VICTORIA — An ongoing series of stories arising from the Landscapes of Injustice claims have been posted on the Touched by Dispossession section of the website. An article from 2016 about my family’s history in Paldi, B.C. prompted an email from a reader, sparking a remarkable journey of the repossession of an end table built by my Uncle Bob Toyota before the war. Here is the provenance of this piece of family history.
Reuniting with a piece of family history after nearly 80 years. Kento Abe, Judy, Izumi Abe, Mike R, Mike Abe. Photo credit: Michael Abe.
In 1991, my Auntie Katy (Kaoru nee Toyota) and Uncle Kumy (Kumeo) Yoshida came from London, Ont. with Kumy’s brother Shige Yoshida’s family for the unveiling of the Lone Scout mural in Chemainus, B.C. The mural paid tribute to Shige’s history as a scout leader, starting in Chemainus and eventually building the largest scout troop in the Commonwealth while interned in Tashme, just outside Hope, B.C.
Years later, I heard a story that someone came up to them and said that they still had their family’s furniture. They had held it for safekeeping until the family returned after their forced removal. “We’ve been looking for you for 50 years,” she said.
When I asked my aunt for more details about what happened, she said she couldn’t remember, and so this family urban legend remained a mystery for another 30 years. Until recently.
My mother, Ruth, was the 13th of 14 children to Shoshichi and Kiriye Toyota living in Paldi, just outside Duncan, before the Second World War. Her Uncle Daigoro and Aunt Hanayo and their 10 children lived next door. The houses and furniture were built by some of her brothers, including Mus, George, and Bob.
Paldi, known as Mayo at the time, was a bustling sawmill community populated with Indo, Japanese and Chinese Canadians. Caucasians were the minority in this unique community. My aunt remembers it fondly as a place where there was little racial discrimination despite a very racist B.C. at the time.
Sadly, not much remains of Paldi today, and in 2015 my cousin and my family went looking for the exact location of the Toyota houses, eventually discovering not only the location but the two plum trees that my grandmother used to make umeboshi. I wrote about it in an article, Paldi, The Town History Plum Forgot, after my mother visited in 2016, and there it has remained, on the Landscapes of Injustice website.
Fast forward to September 2020, imagine my surprise when I received an email from a visitor to the site. She wrote:
Hello, my name is Judy Koga-Ross. Thank you for sharing your lovely story. I lived and grew up in Paldi and married into the Ross family from Duncan. Mary and Perry Ross held onto some dresser drawers for a Toyota family during the internment. They had promised the family it would be here upon their return, but the Toyota family never came back to the Cowichan Valley to their knowledge. We have a corner table which Mike Ross, my husband, inherited when he left for university. The other piece of furniture may have been sold along with the house when Mary and Perry died. If you would like the end table, it is yours.
Excited and in shock, I wrote back, and several emails were exchanged. I found out more about Perry and Mary Ross in a book, Paldi Remembered, written by Joan Mayo, a longtime resident of Paldi. In an interview, Perry says, “It all happened so fast, we didn’t really catch on to what was happening till suddenly they were all gone.”
Said Mary, “I remember all those people coming from Duncan offering to buy their furniture, cars and other belongings real cheap. It was criminal. They took their hard-earned belongings for next to nothing. We bought a chesterfield from the Toyotas, but we paid them a fair price. It was real sad to see them go like that.”
Joan added that later the Ross family moved into one of the two large two-story houses the Toyota brothers had built for themselves. The other was lost in a fire. The connection continued to grow, and so did my anticipation of meeting Judy and Mike and as luck would have it, my wife, eldest son, and I were on our way to the mainland later that week, so we started out a day earlier and fit in a trip to Mission, B.C.
We spent a wonderful afternoon sharing stories and history with Judy and Mike, who were the most gracious hosts. After some emotional goodbyes, we took possession of a small but treasured piece of family history that survived the forced uprooting and dispersal of a family half a country away, almost 80 years before. Mike and Judy assured us that it served them well and was well-loved. The sturdy end table had weathered much use and accompanied by index cards that said, “Welcome Home!” and “I have lived with Perry and Mary Ross since 1941-ish! I was a bedroom end table all my time away.”
Talking to my 95-year-old Auntie Katy, she said that it was likely Uncle Bob who made the end table, as he made most of the furniture and also helped build the two Toyota houses. Bob passed away in 2018 at the age of 96.
I emailed Bob’s children, Rodney and Marsha. Rodney said that working with his dad on many hotel furniture projects, that night table reminded him of many projects they did—and he used that style in a few hotels. He also remembers his dad telling him stories about how he’d stay up late at night, making handmade furniture in their shed for the community. He’d use scrap material from the mill where he worked full time since he was 13 years old. This experience led to a lifetime career in woodworking.
I pulled the case file for Uncle Bob, and there is a line that says under personal property: “1 box of carpenter’s tools, 1 bicycle in their house at Paldi, B.C., being looked after by P. Ross who is living in house.”
Auntie Katy also related the story of Shige (Shigeuki Edward Yoshida) being whisked off to Victoria during his internment in Tashme to be congratulated in person by Lord Baden-Powell at a jamboree. Helen Lansdowne, Associate Director at CAPI upon hearing this story, noted the contradiction of the entire situation. The largest scout troop with its inherent colonial ideals, honoured while being incarcerated by their own country of birth.
Talking to Joan Mayo, she recalls the Ross’ and said that she has home movies of young Judy overtaking her son in a sack race at a picnic in the early ’60s. I have a feeling that this story might continue.
Listen to this article’s author, Michael Abe on CBC North by Northwest here.