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Rebel With a Cause: The Doc Nikaido Story

When Dr. Harry Nikaido passed away on November 11, 1975, the town of Bow Island, Alberta lost not only its doctor, but a cherished member of its family. The town’s doctor for 24 years, he worked his way into the hearts of many of the townspeople. He had delivered their babies, mended their wounds, tended their illnesses and eaten at their tables, and his loss was deeply felt.

Now, 40 years after his death, Bow Island native Bretton Loney has captured the life and times of the small town doctor with a big heart in Rebel with a Cause: The Doc Nikaido Story. The award-winning former journalist, columnist, and editor, now a communications director with the Government of Nova Scotia, has lovingly pulled together the threads of this remarkable story in what makes for a compelling read.

The short story is that he was born in Vancouver in 1920, received his medical degree in Toronto in 1947, interned in Regina, practiced for a few years in small towns in Saskatchewan, and washed up in the small town of Bow Island in 1951. The long story is much more colourful and complex.

As the book makes abundantly clear, Dr. Harry Nikaido was a true maverick, an iconoclast who followed his own path, right to the end. From his accidental arrival in town (he had apparently been heading somewhere further west, but got stuck in Medicine Hat, and from there ended up in Bow Island) to his unique way of practicing medicine, to his battles with the tax man, to his eccentric lifestyle, this is no dry biography. 

Instead, we are treated to a well-researched, indepth look not only at the man, but the times that informed his life, the history of the Japanese in Canada, and a portrait of Bow Island itself. In talking to friends and family, former patients and co-workers, Loney paints a portrait of a man who took on a whole town as his surrogate family. 

As Loney recounts, when Harry arrived in town, There hadn’t been a doctor for a half a dozen years or more, since World War II. The town had 650 residents and a small drug store selling patent medicine but no pharmacist, hospital, or ambulance service. In 1951, Bow Island had no paved streets, neon signs, or traffic lights. The highway through the town had only been paved the previous year. There was no indoor skating or curling rink, no swimming pool, library, or liquor store.

Setting up a practice in the town, Harry quickly established himself as an original, often making an odd first impression on those he met: Over the years, people have described Doc as looking like a blacksmith, a railway tramp, or a 1960s university professor, but never like a medical doctor. Certainly not the buttoned-down image of TV physicians of the 1950s and 60s like TV’s Dr. Kildare or his real-life counterparts. 

First impressions aside, Harry had a way of endearing himself to those who got to know him and developed many close relationships in the small town.

One thread that runs through the book is Harry’s lifelong bitterness towards the government for the treatment of his family and the rest of the community during the war. In chapter 14, titled “Doc Fights the Tax Man,” Loney writes, Harry never forgot the federal government’s actions and never forgave Ottawa for its treatment of his family. He acted on that anger by launching a counterinsurgency of sorts against Ottawa, best described as tax warfare. Harry hit the government where it hurt, in the pocketbook, by trying not to pay any income tax.

“Why should I pay those sons of bitches any money after what they took from our family?” Doc asked Robin. And telling his friend, Alex Zhou, “The Government got enough money from my parents.”

One of the ways Harry fought back against the government was to adopt a virtual vow of poverty in order to pay little or no income tax over his 24-year career, charging patients very little, and sometime nothing, to treat them. Says one of his friends in the book, “In Bow Island, he had a thriving medical practice that could’ve made him wealthy, but he lived in poverty. He would rather live in poverty than pay taxes to a government he despised for their treatment of his family.”

Harry Nikaido was a man of many contradictions. He was a voracious reader, but also a star athlete in high school and university – getting frequent mentions in The New Canadian for his exploits on the basketball court. He was proud of his heritage, yet felt more at home among non-Japanese Canadians. He took great care of others, yet spent little or no effort on his own health.

Despite his unorthodox methods of doing business – and practicing medicine for that matter – Harry ran for, and won, a seat on the city council, and became, for all intents and purposes, a member of the establishment. He was, by all accounts, a good councilor, and he held the post at the time of his death in 1975. His death came from the effects of a stroke resulting from a massive brain hemorrhage, and kidney failure. He was 55.

Following his death, Harry was buried in his adopted home town of Bow Island. The community raised funds and erected a headstone over Doc’s grave with one line, which reads: “Life’s Work Well Done.” As the book says, He is buried in the Bow Island Cemetery, beside the golf course. He rests among patients and friends on a slight knoll where a constant breeze intermingles with the meadowlark’s song.

On June 27, 1977, the expansion to the newly renovated Bow Island Hospital was named the Dr. H. Nikaido Memorial Garden and Nursing Home, to commemorate Doc’s contribution to the community. The plaque reads: “Doc did so much, for so many, for so little.”

In the Epilogue, Loney sums up Harry’s life: No one will ever know what motivated Dr. Harry Nikaido. Everyone who knew him, however, would agree with the closing line of Oliver’s eulogy: “Doc was an individualist if there ever was one; like many of today’s generation, ‘he did his own thing.’ But he was accepted for what he was … and loved for who he was … and it is appropriate that we will remember him in this way.”

The book is a quick read, and an entertaining one. More importantly it gives us an insight into a man most people outside of Bow Island had never heard of, yet who deserves to be better known. 

 

Rebel with a Cause: The Doc Nikaido Story, by Bretton Loney, is available at the Nikkei National Museum book store, online through Amazon, through Chapters/Indigo, and through FriesenPress.  

 

* This article was originally publsished on The Bulletin Geppo: a journal of Japanese Canadian community, history + culture on February 1, 2016.

 

© 2016 John Endo Greenaway

Bow Island Bretton Loney Canada doctor Dr. Harry Nikaido medical Rebel with a Cause