Tensai is the Japanese word for ‘sugar beet’, a root vegetable. Plaza Station is located next to the historic Manitoba Sugar Company factory. It was once surrounded by sugar beet fields with a bleak history.
During World War II, people of Japanese descent living in and around British Columbia were branded ‘enemy aliens’. They were forced from their homes and sent to labour camps, internment camps, and sugar beet farms. Their houses and property were taken by the Canadian government and sold. Almost 22,000 people were uprooted, many of whom were Canadian citizens by birth. Entire communities disappeared overnight.
World War II needed workers and a cheap sugar supply for overseas troops. The government’s “Sugar Beet Projects” ran from 1942 to 1949. Japanese Canadian families could stay together only if they agreed to move to Alberta or Manitoba to work in the sugar beet fields. Each family was left to the mercy of the farmer to whom they were ‘assigned’. They were not allowed to leave or move to another farm. This secure and cheap source of workers enabled the Sugar Industry to survive the war.
Work on the farms was exhausting and endless. The sugar beet is large, fleshy and yellow. The beets and their massive roots had to be wrestled from the soil and their thick leathery leaves removed. The days were long. Children and the elderly also laboured in the fields. Their work was poorly paid. Wages were often withheld to cover the rent of substandard housing.
Powdered or granulated, the market demanded that sugar be white. People today still equate purity with whiteness. The undesirable yellow tint of raw sugar has demanded an elaborate purification process requiring boiling, crushing, centrifuging, drying and filtering. This leaves a crystalline powder with nothing to hide: particles without history.
As a public artwork, Tensai reconfigures the sugar beet field into a miniature Zen garden. It is a gathering place to linger, play, and contemplate the labour and hardships of Japanese Canadians. They ‘chose’ this option to prevent further dispersal. Families worked hard to stay together despite adversity, discrimination, and racism. The yellow beet tops also allude to wagashi, an exquisite sculptural sweet. It is served as part of the Japanese tea ceremony to counteract the bitterness of the tea.
 Miki, Roy and Kobayashi, Cassandra. Justice in Our Time. Talon Books: Vancouver. 1991.
This work was created through the Winnipeg Arts Council’s Public Art Program in collaboration with Winnipeg Transit, PCL, and Plenary Group as part of Winnipeg's SouthWest Rapid Transitway expansion project.