They are an overlooked part of Winnipeg's urban history: old, painted signs. Some of them could be considered works of art in themselves, though many are disappearing due to graffiti, new development or just a lack of interest in the stories they tell.
This is the story behind one sign that was recently painted over.
For more than 60 years, the Norris Block at 274 Garry St., (most recently Aqua Books), sported a plain white-on-black sign that read: "J. Norris -- Tailor." The Norris Tailor shop was created in 1921 by John Norris. In 1932, his son, John Norris Jr., joined him in the enterprise and took it over when his father died.
When the Second World War broke out, Norris Jr. went overseas with the Winnipeg Grenadiers. In 1941, they were dispatched to Hong Kong, expecting to perform garrison duties for the Commonwealth colony. Then the Japanese invaded. Nearly 300 Canadians were killed in the Battle of Hong Kong before the city fell on Christmas Day, 1941. Hundreds of Canadian soldiers were interned in Japanese PoW camps.
News of the battle shocked Winnipeg. For days on end, newspapers carried updated lists on their front page of the fate of the hundreds of Manitobans who were involved. For many, including Norris's wife, Cleo, and their nine year-old son, John, there was no news at all. Norris was simply listed as "missing."
Seven months later, a man who escaped from the camp got word to the family Norris was a prisoner of war.
He may have been alive, but not well, the escapee told them. The Japanese PoW camps were a place of starvation, disease and abuse. Due to his rank of captain, Norris was singled out for beatings and humiliation in front of his men. His main tormentor was camp interpreter Kanao Inouye, nicknamed "The Kamloops Kid" because he was born in Canada to a Japanese-Canadian father who was a decorated Canadian soldier in the First World War. Inouye took out his anger at the racism he endured in Canada on the camp's senior-ranking Canadian prisoner.
A fellow prisoner later recounted "(Norris) had been struck so often in the head that he was never right... He never got back to being normal."
After the war, Inouye was found guilty of war atrocities and hanged for his treatment of Canadian soldiers, which sometimes resulted in death.
When the war ended, the camps were liberated and Norris arrived back in Winnipeg on Oct. 19, 1945. He spent months in hospital recovering from severe malnutrition, partial paralysis and other internal injuries. Motivated to help his comrades, he was instrumental in establishing the Hong Kong Veterans Association, serving as its first president in 1946-47.
Norris, however, could not overcome his war injuries. He died while at work in his Garry Street shop on Nov. 8, 1949, at the age of 44.
The simple sign remained up, at times likely even retouched, by a series of building owners until 2012, when the newest owners of the Garry Block painted it over in black.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history at his blog West End Dumplings.