Harvey Burian: Growing up Multicultural on the Stewart River

Life on the river was isolated, especially in winter when the steamboats were not running. Sometimes visitors did stop in to catch up on the news. Harvey remembers: “We had radios…and we got mostly Alaskan stations…KFRB in Fairbanks…[and] in the last few years…we had a Ham radio…and the RCMP office in Mayo had one and they would call…weekly or periodically at agreed times, to check and make sure we were alright.” Ibid Transcript p. 26.

Mary supervised his correspondence lessons, which came from Victoria. As roads replaced steamboats the Burians moved to Mayo in 1953 where Renny worked as a mechanic, Mary cooked and Harvey started school.

Harvey’s parents were both raised in immigrant families, where the first language was not English. Born in Germany, Renny came to Canada as a child, moving to the Yukon in his twenties to work as a woodcutter during the Depression. Mary was born in Vancouver after her parents emigrated from Japan. She came to Mayo in her teens to help her sister Ruth (Chiyo) and husband George (Otoyemon) Nagano run the GN Café. When Renny and Mary married, English was their common language, so that was what Harvey learned at home.

Although his mother was technically classified as an “enemy alien” and his father was of German descent, during the Second World War Harvey remembers they were well liked and accepted in Mayo society, though Mary was required to carry an identity card during the war. Her parents and other relatives in B.C. were less fortunate, losing their homes and farms during the enforced evacuation of Japanese people from coastal areas.  

Harvey grew up oblivious to any difference between himself and other children in town: “It wasn’t until…probably…14, 15…I really realized that my mother was Japanese….I knew she was Japanese in a sense, but I never thought of her being Japanese…because to me, obviously, she was my mother, but…in town, from the time I could remember, she was just one of the townspeople. And, she never talked about any kind of feelings that she had that…people didn’t accept her or anything. It seemed that in the smaller communities, back in those days…there may have been some people who shunned Asian people…but certainly if that were the case, my mother never spoke of that. And I never in the time that I was growing up, until…I got older…I really didn’t sense anything. The only thing I had in school…some of the kids who probably thought I was Chinese…would call me a Chink…I just thought, ‘Ok, that’s a nickname that they’re giving me’, and I accepted it.” Ibid Transcript p. 8.

Harvey went from small town life on the Stewart River to a big city university after graduating high school in Mayo. “It was an interesting transition being from a very small school where there were about a hundred…to UBC, which at that time had about 16,000 students.” Ibid Transcript p. 29.

He credits his secure family life and lessons learned in early years for his later successes: “…the benefits were that I learned…to work a lot by myself because…there were only two teachers covering …multiple courses…so you learn to basically work on your own and that probably was a benefit when I got to university….” Ibid Transcript p. 30.

While he was at university Harvey also started learning more about his Japanese heritage from his aunts and uncles in Vancouver: “…it was second year university… [in] a sociology course…I went and talked to my uncle and…he gave me some pictures and…information…about my grandparents…and I found out things that I hadn’t known before then. ” Ibid Transcript p. 31.

He learned about their relatives in Japan, the move to Canada and the family’s wartime experiences. Despite many hardships his family remained positive about life in Canada. Harvey continued to pursue more understandings of his heritage on both sides of his family, and today maintains an active interest in tracing genealogical sources and other information in order to ensure his children have a solid knowledge of their rich multicultural roots.

The Stewart River is a long way from Germany and Japan – and Harvey’s grandparents left much behind when they moved to Canada to secure brighter futures for their children. In the midst of wartime, Harvey’s parents found love, peace and a good life in their small community, with neighbours who accepted them for who they were, their hard work and all that they contributed to their community. In Harvey’s words: “…there’s a community spirit that exists…in a smaller community…like Mayo…Ibid Transcript p. 29” and along with his parents’ love, it certainly provided a positive foundation for his life.

Harvey says, “ I believe that I am fortunate to have grown up with parents from two different cultures as this has helped me to appreciate the diversity that exists in Canada today.  When people ask about my background I am happy to tell them that I am a person of Eurasian heritage who had the opportunity to grow up in the wide open spaces of the Yukon and I feel wonderfully blessed to have the privilege of living in such a rich, diverse country as ours. Harvey Burian email to Linda Johnson October 20, 2016  ”

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