Japanese Canadian exclusion and incarceration

The story of the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during and after World War II became popularly known through Joy Kogawa's novel, Obasan , originally published in 1981. Few people, however, notice the differences between the experiences of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans, even after reading the novel. Kogawa's novel depicts the "silence" the community maintained over three decades after their incarceration and the pain it went through in trying to break the silence. The sense of loss of one's youth, happiness, identity, community, property, occupation, and even family, and the impossibility, which the novel describes, to regain or even to rebuild one's dislocated "self" can only be truly understood by understanding Japanese Canadians' wartime experience—their detention, dispossession, dispersal and deportation—as a whole. Kogawa's novel broke Japanese Canadians' silence. Influenced also by the Redress Movement and activism south of the border, Japanese Canadians endeavored to recreate their community and now are thriving in Asian Canadian cultural productions.

Japanese Canadian Communities before World War II

The first Japanese to settle in Canada is known to be Manzo Nagano, a sailor from Nagasaki who arrived in New Westminster, an eastern suburb of Vancouver, in 1877. He settled in Victoria, where he ran several businesses including a hotel and a Japanese gift store.

Substantial immigration from Japan started in the last decade of the 19th Century, after pioneers from Wakayama (1888) and Shiga (1891) prefectures sailed to Canada and encouraged fellow villagers to follow them. Most of the original Wakayama immigrants were fishermen. They settled in a fishing town called Steveston in the delta land south of Vancouver. Japanese settlers and their families greatly contributed to the development of the salmon cannery industry in the region by serving as cannery workers as well as highly-skilled fishermen and boat builders. Immigrants from Shiga initially worked in the lumber and sawmill industries, settling around Hastings Sawmill, a major employer of the Japanese in the city of Vancouver. A Japanese Canadian community grew near the sawmill. Towards the end of the 19th century, immigrants from Fukuoka, Hiroshima, and other prefectures joined. The major "pull factor" for these immigrants was the labor shortage in British Columbia, which induced the capitalists to import cheap labor from Asia, especially in the railroad, mining and lumber industries. Businesses and services catering to Japanese laborers flourished on and around Powell Street, turning the neighborhood into a Japantown by the early 1900s. Smaller scale Japanese settlements were formed in lumber camps and mining towns in inland British Columbia as well as in fishing villages along the coast. By 1907, the Japanese population in Canada exceeded 18,000.

British Columbia, like the West Coast states in the United States, passed a series of anti-Asian legislation between the 1880s and the end of World War II. In 1895, Japanese were added to the category of already disenfranchised racial groups, which included "Chinese" and "Indians (First Nations)," in the Provincial Voters Act. "Hindus (South Asians)" were also added in 1907. Since the Provincial Voters Act excluded individuals of specific racial groups from the provincial voting list used both for the federal and provincial elections, it effectively disfranchised not only the Issei but also the Canadian-born Nisei . On the other hand, unlike the Issei in the United States, immigrants from Japan had the right to naturalize. Since the status of "British Subject (equivalent to citizenship)" was required to obtain fishing licenses, all the Japanese fishermen naturalized by necessity, while many other Issei also chose to naturalize. At the time of Pearl Harbor , three-quarters of Japanese Canadians were either naturalized or native-born Canadians.

In September 1907, a race riot occurred in Vancouver, when a white mob rallying for restrictions on Asian immigration attacked Chinatown and the adjacent Japantown. The mobs threw rocks and broke windows of many stores but few cases of personal injury or looting happened in Japantown, while Chinatown suffered more severe damage. After the riot, the governments of Japan and Canada signed the Gentlemen's Agreement , after which Japan voluntarily restricted annual male immigration to Canada to a maximum of 400. Since women were not included in the annual quota of immigrants, women started to arrive in Canada, many of them as picture brides . More than 6,500 women immigrated to Canada from Japan between 1908 and 1934, while the total number of Japanese immigrants during those years was over 25,300 (including multiple entries). The arrival of women changed the initial sojourner society into permanently settled ethnic communities. By the late 1930s, many Japanese Canadians had established solid economic bases and stable family lives in thriving ethnic towns in Vancouver and Victoria, in fishing communities along the West Coast, and in agricultural communities in the Fraser Valley, the Ocanagan, and southern Alberta.

Pearl Harbor and the Uprooting from the West Coast

Despite the apparent similarities between the treatment of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians during World War II, there were some important differences between the specific measures the two countries adopted, which differentiated the experiences of the ethnic Japanese population north and south of the border. The primary difference derived from the fact that unlike the United States, Canada did not have a written constitution that included the Bill of Rights, since the country operated within the legal tradition of British Common Law. The law that the government used to justify its policies towards Japanese Canadians was the War Measures Act. The War Measures Act, passed in 1914 to deal with the national emergency in World War I, authorized the federal cabinet to conduct policies, which did not require any parliamentary or judicial sanctions in times of "war, invasion or insurrection." The cabinet policies were conducted through "orders-in-council," i.e. notices of regulations and administrative decisions. While the War Measures Act was in effect, the government orders could not be challenged legally, not matter how racist or inhumane they were.

By the time the Japanese fleet attacked Pearl Harbor and the Japanese army attacked the British territory of Hong Kong on December 7, 1941, Canada had already been engaged in the Second World War for over two years on the European front, hence the War Measures Act was in effect. The Pearl Harbor attack shocked Canadians on the West Coast nonetheless, now that the battlefield had expanded into the Pacific region. Within hours, Canada declared war on Japan, but at the same time, the Cabinet cautioned against anti-Japanese demonstrations in British Columbia and urged people to remain calm. On December 8, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detained 38 Japanese Canadians and the navy impounded 1,200 Japanese Canadian owned fishing boats. Naval vessels escorted fishing boats in ports along the coast to assembly points at Prince Rupert, Nanaimo and New Westminster. The mishandling of boats by inexperienced naval officers during the trip down the coast and during the mooring caused great damage to the vessels. Japanese language schools were closed down, and Japanese language newspapers stopped publishing.

During the first few weeks after Pearl Harbor, major Canadian newspapers called for calm and tolerance towards the Japanese citizens in Canada and Canadians of Japanese ancestry. However, the news of the fall of Hong Kong and the capture of over 2,000 Canadian soldiers on Christmas Day inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment among Canadians, some of whom started to demand tougher measures towards Japanese Canadians. On January 8, 1942, the federal cabinet summoned the Conference on Japanese Problems to discuss the treatment of Japanese Canadians. In the conference, chaired by Ian Alistair Mackenzie, an anti-Japanese cabinet minister from British Columbia, the BC delegates pushed for harsh measures including the removal of all Japanese from the West Coast. Other members, including representatives from the RCMP, the navy, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, opposed such drastic measures, and the conference settled on the removal of adult male aliens, along with the suspension of Japanese fishing licenses, the confiscation of fishing boats and reselling of them to non-Japanese, and the prohibition of possessing shortwave radios by Japanese aliens. In the order-in-council announced on January 14, the government designated the area 100 miles from the coast the "defence area" from which Japanese male aliens between the ages of 18 and 45 would be removed. These men were ordered to work in the highway construction camps in the Canadian Rockies.

The push from BC politicians, particularly Ian Mackenzie, for the total removal of Japanese Canadians continued even after the January 14 order-in-council. The fall of Singapore on February 15 and the announcement of the Executive Order 9066 by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19 finally settled the debate within the Cabinet regarding the treatment of Japanese Canadians. The order-in-council proclaimed on February 26 was almost identical to the Executive Order 9066. The mass uprooting of all persons of Japanese ancestry, citizens or aliens, from the West Coast became the common policy for both the United States and Canada.

On March 4, 1942, the government established the BC Security Council (BCSC), administered by industrialist Austin C. Taylor, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Frederick J. Mead, and the assistant commissioner of the BC Provincial Police John Shirras to supervise the removal of Japanese Canadians from the coastal area. The custodian of enemy property was assigned to administer the property of those who were removed. Within less than two weeks, the round-up of Japanese Canadians residing outside Vancouver started. People were ordered to pack whatever they could carry sometimes within 24 hours and were sent to the livestock building of Hastings Park, the temporary processing center in Vancouver. The building was divided into two sections, the men's section and the women's and children's section. In each section, bunks with straw mattresses were placed in rows only three feet apart from each other on a concrete floor. Women hung sheets around their bunks to retain some privacy. Men's bunks had no partitions. The smell of manure from animals recently removed from the site was unbearable. Toilets were open troughs and the mess hall was placed in the former poultry section.

In the meantime, the removal of Japanese Canadian men, including many Nisei, was also under way. As this policy involved separation of families, it met strong resistance from the already distressed community. An Issei group called "Ganbari-gumi" and the Nisei Mass Evacuation Group refused to show up at the immigration building as ordered. Several hundred men who refused to leave the "protected area" were incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps in Ontario. Other men who were assigned to the road camps in the interior BC and Ontario were shipped away, leaving wives and children. Many of them were reunited with their families in the detention camps in interior BC by the fall of 1942.

Detention, Dispossession, Dispersal and Deportation

The rest of the Japanese Canadian population, residing both in the Vancouver area and Hastings Park, headed for several different destinations during the spring and summer of 1942. About 12,000 were housed in detention camps in interior BC. Unlike the U.S. government, the Canadian government did not build new camps except in one case, the Tashme Camp built just outside the 100 mile exclusion area near the town of Hope. Nine camps in Greenwood and the Slocan Valley (Slocan City, Lemon Creek, Popoff, Bay Farm, Roseberry, New Denver, Sandon and Kaslo) utilized the former mining towns that had turned into ghost towns by the 1940s. Approximately 2,500 and 1,000 moved to southern Alberta and Manitoba respectively, to work on sugar beet farms to supplement the severe labor shortage and to contribute to sugar production during the war. About 1,150 people were allowed to move to self-supporting camps built in a valley upstream of the Fraser River, while another 1,350 moved in with their families, relatives or friends who lived outside the 100 mile area in the Ocanagan Valley and Eastern Canada. Those who were allowed self-removal tended to be wealthy citizens who got to keep many of their possessions as they relocated themselves. This left a feeling of unfairness among the people who went through the relocation process administered by the BCSC.

The camps in interior BC had to be quickly prepared for the winter season. In Tashme and other camps, wooden shacks covered by tar paper did not provide adequate insulation. In the camps in the Slocan Valley, some evacuees had to survive the first winter in tents. On the sugar beet farms, the severity of winter in the Prairie Provinces was beyond imagination for Japanese Canadians, most of whom were used to the mild West Coast climate. Those who were moved to Alberta and Manitoba were mostly farming families from the Fraser Valley or fishing families from Steveston. They had to cope with harsh working conditions on sugar beet farms along with the poor quality of water and inadequate housing for the duration of the war.

When Japanese Canadians left the West Coast, their farms, houses, stores, cars and other property were left in the hands of the custodian of enemy property, whose power was to protect and administer such property. Ian Mackenzie, the minister of pensions and health and the major author of the mass uprooting scheme of Japanese Canadians, pressured Secretary of State Norman McLarty to issue an order-in-council that granted the custodian of enemy property the right to dispose of Japanese Canadian property without the owner's consent. The selling of Japanese Canadian property had beneficial effects in the minds of the anti-Japanese politicians and cabinet ministers. Firstly, the liquidation of property would discourage Japanese Canadians from returning to the West Coast after the war. Secondly, the farms could be sold to other Canadians, particularly to veterans who would return to the region, and provide them with work. Thirdly, the sales of property would help Japanese Canadians to finance their transportation and living costs in their detention camps. In January 1943, Mackenzie was granted his wish. Farms, houses and boats, the property that Japanese Canadians had earned after decades of hard work, were sold at a fraction of their market values, and the owners received cheques after the government had subtracted the costs of their forced removal. The Canadian government systematically deprived Japanese Canadians of their property, and effectively made them pay for their own incarceration. Japanese Canadians set up the Japanese Property Owners' Association to legally challenge this policy, but the court found that this measure was lawful under the War Measures Act.

In 1944, the BC politicians, who had traditionally exploited the anti-Asian sentiment among the white population in the province, pressured the federal government to plan for the postwar expulsion of Japanese Canadians. Ottawa sought policies similar to the "loyalty questions" adopted in the U.S. In contrast to the U.S. " loyalty questions ," however, which were designed for the recruitment of Nisei into military service and the reintegration of loyal citizens and aliens into society, the Canadian questionnaire was intended for the deportation of any citizens or aliens who were labeled "disloyal" as well as for the dispersal of those who would remain in Canada to the extent that there would be no visible Japanese Canadian communities after the war. Seeing that the U.S. government repealed the exclusion order from the West Coast in December 1944, Ottawa quickly made the Canadian version of the "loyalty questions" that asked the Japanese Canadians detained in BC camps to choose between immediate relocation to east of the Rockies and postwar "repatriation," which meant "deportation" for most of them. Approximately 10,000, including dependents under 16, signed up for postwar deportation, because many of them could not relocate to the east immediately. While others left the detention camps and took the government-arranged jobs in the Prairies or eastern Canada, those who signed up for deportation awaited the end of the war in interior BC.

The surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945, was met with panic by Japanese Canadians who had signed up for deportation. Several thousand requested to revoke their repatriation applications. The government refused revocation. In the meantime, the general political climate towards racism and racial prejudice was changing in North America, particularly after the atrocity and genocide within the Nazi death camps came to be known. Civic organizations of mainstream Canadians formed the Cooperative Committee on Japanese Canadians and opposed the unwilling deportation of Canadian citizens. Although the court decided that the War Measures Act and its subsequent National Emergency Powers Act gave power to the government to enforce deportation policies as scheduled, public pressure against the scheme grew too strong. In 1947, Ottawa reversed its deportation orders and allowed those who wished to stay in Canada to do so. By this time, however, over 4,000 had left Canada for the war-torn Japan. Canadian citizenship was stripped away from "the repatriates" as they boarded the ship.

The recovery of civil rights for Japanese Canadians was a slow process. In 1946, while the Parliament debated the bill for the Canadian Citizenship Act, the law to establish Canadian citizenship separate from British nationality, whether to grant Japanese Canadians citizenship or not became one of the divisive issues. Although Japanese Canadians were granted citizenship in 1947 after the law's passage, those who left BC continued to be disfranchised until June 1948. The exclusion order from the 100 mile zone was not lifted until March 31, 1949. By this time, less than one-third of Japanese Canadians lived in interior British Columbia. The rest were scattered across the country, in Alberta (about 4,000), Saskatchewan (550), Manitoba (1,200), Ontario (6,600) and Quebec (1,300). The governmental pressure for dispersal was concrete and complete, and their dispossession had made it extremely difficult for many Japanese Canadians to return to the West Coast. Japanese Canadians had to rebuild their lives from the scratch in unfamiliar places. They were denied their rights to build new ethnic communities. Many Sansei grew up in communities where there were few other Japanese Canadians in the vicinity. The severity of the dispersal policy accounts for the high out-marriage rate for Japanese Canadians which is estimated to be over 90%.

Postwar Recovery of Ethnic Pride and Community

Three decades passed before Japanese Canadians started to rebuild their ethnic community and regain their ethnic pride. In 1977, Japanese Canadians across the country organized to hold events for the centennial of Japanese settlement in Canada and collectively celebrated their heritage and culture for the first time after World War II. The Powell Street Festival, an ethnic festival in Vancouver became an annual event thereafter. The centennial reconnected the scattered people. The Powell Street Festival today is helping the younger generation, most of whom are of multiple heritages, to be in touch with Japanese and Japanese Canadian culture.

The growth of Redress Movement in the U.S. in the 1970s inspired some Japanese Canadians to demand compensation for the Canadian government's historical violation of their civil liberties and human rights. In September 1988, one month after the passage of the U.S. Civil Liberties Act , Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed a redress bill. The redress package included an official apology for the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians during and after World War II, $21,000 of monetary compensation to the surviving Japanese Canadians who lived in Canada between December 7, 1941, and March 31, 1949, and the recovery of Canadian citizenship to those who were deported to Japan. The agreement also granted $12 million to the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) and $24 million for the establishment of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

Although not included in the redress package, it should also be noted that the Mulroney administration repealed the War Measures Act and replaced it with the Emergencies Act in 1988, which provided detailed rules on what the government could and could not do during national emergencies. Representatives from the Japanese Canadian community were invited to make presentations at the Parliamentary committee for the new bill, and they explained the historical injustices inflicted upon their community under the War Measures Act. Redress, therefore, was significant in the sense that it not only restored the dignity of the Japanese Canadian community but also served as a declaration of Canada's determination to prevent the governmental abuse of power in the future against racial and other minorities. In this sense, the Redress Movement was a struggle for all Canadians who cherished civil liberties and the principle of equal justice under the law.

Authored by Masumi Izumi , Doshisha University

For More Information


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Last updated June 13, 2024, 5:15 p.m..