Rare First World War medals find home at Galt Museum

By Geoff Smith (@GeoffSmithLNN on Twitter) with files from Lara Fominoff (@LaraFominoff on Twitter)
November 9, 2018 - 12:22pm Updated: November 9, 2018 - 9:00pm

LETHBRIDGE – The Canadian presence in the First World War included 222 Japanese-Canadians.  One of them has been confirmed to have been a Lethbridge resident.

Tomomi Okutake is now being acknowledged at the Galt Museum and Archives, with the donation of his medals. The museum said while they have other examples of such medals already, this provides a rare link to the involvement of Japanese-Canadians, who have been part of the Lethbridge area since the early 1900s.

“We previously had no representation, except for one photograph, of the Japanese-Canadians’ involvement in the First World War,” collections technician Kevin MacLean said. “We knew they had come out of Lethbridge, but all we had was this one image. So, we went from one photograph to copious amounts of material, mostly in the form of documents and photographs, but also in the form of these medals and badges.”

The museum was contacted about the donation by Okutake’s daughter, Pat Sassa. She said the acknowledgement means a lot.

“It was information that my father did not share at all,” she said. “I honestly believe that he did suffer a bit of (post-traumatic stress disorder).” Sassa said she’s grateful for the research done by MacLean and the Galt staff to verify that Okutake had lived in Lethbridge prior to serving in the war, to ensure that the Galt would be an appropriate home for the medals.

Research, including an archived interview with Okutake’s wife, indicates that he moved to Canada from Okinawa in 1907, and arrived in the Lethbridge area around 1911, working at Mine No. 6 at Hardieville. He enlisted in the war out of a sense of obligation to his new home, service for which he was proud afterwards. He died in 1971.

MacLean added there had previously been very little in the collection to represent the area’s Japanese-Canadian community that early in the century, and even less to represent the families who hailed from Okinawa. There’s also the increasing rarity of objects from the “Great War,” as it was once known.

“Here’s a case where somebody’s family treasures have come to the Galt. For us, that means trust in what we do so we’re grateful every time,” MacLean said.

Sassa said her family is small and she didn’t want the medals to become misplaced.

“I felt that our community and the smaller size – my involvement with the Galt Museum because I’m a graduate as well from the old school – it provides information to the communities and to the websites.”

Other materials about Okutake were transferred to the Galt from Vancouver’s Nikkei Museum, MacLean said, and he’s grateful for that because having the physical items helps provide people with a connection. The items have now become part of the Galt’s online database, which is available at any time on the internet.

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