Located on the north end of Minnesota Street lies a little garden with a lot of meaning.
The Friendship Gardens is a manicured park dedicated to one of Collingwood’s sister cities, Katano, which is a small city northeast of Osaka, Japan.
The Town of Collingwood and the City of Katano signed a sister-city agreement 40 years ago, and the relationship has been kept alive by active members in both communities.
“I love this relationship and I think it is so good for Collingwood,” said Terri Keleher, co-chair of the Katano-Collingwood Sister City Committee.
The committee currently consists of eight volunteers who value the connection with the Japanese city and are committed to keeping it alive. In Katano, the relationship is managed by a paid board called the Katano International Friendship Association (KIFA).
Keleher has a personal connection to Japan, which is what led her to join the committee in the first place. Originally from Mississauga, Keleher spent four years living in Tokyo and teaching at the American School in Japan.
While abroad, Keleher and her husband purchased a condo in Collingwood as a place to stay anytime they were back in Canada. When they finally moved home, they intended to live in the condo while looking for an apartment in Toronto, but quickly fell in love with this area instead.
“When I saw we had a sister city in Japan it made me curious, and I wanted to find out what the sister city relationship was all about,” said Keleher.
Then a family moved in next door to Keleher, and her new neighbour happened to be the president of the committee at the time. As it turns out, several of the members had been involved for many, many years and were looking to take a step back.
“So my husband and I said, ‘we’re in!’” said Keleher. That was about 10 years ago.
The relationship itself started back in 1981, shortly after Ron Emo was elected as Mayor of Collingwood. A group from Katano had recently visited Collingwood, sparking Katano officials to approach Emo for a formal agreement between the two towns. Council was skeptical at first, but by a split vote agreed to the “twinning” relationship.
Sister city agreements are, in many cases, just a name, said Keleher.
“It’s like a handshake agreement between two towns or cities, usually they have something in common — either geographical features or their industries, for example — there is some commonality that has made them choose one another,” she said.
But the people of both Katano and Collingwood made it real.
“They bothered to stay in touch with each other and they invited each other here and there, sent letters back and forth and gifts to one another,” said Keleher. “People actually valued it, and kept it alive. Which is really, really cool.”
“From that inauspicious beginning, the Sister City relationship has grown and developed,” added Emo in an email.
Taeko Tomita, an exchange student from Katano, lived with Emo and his family for the better part of a year, and Emo's daughter, Mary-Margaret, also spent a year in Katano. When Mary-Margaret got married, Taeko was a bridesmaid.
Keleher took over as co-chair of the committee with Bob “Burger Bob” Schmuck, and both are committed to continue growing and developing the familial relationship.
Most recently, Keleher led a delegation of about 20 Collingwood residents, including Mayor Brian Saunderson, to visit Katano in November of 2019. The first five days of the trip were spent staying in host homes and meeting dignitaries in Katano, followed by bus tours around the city and trips to Kyoto, local schools, Hiroshima and Mount Fuji.
“Those first few days being with families… It was fascinating because it doesn’t seem like long, but when we got on the bus to leave Katano there were tears. People were crying on both sides… Japanese and Collingwood people at the bus windows just waving and hugging,” said Keleher. “It was really amazing just how important the new friendships become very quickly.”
This year, a group of people from Katano were supposed to visit Collingwood to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the partnership. However, the trip was cancelled because of COVID-19.
“It would have been a big celebration,” said Keleher.
The committee is hopeful that trips will resume once travel restrictions ease, and in the meantime, they are working on refreshing and refurbishing the Friendship Gardens so they are in pristine shape when members of their sister city finally do visit.
Collingwood also has two other sister cities: Boone, North Carolina, and Zihuatanejo, Mexico.
“The whole purpose of it is to foster international friendships and that it will ultimately lead towards world peace,” said Keleher. “So it’s super beautiful, and it is bigger than it sounds.”
“Sister city relationships, like many other similar 'twinnings,' help show we are all one world,” added Emo.