From Japan to the Yukon

What are your names?

Fumi Torigai, and my wife is Taeko Torigai.

How many children do you have?

We have two children: a daughter who lives here in Whitehorse and works for YTG doing mine reclamation work, and our son works as a computer specialist in Calgary.

How long have you lived in Canada?

Since 1969.

What was it like coming to Canada? And what were the challenges?

I came to work on a dairy farm just outside of Toronto, a community called Norval, not far from Brampton. Although I had taken a very intensive English course at the University in Japan, carrying on a conversation was still a challenge, at first, as the adults spoke very fast and the children spoke in a different way than the adults did … so it was challenging to work through it.

But the community was very supportive. My fiancée, Taeko, followed me to Canada a few months later. The wife of the local United Church minister, who officiated our marriage, put on a wedding shower for us. We felt very welcomed.

My wife, Taeko, learned English as a compulsory subject in high school, in Japan, from Grade 7 on and also studied English in the Japanese community college. She improved her English-language ability by studying as a student of the University of Waterloo, through correspondence.

When did you come to the Yukon?

We came in 2001.

What prompted your decision to move here?

Before I came to the Yukon, I was teaching music in a Nisga’a First Nation community just north of Terrace, BC. My daughter was living in the Yukon, at the time, and I noticed an ad for a position as a music teacher in the Yukon.

My daughter told us how vibrant the community was, and how beautiful the geography and how much she loved it there, so I applied for the job and got the position as music teacher at Jack Hulland School.

Have you always been passionate about music?

Oh, yes. Shortly after I came to Canada, I founded Brampton Choral Society in Ontario, and my friends there really encouraged me to study music.

After graduating from University of Western Ontario, I taught music at public schools and, all the while, I conducted a number of community choirs and community bands.

Since I moved to Whitehorse, I was a member, for a while, of the Whitehorse Community Choir, under Rachel Grantham, and was also an associate conductor. I’ve also directed a children’s choir here, Northern Echoes.

I presently conduct Whitehorse String Ensemble: we have concerts coming up soon in Haines Junction and in Whitehorse.

Is your Japanese heritage and culture important to you?

Absolutely. It has always been important and I’ve always tried to incorporate Japanese pieces in my musical repertoire, like teaching Japanese folk songs to the children.

We always lived in communities where there were not that many Japanese people; for instance, when we lived in Saskatchewan we drove three hours to Saskatoon because there was a Japanese association there.

When we came to the Yukon, we found that there was a large group of Japanese here, well over 30 people.

We have just recently formed Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon, and I became president. During the Yukon Quest, two years ago, Lillian Nakamura Maguire [Human Rights Commission, also vice president of JCAY] and Peggy D’orsay [Yukon Archives] had a display profiling a famous Japanese pioneer, Jujiro Wada, and I became deeply involved in it.

Jujiro was a great dog musher and an icon in the history of the Tanana gold rush in Alaska. As well, he made a significant contribution to the Canadian history in many ways. He was also a great athlete (marathon runner).

This exhibit was also displayed at the Whitehorse Heritage Festival in August of 2008.

We are presently working on a project to give further credit to Jujiro Wada by recommending him to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada; JCAY is also planning to collaborate with the Yukon Film Society to present a Japanese film series that portrays the uniqueness of the Japanese culture (for example, Seven Samurai).

This column is courtesy of the Whitehorse Heritage Festival, an event that celebrates the many cultures of the Yukon. This year it will be June 26 to 28 at Shipyards Park as part of the Sunstroke Solstice Festival.

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