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Happy 100th Birthday to Ucluelet’s Mary Kimoto

Folks are invited to a community dance tonight at the UCC to celebrate Mary’s centennial anniversary
Mary Kimoto in Spring Cove, at the mouth of the Ucluelet inlet, on a lovely fall day. (Katsumi Kimoto photo)

Mary Toshiko Kimoto turns 100 years young on Saturday, Oct. 1.

From her homestead in Ucluelet’s Spring Cove at the end of Peninsula Road, the distinguished Japanese Canadian shared stories about working and living on the West Coast.

“My father passed away when I was 14. He had rheumatoid arthritis and he went to Japan to recover, but when he came back to Vancouver, he didn’t recover so we had to quit school and go to work. At the same time they were recruiting girls up in the fish cannery up in Nootka and you had to be 15. But the fellow that was organizing said I could go. That was the best time of my life up in Nootka,” said Kimoto.

“It was a herring plant. The Maquinna came up Nootka maybe once in 10 days so they weren’t getting too many groceries, so all we ate was rice and herring. And it was good. It was the best time of my life. We didn’t know any better, my girlfriend and I.”

Her grandson, Katsumi Kimoto, told the Westerly that everyone in the community is invited to his grandmother’s 100th birthday celebration this Saturday at the Ucluelet Community Centre. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. and there will be finger food, speeches, a slideshow, cake and, of course, dancing. Admission is a $5 donation and there will be a cash bar. In lieu of flowers or cards, Mary is asking folks to make a donation to the food bank.

“I think she was feeling that people hadn’t seen each other a lot in the last couple years and she wanted to do something were people could come together, hear some live music and dance. She wanted to do something for the whole community to enjoy,” said Katsumi, noting that she even picked a band, The Staggering Bears, she thought the ‘younger’ people would like.

Mary was the 2011 Ucluelet Citizen of the Year and in October 2019, she received a Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers for the many years she has devoted to bettering Ucluelet. The Medal for Volunteers is an official Canadian honour and the only one for volunteerism given by the Governor-General of Canada.

She has a birthday wish that Ucluelet sees a museum that tells the story of First Nations, Japanese and pioneers come to fruition. She also wishes that her husband’s fishing boat, La Perouse, continues to fish under the Kimoto name.

Leading up to Japanese internment in 1942, Kimoto’s mother, Yose Morita, seemingly outmanoeuvred the Canadian government by swiftly closing up their Vancouver shop, taking all their possessions in a truck, along with lots of rice, and fleeing towards Hope, B.C. for a “self-supporting” journey. They worked out of a greenhouse near Kelowna for a period of time.

She arranged a marriage for Mary to Tom Kimoto in August 1944. At the time, Tom was living at Lemon Creek internment camp.

“When we got married you are only allowed to stay 48-hours in the internment camp. We had to go back east or go back to Japan, so we chose to go back east because we didn’t know anyone in Japan,” said Kimoto.

The newlyweds found work in Northern Toronto.

“He was a butler and I was a house maid. I was supposed to help with the cooking, but I didn’t know how to boil an egg,” Kimoto recalls.

Tom, a fisherman originally from Clayoquot Sound, hated his job in Ontario. Kimoto said it wasn’t long before they had saved enough money to move back to the West Coast with their two young boys Gordon and Doug.

“Tommy just had to go back.”

As soon as they returned, Tommy made a deal with BC Packers to build and finance 10 new fishing boats.

It was then that La Perouse, the legacy of the Kimoto family, was born. Tommy finished his financing with the Prince Rupert Co-op.

“Tommy more or less paved the way for Japanese fisherman to return to the West Coast and fish the entirety of the West Coast.”

He passed away on April 1, 1985. Kimoto’s caretaker, Max Collin, said Tommy passed away peacefully knowing that Mary was taken care of and that his boat was taken care of.

Mary reminisced about a photograph from 1963 showing the Seaplane Base rec hall decorated for a Fishermen’s Ball.

“It was all the fishermen’s wives and their men. It went all over Costco news, ‘Ucluelet’s fishermen’s ball’,” she recalled. “The music was George Fraser Band and I wore a long, black dress. The fishermen’s ball was something.”

She said Tommy danced, but most of the Japanese fishermen didn’t know how to dance, so they showed them in their house.

Longtime friend Mary Christmas says all Kimoto wants for her 100th birthday is to know that people are having a good time.

“She asked us to host a community dance. She wants something for everybody else,” said Christmas.

“That’s who she is to a tee,” said Collin.

Katsumi calls his grandmother a “Japanese matriarch”.

“She would always be the last one to sit down. She was an amazing cook. Her fisherman husband and her fishermen sons ate like kings while they were fishing. They were the envy of the fleet,” said Katsumi.

Nowadays, Katsumi says they don’t let grandma cook, but she’s still directing productions for dishes like: BBQ salmon, Kamaboko fish cakes and her famed Octopus salad.

“We called it Devil’s Salad,” Kimoto shares. “The octopus has to be nice and fresh when you get it from the fishermen. Then add kelp, noodles, a little bit of radish and cucumbers. Sprinkle coarse salt on cucumber. It makes it firmer.”

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Nora O'Malley

About the Author: Nora O'Malley

Nora O'Malley studied journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
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