That was the word from Doug Emek on Monday, representing the Taber Notogawa Friendship Society, as a delegation at the Jan. 13 meeting of town council.
“Japan is a key overseas economic partner of Alberta,” said Emek. “Fifteen per cent of non-U.S. exports go to Japan. We have a lot of very close ties, certainly here in southern Alberta, and due to the historical situation in southern Alberta.”
Alberta exchanges with the prefecture of Hokkaido began in 1973, with a formal twinning signed in 1980. A twinning agreement between Taber and the Town of Notogawa in Shiga Prefecture was originally signed in 1980, shortly after Alberta began its relationship with Hokkaido. A number of exchanges between the two towns took place between 1980 and 1999, mostly with adult groups.
In 1999, a non-profit society was formed to facilitate cross-cultural friendship and goodwill between the citizens of Taber and Notogawa, including student exchanges. The Taber Notogawa Friendship Society was essentially given the responsibility for maintaining the twinning relationship with Notogawa. At the same time, the Town of Taber agreed to provide $2,500 to assist with the cost of hosting delegations from Japan.
In 2005, the Town of Notogawa amalgamated with five other towns in Shiga Prefecture (Yokaichi, Eigenji, Gokasho, Koto, and Gamoto) to form the new community of Higashiomi City. Along with Taber, Higashiomi City is twinned with cities in Korea, China, the U.S., and Sweden.
“Up until recently, Taber was twinned with Notogawa,” said Emek.
“In 2005, the Town of Notogawa was amalgamated with five other communities, to form one town of approximately 120,000 people. So it’s much bigger than Taber at this point in time. Notogawa is still there, but it’s just a branch of Higashiomi City.”
From 1999 to 2002, groups of middle school students and chaperones from Taber visited Notogawa, and a group of Notogawa students visited Taber in the fall of each year. In 2003, because of the outbreak of SARS, Notogawa cancelled the exchange program that year, but it resumed in 2004.
“Between Taber and Notogawa, there was a number of exchanges that took place once the twinning agreement was signed in 1980,” said Emek. “Most of them were groups of adults that went. There have been some students from Higashiomi City that have actually come to Canada to study at the University of Lethbridge as a result of this exchange.”
There was no exchange in 2005 because of challenges following the amalgamation, but in 2006, a small group of adults visited, including Mayor Ray Bryant. The twinning agreement was re-signed with Taber at that time.
Groups of students and adults from Taber visited Higashiomi City in 2008 and 2010, and delegations from Japan came to Taber in 2009 and 2011.
“The reason why the exchanges haven’t been taking place every year lately has been when they amalgamated, they found themselves twinned with five different towns and cities, not just Taber. So they couldn’t possibly do an exchange every year, but they do wish to maintain the relationship,” said Emek.
A group of Taber adults and students will visit Higashiomi City in 2014. Up until 2006, the Town of Notogawa was responsible for organizing and conducting exchanges. The Higashiomi Friendship Society is now much more active in this role, with the help of the city (similar to Taber). Six students and four adults have applied to go on the trip this year. The visit to Higashiomi City will be July 2-9, 2014. One week will be spent in Higashiomi City, staying with a host family.
“In 2012, which was the next time there was a group to go, there was only one chaperone who indicated any willingness to go, so we had to cancel the trip that year, unfortunately, and so they did not come back in 2013,” said Emek.
Higashiomi City does pay for part of the cost for all participants. As well, host families receive some financial assistance when hosting someone from Taber. In contrast, all Taber participants pay 100 per cent of the cost of the trip, with no assistance from the Town of Taber.
“When we’re in Higashiomi City, we stay with host families,” said Emek. “They completely look after us. Everything is taken care of — they treat us like royalty. It is considered a very major deal when someone from the town goes. They make a big deal of it while we’re there, they take it very seriously. When they come here, we try to return that hospitality. We want to do the same things they do for us, but there is a significant cost to do this.”
On most exchange visits to Japan, there has also been one representative from the Town of Taber. Previous Mayor(s) Phillips, Duggan and Bryant have all been to Japan at least once, as have a number of councillors.
“If there is any interest from someone from the Town of Taber going — a councillor, the mayor, or someone else — we do need to know that very soon, because we will be booking flights very quickly,” said Emek. “As I said before, they take these twinning agreements very seriously, and visits by the mayor or other town officials are very important. It costs about $2,500 for airfare, and anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 for spending money.”
Emek did note that in order for the Taber Notogawa Friendship Society relationship to continue into the future, more support from the town would be desired and needed.
“We were given the responsibility for conducting these exchanges, but it is challenging for us. I’m presently the only person who has been continuously involved in keeping the society going. For the future, some sort of increased involvement — and I’m not talking about financial involvement necessarily — from the town is likely going to be needed if it’s going to continue.”
Several Alberta municipalities are twinned with Japanese counterparts, including members of the Alberta/Japan Twinned Municipalities Association, such as Jasper, Taber, Rocky Mountain House, Stony Plain, Camrose, Bon Accord, Brooks, Lacombe, Canmore, Stettler, Crowsnest Pass, Wetaskiwin, Barrhead, Hanna, Whitecourt, Hinton, Didsbury, and the Lethbridge Okinawa Cultural Society and Lethbridge Twinning Society. Nine of such municipal twinnings are in Hokkaido.