Did you know that May is Asian Heritage Month? To celebrate the history and the contributions of Asian Canadians, I want to highlight Tom Morimoto, a second generation Japanese Canadian who grew up in Fort McMurray during the Great Depression.
Tom's father, Tommy Morimoto, arrived in Canada in 1906. He was originally from Japan but had been working in Hawaii as a labourer. As with the majority of Japanese immigrants to Canada at the time, he was a single, young man. Fortunately for Tommy, he just made the cut as the following year a limit was put on the number of Japanese men that could enter the country. Afterwards, most Japanese immigration consisted of wives joining their husbands or young unmarried women betrothed to men in Canada.
Tom’s mother, Mitome, belonged to this second category of women. She arrived in Canada in 1917 as a "picture bride". This practice was common among Japanese and Korean immigrants living in Canada or the U.S at the time, and it consisted of a man selecting a bride from their native countries through a matchmaker, who paired the bride and groom based on photographs of the two and their families' recommendations.
Following their marriage, Tommy and Mitome settled in Edmonton, where they operated a rooming house and a barbershop beside the Royal George Hotel. While their business was successful, the cost of rent was too expensive. Persuaded by the promise of Fort McMurray as the new, booming City of the North, they relocated to Fort McMurray and leased 10 acres of land near the current Grant McEwan bridge from the Hudson's Bay Company. They used this land to garden and plant vegetables, which they shipped further north on a steamboat. Near the end of the farming season, the Morimoto's would host a corn roast for the entire community.
The Morimoto’s had 7 sons. Sadly, in 1938, Mitome and an infant son both passed away, leaving Tommy the sole caretaker and provider for his young family.
Tom Morimoto was the oldest son in the family. As a teenager during the Depression, Tom worked odd jobs around town- farming, trapping and trading goods for fur. He also worked at the Canadian Airways Radio Station and learned Morse code.
When the Second World War began in 1939, Tom applied to enlist in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. Despite Tom’s short stature and light weight, which were below the official standard, Tom was accepted because of his extensive skills and experience working with radios.
As part of the Corps of Signals, Tom has the distinction of being the only Japanese Canadian on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Following the war, Tom attended the University of Alberta and graduated as a chemical engineer. He spent many years travelling the world and working in the oil industry, both in Alberta and Dubai. Now retired, Tom spends his time between living in Kelowna and Arizona. If you are interested in learning more about Tom’s amazing life, you can read his memoir “Breaking Trail”, which is available for purchase at Heritage Park.
So the next time you're by the Snye, and your walking or driving along "Morimoto Drive", take a moment to recognize Tom's personal achievements as well as his family's place in our local and national history.
If you want to learn more about Asian Heritage Month, click here