Greenwood, British Columbia is known as Canada‘s smallest city. Given its status in the late 1800’s during a gold rush boom, though the population decreased to a current total of about 600, the title stood.
Greenwood is also the location of a famous ‘lost mine’, and the tallest, longest, most horrendous, 100 year old black ‘slag’ pile I have ever seen.
Slag, refuse from the copper mining industry, literally cuts Greenwood off from the local woods. The town is surrounded by a multi-story tall, black tar looking impenetrable wall – and has been since before 1918.
The 1998 movie ‘Snow Falling on Cedars‘, about Japanese-American internment, was filmed here. According to hellobc.com, the location was chosen in part because of the ‘Japanese look’ of many of the town residents. They were perfect for extras in the film.
That’s not all Greenwood is (in)famous for though. In 1942, approximately 1,200 Canadian-Japanese persons were sent here for internment.
At the time, Greenwood’s population had dwindled to 200, and the economy was in a serious state of long term decline. It was going on three decades since the closing of the mine. Greenwood needed people.
Surprisingly, locals welcomed the new residents. From hellobc.com;
Greenwood welcomed these displaced people and the two communities got on well together. After the war, many returned and made Greenwood their home, permanently transforming the character of the tiny city.
Look a little deeper and see the remnants of one of the most shameful episodes in this country’s history, and one of its best stories of healing and redemption.
They ran shops, worked their chosen professions and lived (almost) a ‘free life’ (as long as they stayed near ‘home’) amongst the greatly out-numbered locals. They married – and reproduced – with whites and natives.
In fact, Japanese internment saved Greenwood from ultimately becoming a ghost town. It was well on its way toward that status by 1942.
The Greenwood museum holds great artifacts and stories from this time.
Not everywhere was so accepting of their new Japanese residents. Some of the worst, harshest interment camps were located only a few short kilometres away.
When the war ended, and the interned Japanese were forced to relocate east or to Japan, Greenwood was the one place that held fast and refused to take part in the deportation. If you lived in Greenwood – no matter what brought you there – you were not going to be forced out. Here, the Japanese were wanted.
Why did Greenwood choose to be welcoming?
Perhaps it had something to do with its status as the first BC internment camp, maybe it was desperation due to the economy and a lack of manpower, it could have been the collective belief system of the locals, or maybe it was simply an amazing accident.
Either way, the residents are proud of their history, and proud of the fact that many Japanese never left (once they were able), and still choose to raise children, and grandchildren, in the town they were once forcefully relocated to.
Indeed, Greenwood has unique status as a Japanese wild west gold rush town. Because of the internment, and resulting population/economy/manpower increase, it has some of the greatest preserved ‘old west’ buildings in all of BC.
Buildings that would have been dust by now, if it had not been for the Japanese-Canadians, and a few steadfast open-minded locals.
I know I will be spending a few hours in the museum on my next visit, to see if I can figure out what separated Greenwood from other locations, many famous for brutal racism, discrimination and abhorrent treatment of the interned Japanese.
The Greenwood story shows us that if you stand hard enough for what is good, and what you believe, sometimes a handful of decent people can make big change that ultimately effects thousands – and history.
And about that slag? Well, it looks like a new technology may be able to help with removing that hideous pile. Not only does it seem to have some value, but it also looks like it can be turned into solar panels.
How fantastic would that be – to eliminate the heap that has loomed over Greenwood for a century – and turn it into an efficient clean energy source?! Fantastic.
I can’t wait to go back.
Many additional photos in the slideshow. Click any picture above to view images in a larger format.