Anti-Asian racism in British Columbia culminated during World War II in the uprooting, dispossession, and exile of Japanese Canadians, one of the gravest episodes in BC’s and Canada’s history. The successive punitive measures taken against the 21,000 Japanese Canadians, measures that continued for four years after the war, transcending the injustices to Japanese Americans, were not just a human rights abuse – they constituted an attempt to ethnically cleanse the province of those of Japanese heritage.
A United Nations Commission defined ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” The coercive practices used to remove the civilian population can include “murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, severe physical injury to civilians, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, use of civilians as human shields, destruction of property, robbery of personal property, attacks on hospitals, medical personnel, and locations with the Red Cross / Red Crescent emblem, among others.”1
The federal government was responsible for most of the laws behind this tragedy, but the real perpetrators were those in BC who manipulated war fears to demand the uprooting and pushed for the permanent expulsion of Japanese Canadians from the province, as well as those who let it happen.2 For too long, silence has shrouded the fact that thousands took advantage of the dispossession for personal gain. A reckoning is long overdue.
Teacher resource guides on Japanese Canadian History available on-line at japanesecanadianhistory.net
The New Canadian online (see note 3)
Japanese Canadians had been in Canada for more than 70 years; two-thirds were citizens contributing enormously to the province. Yet, like other Asian Canadians, they continued to face prejudice and discrimination. In response, young Japanese Canadians organized the Japanese Canadian Citizens’ League and began publishing the English-language newspaper The New Canadian.
“At no other time in the life of the second generation, when hostile voices rise in sharp crescendo, has there been a greater need for some medium through which the Nisei might speak his thoughts and his hopes to the Canadian public at large,” declared the editors of The New Canadian in its third issue, published February 1, 1939. “To the future greatness of Canada and the part of the Canadian-born Japanese in this future we pledge our sincere effort and our endeavor.” The situation to which they referred was the growing distrust of Japan and Japanese immigrants during the tense months preceding the outbreak of World War II. Published from 1939 to 2001, first in Vancouver, then in Kaslo, BC, then in Winnipeg, and finally in Toronto, the newspaper follows the path of Japanese Canadians during their eviction from the West Coast and their detention in a series of facilities in BC’s Interior and the Prairies.3
However, the Pacific War that began with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 inflamed tensions, particularly between Chinese and Japanese Canadian communities. When Canada declared war against Japan after Pearl Harbor, some influential racists, including Hilda Glynn-Ward and Sidney D’Esterre of Comox, called for Japanese Canadians to be rounded up. But some opposed such measures.
The first-wave feminist Nellie McClung had begun to work with Japanese Canadian writers in the 1930s and defended them: “Canadian Japanese are not to blame for the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor …We must have precautions, but not persecutions.”4 Muriel Kitagawa, a writer for The New Canadian recorded: “The majority of the people are decent and fair-minded and they say so in letters and editorials.”5
Immediately after Canada declared war on Japan, Ottawa passed regulations that required all Japanese citizens and anyone naturalized after 1922 to report to the Registrar of Enemy Aliens. Further measures included the arrest and internment of 38 Japanese designated potential threats to national security, the impounding of nearly 1,200 fishing boats operated by Japanese Canadians (including the Soyokaze owned by Shigekazu Matsunaga on Quadra Island6), and the shuttering of three Japanese-language newspapers, even though one, Nikkan Minshu (Daily People), had been critical of Japanese imperialism. S.J. Willis, BC superintendent of education, ordered all Japanese language schools shut down on authority of the Council of Public Education, a provincial agency.7
But worse was to come. The BC government would play a key role in pushing the federal government to persecute Japanese Canadians.8 BC premier at the time, John Hart, head of the newly formed Liberal-Conservative coalition, initiated the move to uproot: “When Attorney-General Maitland and I were in Ottawa before Christmas , the seriousness of the Japanese problem was discussed with federal authorities, and officials were urged to remove the menace of Fifth Column activity.”9 Then BC cabinet minister George S. Pearson led a delegation to Ottawa that lobbied strenuously for the forcible removal of Japanese Canadians. Opposition from Lt. Gen. Maurice Pope and other federal officials led Pearson to declare that the BC government would not be supportive of federal policies. It was an ugly confrontation.10
Some people, including Laura Jamieson of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), spoke out publicly against racism directed at Japanese Canadians. In the provincial legislature, Grace MacInnis, the newly elected CCF representative for Vancouver-Burrard, made her inaugural speech, declaring that people were “completely deaf to the cries of race hatred that are now going up.”11 She emphasized that the CCF had “no intention of lending ourselves to this system of race hatreds, or any other Nazi-inspired hatreds.”
But a campaign of vilification by racist ideologues, abetted by the BC government and federal MPs (including Howard Green, A.W. Neill, and Robert Mayhew) effectively played on war fears. Voices of anti-racist dissent were largely silenced and soon even CCF leader Harold Winch turned on the community, joining premier John Hart to demand the forced removal of Japanese Canadians.12 On February 24, 1942, the federal government used the War Measures Act to pass Order-in-Council P.C. 1486 empowering the government to round up and detain all Japanese Canadians. It was a fateful day as the voices of hate received the blessing of the state. Too many in BC had joined the racist campaign or had become silent, complicit bystanders.
Learn more about the history of the Soyokaze | https://crmuseum.ca/2019/11/23/soyokaze-gentle-wind/
Japanese Canadians resented being subjected to such treatment but, faced with the power of the state, many felt that all they could do was endure and keep their families intact. To survive was in fact a form of resistance, nurturing family and friends so that they could fight another day. However, as thousands were forced to leave their homes on the Coast and be detained in terrible conditions at Hastings Park,13 organized opposition grew.
Hastings Park 1942 | hastingspark1942.ca
Hear more stories of the lives of Japanese Canadians at | http://nikkeistories.com/
The Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby is a major landmark and resource on Japanese Canadian history. Book a tour, attend a class. | https://centre.nikkeiplace.org
Nikkei Images records the stories of Japanese Canadians in their own words | centre.nikkeiplace.org/research/nikkei-images
The agency in charge of rounding up and detaining Japanese Canadian was the BC Security Commission, a federal agency with an advisory group that included Minister of Labour George S. Pearson and CCF leader Harold Winch. This powerful commission made the fateful decision to split men from their families and send them to road camps. This led to an outcry. Muriel Kitagawa, a poet and journalist, recalled how her friend and colleague Eiko Henmi reacted to the events while being detained in Hastings Park:
The night the first bunch of Nisei were supposed to go to Schreiber and they wouldn’t, the women and children at the [Hastings] pool milled around in front of their cage, and one very handsome Mountie came with his truncheon and started to hit them, yelling at them, “Get the hell back in there.” Eiko’s [Henmi] blood boiled over. She strode over to him and shouted at him: “You put that stick down! What do you think you’re doing? Do you think these women and children are so many cows that you can beat them back into their place?” Eiko was shaking mad and raked him with fighting words.14
The activists openly defied authorities leading to arrests, detention, and an uprising at the Vancouver Immigration Building. Those who resisted were arrested and many were interned, illegally, in prisoner-of-war camps, including Camp 101 in Angler, Ontario.15
More than 21,000 people had been forced from their homes and put in detention camps in the interior of BC, sent to other sites to perform forced labour, or otherwise detained. The BC government had not only precipitated the uprooting, but it also authorized its BC Provincial Police to participate in the round-up and in the policing of the detention camps and towns.
In order to keep families together, Harold Hirose, a former organizer of the Surrey Berry Co-op Association, organized a group of 200 Japanese Canadian farmers from the Fraser Valley to work on farms for the Manitoba Sugar Co. Hirose and Shinji Sato organized the workers in a union and threatened an illegal strike, winning somewhat better wages and living conditions. Many had to rebuild their lives anew after their Fraser Valley farms were sold off without the owners’ permission.
More than 12,000 Japanese Canadians were detained in camps in BC’s Interior and left largely to fend for themselves, often in harsh conditions. Young Japanese Canadian women, led by the indefatigable Hide Hyodo who in 1936 had gone to Ottawa to lobby for the vote, organized immediately to begin schooling for children.
Hide Hyodo Shimizu (1908–1999) was an educator, activist, and advocate for Japanese Canadian rights and enfranchisement. Born in Vancouver, she was the first Japanese Canadian with a teaching certificate to be hired in BC. Her first teaching job, in 1926, was a grade one class of entirely Japanese Canadian students. It was assumed that simply because Shimizu was of Japanese ancestry, she could speak Japanese, which she could not. In 1936, Shimizu addressed Parliament in an effort to have voting rights restored to Asian immigrants and their descendants. In 1941, when the Government of Canada stripped Japanese Canadians of their rights and possessions and forced them into internment camps, Shimizu recruited 120 Japanese teachers, many students themselves, and established a system of schools for the 3,000 children interned in camps throughout British Columbia. Shimizu later lobbied the government for reparations to the many Japanese Canadians who lost homes, businesses, jobs, property and more during the war. For her inspiration and invaluable contributions, she received numerous awards and honours, including the Order of Canada. The National Association of Japanese Canadians established a scholarship in Shimizu’s memory.
“There are lingering bitter memories in the minds of those who, even to this day, cannot accept the tragic fate of our wartime experiences. These are part of the trauma … It has been 35 years. I am a Christian woman, so I have forgiven, but it is very difficult to forget.”16
Learn about the remarkable Hide Hyodo Shimizu | bit.ly/37QNo8v
Japanese Canadians were forced into this position after the BC government refused to provide funding or teachers for the estimated 3,000 school-aged children. Despite a constitutional responsibility to fund their education, the province threatened to introduce legislation to back up the “unqualified refusal of the Government of the Province of British Columbia to assume any responsibility, either financial, or in the matter of administrative direction, in respect to the education of children of Japanese persons evacuated.”17
The New Canadian, the only journal published by Japanese Canadians during the war, responded: “The British Columbia Provincial Government should continue to bear its share in educational costs, just as it had been doing for over forty years before Pearl Harbor, and in accordance with its constitutional responsibility.”18 At the time, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation formed a committee to organize and lobby for teaching materials, and progressive churches also sent aid.
The forced removal and detention of Japanese Canadians and their designation as “the enemy’ opened the door to further persecution. Torazo Iwasaki and hundreds of other Japanese Canadians organized the Japanese Property Owners’ Association to protest government moves to sell off their property that was supposed to be held in trust by the Custodian of Enemy Property.
Letters protesting property sell-off, Heritage Canada (see note 20)
Recently published, As If They Were the Enemy, by Brian Smallshaw tells the story of Japanese Canadians on Saltspring Island, including that of Torazo Iwasaki. Available in print or pdf versions | bit.ly/3hj5QKd
Learn about the Esquimalt Japanese Tea Garden | https://www.vncs.ca/tea-house-initiative/
The enactment of Order-in-Council 469 in January 1943 was legally suspect, but authorized officials to sell, without the permission of the owners, 1,700 properties, including large forest companies, farms, and shipbuilding businesses, not to mention homes, fish boats, and personal possessions. Japanese Canadians understood the dire consequences, even at the time.
The New Canadian described the new law as a “dictate of a race war.”19 Torazo Iwasaki and other property owners wrote hundreds of letters to the government protesting the selling of their property.20 They lodged a court case that went to trial in 1943 but the judge delayed ruling for four years – a clear case of “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Order-in-Council 469 and the sell-off of Japanese Canadian property stole the livelihood and dreams of generations, setting the course for the permanent destruction of communities. Bureaucrats in the Custodian of Enemy Property, government leaders and officials, and the courts were all complicit. Bureaucratic values had fused with racism in what Hannah Arendt describes as the “banality of evil.”21
During this time, Japanese Canadian homes on the Coast were looted and vandalized. White BCers such as Gavan Mouat on Salt Spring Island took advantage of the situation to take over Torazo Iwasaki’s 598-acre property at a ludicrously low price and then made large profits by subdividing and selling it off in chunks.22 Approximately 1,700 properties were disposed of in similar fashion. Thousands attended public auctions to “buy” 90,000 personal items Japanese Canadians were forced to leave behind.23
There were exceptions.
The Nisga’a hereditary chief Eli Gosnell purchased his friend Jack Tasaka’s boat, the Orient, during its auction, protected it, and helped return it to Jack Tasaka upon his return to the Coast.24 Later, heredity chief Harry Nyce had Jack Tasaka build another boat for him, Nishga Girl, that is on exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History.
The uprooting followed by dispossession meant most Japanese Canadians had nothing to come back to at war’s end. Not that they were given that choice.
BC Premier John Hart, other members of his cabinet, and Liberal federal minister Ian Mackenzie were determined to permanently exclude Japanese Canadians from the province. Thus in 1944, the federal government forced them all to choose to go to Japan or move east of the Rockies. Remaining in, or returning to, the coast was not an option. In the end, thousands were forced to move east, and 4,000 were exiled to Japan.25 This only stopped after Japanese Canadians regrouped together with allies in the Cooperative Committee on Japanese Canadians to lobby against exile and filing a court case against deportations that was unfortunately lost in 1946.
Discriminatory measures continued until 1949 as the BC government pressured Ottawa to keep Japanese Canadians out of the province. A comparison of the experience of Japanese Canadians to that of Japanese Americans helps to illuminate the extent of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Canadians (see chart).
To some people, the extent of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Canadians between 1941 and 1949 compared to what happened in the US might be surprising. But when we consider how the BC government perpetrated genocidal injustices against Indigenous peoples, took away the right to vote of Indigenous peoples and Asian Canadians in a manner reminiscent of US laws under slavery, and excluded Asians from immigrating in order to keep BC white, it seems less surprising. Rather than an excess committed during war, it may be more appropriate to consider BC actions as an exercise in ethnic cleansing.
With nothing to return to, many Japanese Canadians remained east of the Rockies. Johnny and Mary Madokoro, however, elected to come back after BC Packers offered financial support to return to fishing. Johnny and his family took up their offer to return to the West Coast to fish. Unable to return to Tofino because of continuing racism, Johnny and Mary Madokoro bought a house in Port Alberni and Johnny took up fishing while Mary raised three sons and daughter Marlene and son Brian. Marlene and her husband Frank still live in the family home. Similarly, T. Buck Suzuki returned to fish, becoming an important activist in the Fisherman’s Union. The Matsunaga family returned to Campbell River where they took up fishing once again, eventually finding and relaunching their beloved Soyokaze.
However, of an estimated 3,000 Japanese Canadians who lived on Vancouver Island, only a hundred or so ever returned. Not a single resident of Victoria ever returned there to live. Most Japanese Canadians remained in exile, striving to find new lives in towns and cities across the country.
The BC government conspired with the federal government to prevent the return of Japanese Canadians to BC. This caused incredible hardship as many had lost all their property and life-savings and were forced to start life anew. Out of exile, however, emerged a new determination to fight racism, to protect and grow families, and to establish new communities.
Japanese Canadians built new lives and communities but the pain inflicted by the federal and BC governments continues as families contend with this past and the continuing inter-generational trauma that it has inflicted.
From the new communities, new institutions evolved. The Bulletin and Nikkei Voice became major publications with a wide audience. The Vancouver Japanese Language School on Alexander Street, which re-opened in 1952, was recently declared a National Historic Site by Parks Canada.
NAJC | najc.ca/member-organizations
In the 1970s, the Japanese Canadian communities came together to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Canada and went on to lobby and campaign for civil rights, participating fully in the Constitutional and multiculturalism discussions then taking place. It also began a campaign for redress for the injustices of 1941–1949 that culminated in the Redress settlement of 1988.27
Listen to Roy Miki, one of the leaders of the redress settlement, discuss his view of the settlement 30 years later | https://ln.sync.com/dl/d6e428630/5evnj4ga-x6ktdsgh-z84rbh6t-6ny46a7w. password: murakami
In 2012, the BC government offered an apology for what happened to Japanese Canadians but failed to acknowledge its own role or enact measures of rectification. The NAJC continues to press for full acknowledgment and redress measures. In 2019, over a six-month period, Japanese Canadian communities were asked for their input about what a just redress settlement would involve. Following this consultation, the NAJC submitted a report to the BC government.28
Subsequently, talks began with the premier, ministers, and other ministry officials. To clarify the community’s position, the NAJC submitted its major requests to the Institute for Financial Studies and Democracy (IFSD), which has costed and prepared a business case to be submitted to the government. During the 2020 provincial election, the NDP pledged to come to a redress settlement with the Japanese Canadian community. A just and timely settlement would suggest the BC government is willing to repudiate systemic racism.
Maryka Omatsu, Swimming Upstream: Japanese Canadian Struggle for Justice in BC | bit.ly/2OpCkYI
2 Teachers’ resource guides on Japanese Canadian history are available online at japanesecanadianhistory.net/. Listen to Japanese Canadians relate their stories via SFU’s Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection, accessed December 15, 2020, bit.ly/3ry4Kz2↩
3 See Multicultural History Society of Ontario, The New Canadian, SFU Digitized Newspapers, accessed December 15, 2020, newspapers.lib.sfu.ca/tnc-collection. See also Ann Gomer Sunahara’s monumental work The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War (Toronto: Lorimer, 1981), available through the National Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre web portal at centre.nikkeiplace.org/research/por↩
6 The story of the Soyokaze is told by Beth Boyce, “The Soyokaze: A Gentle Wind that Weathered the Storm,” BC Studies 204 (Winter 2019/20): 171–82. See also Soyokaze (Gentle Wind), Campbell River Museum, accessed December 15, 2020, bit.ly/3aKmPUi↩
7 S.J. Willis to Tsutae Sato Esq, as cited in Tsutae and Eiko Sato, Kodomo to tomo ni 50 Nen [Teaching Japanese Canadian Children for 50 Years], December 8, 1941; “Japanese Schools to Close in BC by Special Decree,” British Colonist, December 11, 1941, 9.↩
8 The story of BC government responsibility is examined in John Price, The BC Government and the Dispossession of Japanese Canadians (1941–1949) (Vancouver: BC Office Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives / Winnipeg: National Association of Japanese Canadians, 2020); this was a consolidated version of a six-part series first published in the Times-Colonist in November–December 2019), accessed December 15, 2020, bit.ly/3nXuBhE↩
10 For details, see Conference on the Japanese Problem in British Columbia Minutes, January 8–9, 1942, Library and Archives Canada, RG 117, vol. 1, 2 (part 1); Maurice A. Pope, Soldiers and Politicians: The Memoirs of Lt.-Gen. Maurice A. Pope (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 177. See also Maryka Omatsu, Swimming Upstream: Japanese Canadian Struggle for Justice in BC, accessed December 15, 2020, centre.nikkeiplace.org/other-resources↩
13 See Hastings Park 1942, accessed December 15, 2020, hastingspark1942.ca. Nikkei Images records the stories of Japanese Canadians in their own words, accessed December 15, 2020, centre.nikkeiplace.org/research/nikkei-images↩
17 A. MacNamara, “Memorandum to the Minister of Labour,” February 9, 1943, LAC, MG27III, B-5, 67-29, 1. See also Frank Moritsugu and the Ghost Town Teachers Historical Society, Teaching in Canadian Exile (Toronto: The Ghost Town Teachers Society, 2001).↩
20 See the collection of protest letters held by the Custodian of Enemy Property, Vancouver Office, available through the Héritage-Canadiana portal at bit.ly/3mSlEou. See also Jordan Stanger-Ross, Nicholas Blomley, and the Landscapes of Injustice Research Collective, “‘My Land Is Worth a Million Dollars’: How Japanese-Canadians Contested Their Dispossession in the 1940s,” Law and History Review 35, no. 3 (August 2017): 711–51.↩
22 See Brian Smallshaw’s recent publication, As If They Were the Enemy: The Dispossession of Japanese Canadians on Saltspring Island (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2020), available for free as an e-publication at bit.ly/3hj5QKd↩
23 Kaitlin Findlay, Nicholas Blomley, and the Landscapes of Injustice Research Collective, “(De)valuation: The State Mismanagement of Japanese Canadian Personal Property in the 1940s” in Jordan Stanger-Ross ed., Landscapes of Injustice: A New Perspective on the Internment and Dispossession of Japanese Canadians (Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2020), 213-252.↩
24 Allison Nyce, “The Honourable History of the Interconnected Nishga Girl Families: A Brief History of the Nyce and Tasaka Friendship,” The Bulletin, August 2013, accessed December 15, 2020, bit.ly/2X23lCR↩
25 See Tatsuo Kage, Uprooted Again (Victoria, BC: Ti-Jean Press, 2012), a translation by Kathleen Chisato Merken of his Nikkei Kanadajin no Tsuihou [Exiled Japanese Canadians] (Tokyo: Akashi Shoten Publishers, 1998). ↩
27 Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004); Maryka Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1992).↩