A Slocan Valley historical group is hoping to bring an old fishing vessel back to life as a testament to the Japanese internment during World War II.
The Merriwake, an historic Japanese Canadian fishing boat, is the last of its kind in Canada. The Slocan Valley Historical Society is now raising funds to have the 31-foot gill netter preserved and put on display in Slocan City, one of the local communities used as an internment camp.
“This boat, even though it wasn’t in Slocan during the interment, is really a symbol of that time,” says Joyce Johnson, the head of the SVHS. “This boat is the last artifact that can really speak to the Japanese internment and their history there.”
The Merriwake was built on the west coast in 1929 by master builder Isamu (Sam) Matsumoto. It was confiscated by the Canadian government as it simultaneously rounded up Japanese-Canadians and shipped them to the Slocan Valley. They were suspected of being sympathetic to Japan and were moved away from the west coast.
The boat was sold off, and went through many owners until it was purchased by the SVHS last year.
It spent several years at the bottom of Kootenay Lake near Kaslo. After the boat was recovered, a local historian reached out to the Slocan Valley group to see if they’d be interested in restoring the historic boat.
“We sent a couple of people to go out and look at it, it was certainly salvageable,” says Johnson. “They assured us it was in good shape for its age, so decided to move forward on it.”
The boat was moved to a shipyard in Bonnington, where it rests now waiting for funds to restore it.
Johnson says they SVHS is seeking $20,000 to $30,000 to complete the restoration.
“It needs some structural repairs, the cabin and wheelhouse need to be rebuilt, there’s planking to be done,” she says. “Then a paint job should bring it up to good place where people will feel it’s worth their time to get off the highway and come and take a look at it.”
Local shipwright Eric Chevalier of The Copper Nail in Bonnington will begin the restoration. Nelson engineer Ted Nunn and Slocan Valley designer Eric Clough will assist with the structure which will house the boat.
That’s a whole other issue.
Johnson hasn’t got a price tag for the boat shelter yet. Slocan logger and SVHS director Gary Burns has said he’ll donate timbers for the shelter. Kaslo historian Ian Fraser will create the interpretive signage which will detail the boat’s journey and some of the Japanese-Canadian history in the area.
A rails-to-trails group will pave a path to the boat. The Village of Slocan has agreed to incorporate the boat area in its plowing and mowing schedules. And former owner Ted Fitzgerald will create short film/picture montages to document her journey including her restoration.
“We have some partnerships in place, we have some great feelers out, but we have no money yet,” says Johnson. “We have some big plans. We are going to see what we can afford.”
If all goes well, Johnson says restoration will begin late this spring, and work on the shelter later in the year. She hopes the boat can be set in its final resting place sometime in 2020.
“This is a local effort but it’s important on a national scale,” says Johnson.
“Our hope is that the Merriwake will bring our community together in shared project that will be a place of pride but also reflection, meditation and learning,” adds Anitra Winje, vice-president of the SVHS.
“The Merriwake is valuable for what she represents: the craftsmanship and social/economic/cultural contributions of Japanese-Canadian boat builders and fishermen. But she is also a poignant and essential reminder of the terrible injustice endured by Japanese Canadians. We must not forget this part of our past. The Merriwake will help ensure we don’t. “
Anyone interested in getting on board the Merriwake project or learning more about the SVHS can call 250-355-2230.