A dark history in Canada: Japanese internments
By Teena Apeles
People of Japanese descent, relocated from the Seattle area, unload their belongings as they arrive at an internment camp in Puyallup, Wash., in April 1942. They were among thousands of people forced from their homes in the name of national security following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Imagine being dropped off in an unfamiliar place, far from home and everything you know. Some of your family members are sent elsewhere, miles away, and you are told you can’t leave to find them. Your days are now spent in animal stalls, sleeping on a bed of straw, with the unbearable stench of animal waste in the air. There are no walls to your new home. No door to shut out the rest of the world. Instead, hundreds of other people share your same floor, with only hanging sheets separating you. You discover your home, business and most of your possessions have been either sold off without your consent or looted. You have nothing to go back to. And the country you love and the government that was supposed to protect you is responsible.
In recent decades, Canada has been celebrated for its quality of life, multicultural society and friendly citizenry. It is known for catering to its diverse population, being the first country to pass a national multiculturalism law in 1988 to preserve and enhance multiculturalism, being the third country to legalize gay marriage in 1995 and even designing currency (with tactile features and large high-contrast numerals) that takes into account the needs of its blind and visually impaired citizens. All this coupled with declining crime rates, a reasonable cost of living and government-funded national healthcare system and it’s no wonder that thousands immigrate to Canada each year, the largest percentage arriving from Asia.
But Canada was not always so accommodating to those of different ethnicities. Most people in the world—and even some Canadians—have no knowledge of the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who had their human rights violated by the Canadian government during World War II, just like their Japanese American counterparts here in the States. They were evacuated from their homes, separated from their loved ones, forced to live in dingy conditions and lost their property simply because of their Japanese heritage. It is a somber chapter in Canadian history that survivors still struggle with today.
A culture of fear
Even prior to World War II, discrimination toward the Japanese had been growing in British Columbia (B.C.), the province where the majority of Japanese had settled since they first immigrated to Canada in 1877. Many unfair policies over the decades demonstrated the provincial and national governments’ distrust of them: denying voting rights to citizens of “Asiatic” origin, restricting the number of Japanese immigrants and revoking their fishing licenses. By the 1940s, the Japanese population had grown to more than 20,000 in the province. They started businesses, bought homes and sent their children to school.
Yet, the Canadian government, with the urging of B.C. officials, continued to treat Japanese Canadians as outsiders and restrict their rights. They were not permitted in the military during World War II, though some 200 Japanese Canadians had served the country in the previous war. Then starting in August 1941, all Japanese Canadians were required to carry registration cards with their photos and thumbprints. It became painfully obvious that with Japan as the enemy on the international front, the anti-Japanese sentiment in Canada was strong.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked an American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing 2,300 and injuring more than 1,000, amplifying the negative feelings toward the Japanese. Fears of what Japan could do next put all of North America in panic.
President Franklin Roosevelt immediately told the American people that he’d require “all measures be taken” in the country’s defense. The next day, the Canadian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, started taking its own measures—but against its own Japanese Canadian citizens. Without warning, all 1,200 Japanese Canadian-owned fishing boats were impounded, the production of Japanese-language newspapers was halted and Japanese-language schools were closed.
Come January 1942, a 100 mile-wide “protected” zone along the B.C. coastline was designated, and the government ordered all male Japanese Canadians to clear the coastline. Able-bodied men aged 18 to 45 were separated from their families and sent to work in road camps in northern B.C.
In the United States, what many have called “government-enforced racism” became a reality on Feb. 19. Pres. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps, affecting some 120,000 people. The Canadian government followed suit. Under the War Measures Act, the government enacted a formal evacuation policy of all those of Japanese descent from the protected area. This would impact the lives of about 22,000 men, women and children—75 percent of whom were Canadian-born (nisei) or naturalized citizens (issei). The following actions were also required of Japanese Canadians (called “enemy aliens”), while within the protected area: to follow a sunset-to-sunrise curfew and to turn in their vehicles, cameras, radios, firearms and ammunition to a local government agency. Citizenship helped no one. They were told the order was for military and precautionary measures. There were rumors of Japanese Canadian fisherman being spies. Others reasoned that if the Japanese invaded the coastline, Japanese Canadians would possibly aid them, though many top military officials felt these fears were tenuous.
Germany and Italy were also enemies of Canada, but the same actions were not taken against Canadians of German or Italian descent. A common belief at the time was that the Japanese were unable to assimilate into Canadian society as easily as those of European heritage. Even Prime Minister Mackenzie King expressed in a speech “the extreme difficulty of assimilating Japanese persons in Canada.” Arguments were that their culture was too ingrained and their physical appearance was too different. The fact that the Japanese also lived in tight-knit communities, even after being in the country for decades, indicated to some that they had more allegiance to Japan than to Canada.
Lives in the balance
The government’s move to clear all Japanese Canadians from the coast was in motion by March. Those in the protected area turned over their belongings to the “Custodian of Enemy Property” as required by the order. They were given the impression that it would be for safekeeping, but later even their homes and businesses would be seized and auctioned off beginning in 1943. The properties were auctioned at ridiculously low prices without notice or permission, and with their owners receiving little to no money. In fact, the proceeds from the auction were used to pay for the internment camps. Japanese Canadians then had to report to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) with instructions to bring one suitcase each to take with them. Holding areas included the stables at Vancouver’s Hastings Park, where they’d stay temporarily as they awaited relocation assignment. The conditions there were horrible. The area was fenced in. It was cold and there was no privacy. People slept in dormitories set up in animal stalls that smelled of its past tenants. No Japanese Canadian could come and go as they pleased.
From the holding areas, where some people stayed for months, thousands of mainly women and children were moved to about 10 internment camps in mining and mill ghost towns in the wilderness of interior B.C. They arrived in busloads, in some places 80 people a day, to dreary towns where local residents had never seen a Japanese person before. Often, the camps lacked proper electricity or plumbing when the internees arrived.
Betty Washimoto, a nisei, was 19 when her family was moved from the countryside in the Okanagan Valley, to the mining ghost town of Kaslo. She lived with her mom and sister in an old hotel that was boarded up with hundreds of other women and children. “There were no blankets and the mattresses were just straw,” recalls Ms. Washimoto, now 82. Fortunately for her family, they were not separated. “My father was there, but in another building.” They had no radio, so the only news they received was from the New Canadian newspaper, published by the Japanese Canadian community. Internees also received news by mail from friends and family, but it was censored.
The towns that did take the Japanese Canadians in had been deteriorating for some time. Though they had some negative feelings toward Japanese people because of the war, they saw the opportunity to aid their government and possibly revitalize their town. But for the visitors, it was a painful time. They felt abandoned by their country, and they all longed to return to their homes. Most had gone from living by the endless expanse of the ocean to dismal towns, surrounded by mountains.
The majority of Japanese Canadians cooperated with the government order, hoping to demonstrate their loyalty to their country. They also felt shikata ga nai (it couldn’t be helped). But there were those who protested evacuation orders. They were imprisoned without trial and sent to concentration camps surrounded by layers of barbed wire fences and watchtowers with rifle-armed guards on all sides.
The illusion of home
When the war ended in 1945 and Japan was defeated, this brought no relief to the lives of Japanese Canadians. No Japanese Canadian was charged with any act of disloyalty, yet the government still felt the need to restrict their movement. As Japanese Americans were released from their camps and allowed to return to their homes, Japanese Canadians over the age of 16 had to report to the RCMP. They were given two options: be repatriated back to war-devastated Japan or remain in the country and demonstrate their loyalty by moving to eastern Canada.
By the end of 1946, about 4,000 Japanese Canadians were “repatriated” (deported) to Japan. For those that stayed, starting over would be difficult. Devastated by the loss of everything they knew and valued—many were separated from their family for four to five years—they faced even more uncertainty.
Tom Sando’s parents were in shock. “They were clueless. Totally uprooted,” he recalls. “They took everything away, nothing left. No property, no house, we had to start everything over again.”
These policies were intended to prevent Japanese Canadians from being a community again, recalls celebrated writer Joy Kogawa, who based her 1981 novel “Obasan” on her time in the camps as a child. She was six when her family of four had to leave their home in Marpole to relocate to Slocan, where they would live for three years.
“People were flung across the country and that was even worse,” she says. Her family was sent to the sugar beat areas of Alberta, but they, like all Japanese Canadians, were far from free. “Permits [were required] to move place to place and we weren’t allowed to own any property. So the discrimination was very severe and punitive, much worse than in the States.” Not until April 1, 1949, were Japanese Canadians able to move freely and live anywhere in the country, including the B.C. coastline.
Following the resettlement, some felt that the evacuation had some positive consequences. Japanese Canadians became more integrated into society and many felt they found more job opportunities in their new homes than they did in British Columbia. But for Ms. Kogawa, even though she was just a child, she would feel the damaging effects of the internment for years.
“I grew up with those kind of feelings of deep inadequacy that last for a lifetime and lasts through the children,” she says. “It’s tremendous trauma when that kind of thing happens … but it could be overcome.”
It was more than four decades later before the Japanese Canadians received a formal apology and were offered redress from the government for its harsh mistreatment during the war. Unfortunately, only 13,000 of the former internees were still alive. The issei, who had suffered the most during the internment, would never hear it. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney delivered the apology on Sept. 22, 1988 and offered $21,000 CAD to each remaining survivor. The National Association for Japanese Canadians was also given $12 million CAD and an additional $24 million CAD was placed in a Japanese Canadian Fund to improve race relations.
For Ms. Kogawa, it was a lifetime of waiting and a pivotal moment for the survivors. “A lot of us felt like we worked hard for the apology and for an acceptable resolution and, for the majority of people, it was that,” she says. “I felt that we had come to a certain historic point where we could say, alright, now it’s been acknowledged that what the government did was racist and it was wrong and it’s been put right, and so now we can cross over and we can no longer claim we are victims. We have to claim that we are now restored in a relationship, a real relationship in a country where we are equal.”
(This article is reprinted from New American Media. It may be read in its entirety on news.newamericanmedia.org/news.)