living near Prince Rupert, but they had to come down to Vancouver to live in Hastings Park for a few months, before going to an internment camp.
“They were detained in the barn stalls at Hastings park, which is now the PNE, those buildings still. Those horse stalls weren’t even really transformed — but just turned into living accommodations for people with bedsheets separating families sleeping on stacks of hay.
“My family never talked about it. But I thought, what would I pack? Working with the museum, I’ve been able to look at their database and have learned a lot of teenagers interned at the time just brought a lot of their musical records.
“One thing I’d take was a film camera and film, because capturing things on film is so different because you have to be more careful about what you’re capturing. It’s more timeless.
“The thing about the younger generation, and with history as a whole, is that in some families like mine the history and the stories of internment weren’t passed down. It’s nothing I really learned about myself until four years ago.
“A lot of young people I spoke to for my suitcase project felt they’re really lacking our history in our education system; a lot of us didn’t even know about it until we heard it from a family member.
“There’s a saying in the Japanese community, ‘It can’t be helped.’ It happened, let’s just move on. Some families don’t want to talk about it; it could also be trauma. Some of the participants had their families’ original suitcases.
“I was so curious about the moment people were told to pack and leave — many wrote letters protesting that they didn’t give permission to sell my things.
“Before the Suitcase Project, I knew there were a lot of us out there — but I didn’t know that so many people really wanted to talk about this idea. People are starting to have these conversations with their parents.”
“They were detained in barn stalls” during internment