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Winlaw’s Gail Elder, Nelson’s Jim Sawada honoured by province for community work

Elder and Sawada have each received the Medal of Good Citizenship
Winlaw’s Gail Elder (left) and Nelson’s Jim Sawada are among 21 British Columbians who have received provincial honours for their community work. Photos courtesy Gail Elder and John Armstrong

The creations of a community band that’s performed for over four decades and a Japanese garden that revitalized a derelict city park have merited provincial honours for two West Kootenay men.

Winlaw’s Gail Elder and Nelson’s Jim Sawada were among the 21 British Columbians honoured by the Ministry of Tourism, Art, Culture and Sport on Jan. 3 with the Medal of Good Citizenship for extraordinary contributions to community life.

Elder started the Slocan Valley Community Band in 1981, while Sawada led the construction of the Cottonwood Falls Friendship Garden in Nelson.

“Each one of these medal recipients has made their community a better place,” said Premier David Eby in a statement. “They have shown kindness and generosity while making sacrifices for the benefit of others. Their contributions serve as a reminder to all of what we can do in ways large and small to improve life for everyone.”

Elder moved from Surrey to the Slocan Valley in 1972 where he bought a farm and began teaching music. He started a student band, and after a year was asked if he could lead another for parents.

So began the Slocan Valley Community Band, which has continued to perform ever since with an emphasis on multi-generational talent. Elder said their latest Christmas concert featured a 14-year-old and another musician in their 80s.

Elder said from the start he’s emphasized creating an inclusive environment for the band. Having a good time is just as important as the music.

“I think it’s just greeting people as friends and encouraging any beginners and not putting down anybody. I don’t allow people to say they’re sorry if they play some wrong notes, unless they do it on purpose. Otherwise, we just do the best we can.”

Gail Elder (seen far right) started the Slocan Valley Community Band in 1981. The band is still active. Photo: Submitted

The ministry also noted Elder’s contributions to organic farming. Since 1992, Elder and his wife Brenda have welcomed farmers young and old to their 37-acre property as part of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, Canada.

Visitors receive room and board for 25 hours of farm work per week, and Elder said that’s led to the exchanging of ideas with people from around the world.

Now 79, Elder still plays with the band but last year passed the conductor’s baton to Talon Nansel. The band’s gift, he said, is providing a place for musicians of all skill levels to create.

“It’s not easy playing some of the harder, more difficult music, You really have to focus. You can’t worry about taxes, you can’t worry about anything else. So it’s a [trip] into a different world, and it’s the world of creating music with other people. Not at a professional level, at a community level.”

Sawada meanwhile was honoured for his part in helping Nelson establish a sister-city relationship with Izu-shi, Japan, as well as for building and maintaining the Cottonwood Falls Friendship Garden.

The 90-year-old is proud of his legacy but admitted he wasn’t expecting a provincial award.

“I’m surprised and I never expected this to happen to me. So a little bit speechless right now.”

Sawada was born in Vancouver but moved back to Japan with his mother shortly before the Second World War began. His father was among the Japanese-Canadians sent to internment camps in the Slocan Valley. When the war ended, Sawada’s father moved to Nelson and sent for his family in 1950.

Jim Sawada helped fundraise and build the Japanese gardens in Nelson’s Cottonwood Falls Park. Photo: Adam Andriashek

In 1987, Sawada was asked by the City of Nelson to consult on a proposed relationship with Shuzenji, Japan, which later changed its name to Izu-shi. The cities agreed to the partnership, and Jim and his wife Emiko hosted hundreds of Japanese students who began staying in Nelson for their education.

As part of the relationship, the cities agreed to develop commemorative gardens. Work didn’t start in earnest until 2003 when Mayor Dave Elliott approached Sawada, a contractor approaching retirement, for help.

Cottonwood Falls Park was chosen as a location, which Sawada remembers as an unfriendly place to visitors. It had poor access, a narrow trail to the falls and no landscaping.

“The falls were still there but nobody wanted to go because of trees and weeds that were growing to knee high.”

Sawada consulted with a Vancouver-based landscape designer, then led fundraising efforts while serving as one of the garden’s primary builders.

The garden opened to the public in 2006 complete with a large stone lantern donated by Izu-shi. It has since expanded with the addition of a bridge across the creek and a gate in 2017 built to mark Nelson and Izu-shi’s 30-year relationship.

Sawada served as the park’s head gardener until 2022 when Bernie Zimmer took over the role. He’s come to think of the garden, which still hosts an annual cherry blossom festival, as his way of giving back to a place where he made a home with Emiko and their three children.

“I think my contribution to the garden was kind of payback to Nelson for being good to me.”


ABOUT NELSON: Friendship and the garden at Cottonwood Falls

PHOTOS: To Izu-shi and back

Tyler Harper

About the Author: Tyler Harper

I’m editor-reporter at the Nelson Star, where I’ve worked since 2015.
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