The Yellowhead-Blue River Highway Project employed Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. A Ministry of Transportation Stop of Interest sign and an interpretive sign are installed at the Mount Robson Visitor Centre.
Decades of discriminatory and racist policies against Japanese Canadians in British Columbia came to a head on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and Canada declared war on Imperial Japan. Citing an issue of national security and encouraged by many British Columbian politicians and racist groups who resented the hard-won economic success of Japanese Canadians, the federal Government forcibly removed nearly 22,000 persons of Japanese ancestry outside a 100-mile (approximately 160 km) Restricted Zone along the West Coast of B.C. to internment locations in the Interior of B.C. and beyond the Rocky Mountains.
On February 27, 1942 the BC Security Commission (BCSC) was created to administer the forced removal of Japanese Canadians and the confiscation of all their property, which was given to the Custodian of Enemy Property. Men were the first to be removed, and were sent to road building camps in B.C., Alberta, and Ontario. If they protested separation from their families, they were sent to Prisoner of War Camps in Ontario. Many women and children, left to fend for themselves, were initially sent to Hastings Park in Vancouver and detained there for several weeks to await forced relocation to the Internment camps that were being constructed around the province. Although initially promised that their homes, businesses, and properties would be returned to them after the war, in 1943, the Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property sold everything in order to finance the internment.
Some groups who wished to remain together as families were forced to work in the sugar beet fields of Southern Alberta and Manitoba. Some families who had financial means were approved for relocation to self-supporting camps in the Lillooet area. However, the largest proportion of the group, about 14,000 people, were interned in isolated and declining former mining towns and hastily created camps in the West Kootenay and Boundary regions of the province. As the Internment camps were made ready, Japanese Canadians were moved to these camps through the summer and fall of 1942. Ten internment camps and 7 official self-supporting sites were established for Japanese Canadians who were forcibly uprooted, dispossessed, and incarcerated during the Second World War.
The Yellowhead-Blue River Highway Project was a project of the Surveys and Engineering Branch of the federal Department of Mines and Resources. It ran from 1942 to 1944 and employed Japanese-Canadian males 18-60+ (mostly Japanese nationals in this case) whether physically fit or not, originally living in West Coast of B.C. This was part of the forced removal and dispossession of Japanese Canadians by the Federal Government during the Second World War. The area spans from the interior of B.C. into the province of Alberta: Lucerne, Geikie, Yellowhead, Rainbow, Fitzwilliam, Grantbrook, Red Pass, Tete Jaune, Albreda, Blackspur, Gosnell, Lempriere, Pyramid, Thunder River, Red Sands, and Blue River.
The employment of Japanese Canadians for the Yellowhead-Blue River Highway Project was important as a point in time during the war when men were forcibly removed from their homes and families and sent to work on road camps and somehow survive while worrying about their future. In the beginning the men had to live in bunk cars or tents and had to build their own bunkhouses, and other buildings. These camps were guarded by armed RCMP guards and permission was required to leave to go anywhere. The internees also built gardens, bathhouses and baseball diamonds. Baseball proved to be an important part of their pastime especially keeping the spirit of the Vancouver Asahi Baseball Team alive. They were paid 25 cents per hour, but had to pay 75 cents per day for board and if married, send $20 per month to their family. Several strikes broke out, especially because married men were separated from their families. By July 1942, 2,122 men had been sent to work on this project all by hand. By November 1942, only Lempriere, Pyramid, and Thunder River were left open with 85 men; married men had been sent to be close or with their families in other sites of internment. The highway project would not have been completed without the labour of Japanese Canadians, and involved opening up ten miles of pioneer trail, burning slash, road construction, including the construction of culverts, and the erecting of a truss bridge over the North Thompson River. These sites remain an important part of Japanese Canadian history.
We acknowledge the Yellowhead-Blue River Highway Project takes place on the traditional and ancestral territories of the Simpcw First Nation and the Fort George Carrier (Lheidli T’enneh) First Nation.