Japanese Internment During World War II
By Alexandra Bailey
In 1941, 95% of Canada’s Japanese population resided in British Columbia. Anti-Asian sentiment had already been simmering in the province for 70 years prior to World War Two. Policies aimed at regulating the social and economic activity of the Japanese in Canada were largely based on circuitous arguments: Asians were paid lower wages and worked longer hours, which resulted in fewer jobs and a lower standard of living for whites. It was a commonly held belief that Japanese work ethic might overthrow the province. As a result, this group was denied the franchise until 1949 and most mainstream professions were entirely closed to them. While there were a significant number of Japanese Canadian associations, cohesion was hampered by generational and ideological differences.
On December 7th, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and on December 18th, 1941 Japan attacked Hong Kong, killing 2,000 Canadian soldiers. In response, the federal government required Japanese aliens to register with the RCMP. In a move that was considered necessary to prevent sabotage on the Pacific coast, the Canadian government also ordered that 1,200 fishing vessels owned by Japanese Canadians be brought to the nearest port, where they were impounded indefinitely. The Canadian Pacific Railway discharged Japanese Canadian employees, which led to dismissals in most other major industries. Due to arson and vandalism, aimed at Japanese Canadian businesses, it became increasingly difficult for them to buy insurance and operate businesses.
Ian Mackenzie, a federal cabinet minister from British Columbia, was instrumental in encouraging the government to intern Japanese Canadians. On January 8th, 1942 a conference was held in Ottawa, chaired by Mackenzie, to deal with the “Japanese problem.” Amongst those supporting the Japanese were the commissioner of the RCMP, the deputy chief of naval staff, the Departments of Labour and Fisheries and the Office of the Press Censor. On the other hand, those in favour of interning the Japanese were comprised primarily of politicians and the B.C. Provincial Police. At the end of the conference, a compromise was established between the two groups: only aliens would be interned. Mackenzie prepared a report of the conference proceedings for the federal cabinet in which he emphasized the danger of rioting by the white population if aliens were not interned. He suggested that a transfer of aliens to work camps could be implemented without “necessarily” interning them.
On January 14th, an area, stretching 100 miles inland from the Pacific coast, was designated as a “protected area,” or an area free of foreigners who might pose a threat, through an Order-in-Council. All Japanese male nationals between 18 and 45 were removed from this area and sent to work camps near Jasper. The Canadian federal government prohibited all fishing by Japanese Canadians for the duration of the war. Vessels were sold, shortwave radios confiscated and the sale of explosives and fuel to Japanese Canadians was strictly controlled.
On February 25, 1942, a further Order-in-Council was passed, giving the Minister of Justice the power to remove anyone they chose from the area. The Order was then applied strictly to the Japanese, rendering their citizenship meaningless. These Orders were made possible under the War Measures Act (1914), which transferred the powers of Parliament to the cabinet. Cabinet based its decision primarily on Mackenzie’s inflated descriptions of public opinion. Prime Minister King received only one hundred letters demanding the removal of the Japanese minority. National Defence Minister J.L. Ralston opposed using the army to uproot the Japanese community. His unwillingness to spare personnel for this purpose implied that he did not see the community as a security threat.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed as the internment policy was put into place. RCMP officers could search homes, without a warrant, at any time of day. About 12,000 people were relocated to detention camps in the interior of British Columbia. Families were often separated in the process. Another 4,000 people were sent to compensate for labour shortages on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Some 2,000 men temporarily worked construction during the summer of 1942 and were, thereafter, sent to rejoin their families in detention camps. Special permission to work outside the camps or to remain self-supporting was granted to approximately 2,500 Japanese Canadians. It was illegal, for those who had been relocated, to attend work or school outside the camps.
Items that had been confiscated before the evacuation were auctioned off despite government assurances that they would be returned. After the uprooting, all land and personal property that had been left behind was taken by the Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property. It was presumed that the property would be held, in trust, by the office. But, by 1943, the federal government liquidated these goods, in large part, because it became too taxing to account for them. The amounts garnered were often only a fraction of the property’s worth and the proceeds went toward upkeep of the camps. Unlike prisoners of war, who, under the Geneva Convention of 1929, did not have to pay their own living expenses, Japanese Canadians covered the cost of living in internment camps. Unlike Japanese Americans, Japanese Canadians were not protected by a Bill of Rights. Thus, they were more likely to lose their property permanently.
Thousands of Japanese Canadians moved to other provinces after the war. Only a third of the population had chosen to stay in British Columbia after being pressured by both levels of governments to leave. Initially, over 10,000 people had accepted a federal government offer to an assisted departure prior to the end of the war. Over 6,000 people changed their minds and decided to stay in Canada after all. However, the federal government refused to accept their change of heart. The issue was taken up in court in 1946 and a ruling was handed down in favour of the government. The decision, however, caused a strong uprising in both the Japanese and white community. In the end, the government conceded and choice was handed back to the group. About one in six Japanese Canadians left the country at this time.
In the early 1980’s the National Association of Japanese Canadians (“NAJC”) mounted a vigorous compensation campaign directed at the federal government. Their three main objectives were: 1) to receive acknowledgement from the Canadian Government of the injustices committed against Japanese Canadians during and after World War II 2) Redress in the form of monetary compensation 3) A review of the War Measures Act and relevant sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On September 22, 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney delivered a formal apology and a package was presented to Japanese Canadians who had been interned. The package included $24 million for the development of human rights projects and anti-racism education to the NAJC. Individuals who had been interned received $21,000. All those who had been deported to Japan and stripped of Canadian citizenship also had their citizenship returned to them.
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note 5 at 22.
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note 5 at 24.
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note 5 at 25.
note 1 at 47.
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CBC Canada, supra
note 23 at 14.
Judith Roberts-Moore, “Establishing Recognition of Past Injustices: Uses of Archival Records in Documenting the Experience of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War” (2002) 53 Archivaria
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note 23 at 14.
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note 27 at 69.
note 23 at 15.
Roy, Justice, supra
note 5 at 72.