Internment of Japanese Canadians

The forcible expulsion and confinement of ethnic Japanese during the Second World War represents one of the most tragic sets of events in Canada’s history. Some 22,000 Canadian citizens and residents were taken from their homes on Canada’s West Coast, without any charge or due process, and exiled to remote areas of eastern British Columbia and elsewhere. Ultimately, the Canadian government stripped the Japanese Canadians of their property and pressured them to accept mass deportation after the war ended. These events are popularly known as the Japanese Canadian internment. However, various scholars and activists have challenged this term on the grounds that under international law, internment refers to detention of enemy aliens, whereas most Japanese Canadians were Canadian citizens.

Japanese Canadians being relocated in British Columbia, 1942.

History of Anti-Asian Discrimination in Canada

Though internment was a wartime measure enacted in the name of national security, it drew from a long history of anti-Asian racism and discrimination. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Japanese began arriving in Canada in visible (though still small) numbers, and Whites in British Columbia protested their presence through legal discrimination and episodes of violence.

In 1902, in response to a court challenge, England’s Privy Council confirmed an earlier provincial law, which stated that Asians in British Columbia, irrespective of citizenship, were barred from the vote on racial grounds (see Right to Vote in Canada). The province also attempted to limit immigration through legal devices, but these were voided by the federal government, which was sensitive to diplomatic relations with Japan.

Japantown, Vancouver, 1907
After the riot in Japantown, Vancouver, 1907.

In September 1907, anti-Asian sentiment in Vancouver erupted in a violent riot, with Whites marching through Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods, breaking windows and assaulting local residents. In response, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government negotiated a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Japanese officials that limited immigration from Japan to 400 people per year (later reduced to 150 in 1928).

Beginning of the Second World War

Anti-Asian prejudice continued nonetheless. After Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, political leaders in Ottawa introduced a military draft for home defence (see Second World War). Political leaders in British Columbia insisted that Nisei (Canadian-born citizens of Japanese ancestry) be excluded from any conscription, knowing that if they were called for military service, they would have an irresistible argument for voting rights. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who considered Japan a potential enemy, agreed to exclude Japanese Canadians from the draft.

In March 1941, following a recommendation from the Special Committee on Orientals, a federally-appointed advisory group, Ottawa required all Japanese Canadians, irrespective of citizenship, to register with the government. In effect, this declared Japanese Canadians to be enemy aliens.

Front of Sutekichi Miyagawa's internment identification card issued by the Canadian government in compliance with Order-in-Council P.C. 117, 12 March 1941.
Internment identification card of Taka Sakamoto, 24 March 1941.
Internment identification card of Tokutaro Sakamoto, 22 March 1941.

The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the Second World War and triggered war between Canada and Japan, unleashed hostility against West Coast Japanese Canadians. Seizing the opportunity to rid themselves of their long-despised competitors, White farmers, merchants and political leaders accused Japanese Canadians of being spies and saboteurs for Tokyo, and called for drastic action to protect the West Coast. On 16 December 1941, Vancouver Sun journalist Bruce Hutchison warned Jack Pickersgill, Prime Minister King’s advisor, of widespread calls for arbitrary action: “We are under extraordinary pressure from our readers to advocate a pogrom of Japs.”

Fishermen having their boat confiscated
Japanese Canadian fishermen having their boat confiscated by a Royal Canadian Navy Officer, 1941.

However, while Japanese Canadian fishermen were required to turn in their boats, which were ultimately sold off by the authorities, there were no mass arrests or immediate action. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police found no evidence of sabotage or military threat, and the chiefs of the Canadian Army and Navy vigorously denied that there was a danger or invasion threat of any importance from the Japanese Canadians. However, a cabal of politicians and lobbyists in British Columbia began campaigning for the removal or confinement of Japanese Canadians in the coastal regions.

Fishermen's Reserve rounding up Japanese-Canadian fishing vessels in Steveston, BC, 10 December 1941.

In late December 1941, British Columbia’s new Liberal premier, John Hart, and Conservative attorney general, R.L. Maitland, publicly demanded that the federal government “remove the menace of Fifth Column activity from B.C.” Major General R.O. Alexander, head of the Pacific Command, wrote to his superiors that, “Public feeling is becoming very insistent, especially in Vancouver, that local Japanese should be either interned or removed from the coast.”

The anti-Japanese pressure from the West Coast was sufficiently strong that cabinet ordered an inquiry. On 8–9 January 1942, a Conference on Japanese Problems took place in Ottawa between the Standing Committee on Orientals (formerly the Special Committee) and a group of federal and BC cabinet members, Army officials, BC provincial police and RCMP authorities, as well as representatives from External Affairs. Many of those present were skeptical of the Standing Committee members and their advocacy of wholesale internment. Hugh Keenleyside, a veteran diplomat who had served several years in the Canadian legation in Tokyo, argued that that there was no good reason for mass action and that such a policy might endanger Canadian prisoners of war in Japanese hands (see Canada and the Battle of Hong Kong). Major General Maurice Pope, vice-chief of the General Staff, was disgusted when a Pacific Coast politician told him privately that his constituents considered war with Japan a heaven-sent excuse to eliminate Japanese Canadian economic competition. The conferees were bitterly divided on the matter of forced removal. The majority opposed the idea, and even suggested that Nisei be permitted to form a civilian corps to show their loyalty.

Japanese Canadians Being Relocated in BC, 1942
A family of Japanese Canadians being relocated in British Columbia, 1942.
Japanese Evacuation, 1942. Image: Erindale College Photo Collection.
In 1942 the Canadian government moved to relocate all Japanese in British Columbia, seizing any property that the people could not carry (courtesy Erindale College Photo Collection).
Japanese Canadian Internment
Relocation of Japanese Canadians to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia, 1942.
Japanese Relocation
Even those Japanese who were Canadian citizens were relocated in 1942 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-46350).
Japanese Canadian men being relocated in British Columbia, 1942.
Image: Province Newspaper/Vancouver Public Library/1381. \r\n
Japanese Canadians being relocated in British Columbia, 1942.
Image: Library and Archives Canada/C-057250.\r\n

Expulsion and Detention

Political pressure from the West Coast, led by federal cabinet minister Ian Mackenzie, caused the government to act. On 14 January 1942, Prime Minister King ordered the removal of all adult males of Japanese ancestry from the coast. The government ordered that the men be sent for work in road labour camps, but they were unable to leave immediately because of the frigid winter weather. Though meant as a compromise, such official action implied that there was an actual threat from Japanese Canadians. It thus heightened the fears of West Coast Whites, and encouraged them to press for the removal of all Japanese Canadians. King feared mass riots that would lead to reprisals against Canadian soldiers held prisoner by Japan. He also shared popular views that treated all Japanese as treacherous, writing in his diary that he agreed entirely with Chinese official T.V. Soong, who had proclaimed that he would not trust any Japanese, even naturalized or Canadian born, as they were all saboteurs just waiting for the right moment to aid Japan.

Once US President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on 19 February 1942, authorizing the military to exclude all ethnic Japanese from the West Coast, Canadian leaders felt both empowered and required to take similar action. On 24 February 1942, cabinet approved Order-in-Council P.C. 1486, which Prime Minister King announced the next day. Under authority of the Order-in-Council, all people of Japanese ancestry would be excluded from a 100-mile zone inland from the Pacific Coast.

David Suzuki and two of his sisters in an internment camp in Slocan City in the British Columbia interior, between 1942-1945.

The Order led to the expulsion of some 22,000 Canadian Japanese from their homes. Sixty-five per cent were Canadian born. A new government agency, the British Columbia Security Commission, was created to run the removal operation. Able-bodied Japanese Canadian men were ordered to report for transportation to road labour camps. All other men, plus women and children, were brought to Vancouver, divided by sex, and housed together on cots in a former women’s building and livestock barns at Hastings Park. The horror of having masses of families forcibly separated led a group of Nisei to form the militant Nisei Mass Evacuation Group. In a series of public speeches and petitions, they demanded removal in family groups to government-built and -maintained centres — in sum, the same treatment Japanese Americans were getting. By refusing to show up for transportation to road labour camps (and hiding out within Vancouver), or by surrendering themselves and demanding internment as enemy aliens, they were able to get the government to agree to family relocation. In the process, hundreds of Japanese Canadian men were targeted as troublemakers and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Ontario.

Prisoners of War
Group of German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war in prison camp, Sherbrooke, Québec (courtesy CP).

Mass Confinement

By late summer 1942, all Japanese Canadians had been moved off the West Coast. Approximately 2,150 single men were sent to work on road labour camps. Another 3,500 Japanese Canadians opted to sign contracts to work on sugar beet farms outside British Columbia, where they served as exploited labourers, and thereby remained “free.” Approximately 3,000 more affluent Japanese Canadians were permitted to leave the coast in groups and settle in so-called “self-supporting projects” at their own expense. However, the vast majority of the Japanese Canadians, over 12,000 people, were exiled to British Columbia’s Slocan Valley. There they were housed in what were euphemistically known as “interior housing centres,” mainly in largely-abandoned mining towns, or in a government-built camp called Tashme.

Japanese Canadian Internment Camp
Community kitchen at a Japanese Canadian internment camp in Greenwood BC, 1943.
Japanese Settlement, East Lillooet, BC
View of a row of shacks in East Lillooet, British Columbia, c. 1943.
Canadian-trained teachers staff the internment camp school at Slocan City, BC, ca. 1943.

Once moved to the Slocan Valley, they lived in abandoned houses hastily refitted by the government or in newly-constructed shacks. The housing was hastily put together and inadequately protected against the frigid weather. Except for producing shelter, the government did not provide the inmates with any financial assistance. Unlike in the United States, where the federal government operated camps that offered basic food, clothing and education, Canadian officials provided no food or clothing, and no schooling above the elementary level (see ​Hide Hyodo Shimizu). Ultimately, a set of Christian groups opened up high schools in the settlements. The government hired some Nisei to cut wood, but in general people had to find such work as they could or live off their savings.

An internment camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, 1945.
Image: Jack Long / National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-142853.\r\n
Lemon Creek Baseball Team
A team of Japanese Canadian baseball players interned in Lemon Creek, BC, 1943

Dispossession and Detention

In order to finance the internment of the Japanese Canadians and permanently discourage them from returning to the West Coast, the federal government confiscated their agricultural property and personal possessions. After amending the powers of the Custodian of Enemy Property, the government issued an order-in-council on 23 January 1943 to permit forced sales of Japanese Canadian’s property. In March 1943, G.W. McPherson, the Vancouver representative of the Custodian of Enemy Property, publicly announced that he intended to dispose of all Japanese Canadian property in his care, including personal possessions and land. Although the news attracted significant protest, both among Japanese Canadians and others, on 23 June 1943, 769 properties belonging to Japanese Canadians, and their rental income, were taken over by the Veterans Land Administration for $850,000 (see Veterans’ Land Act). Smaller transactions continued over the next four years. The Custodian disposed of inmates’ personal property at very low prices. The government held the money in accounts for those in the camps, paying no interest, and limited their withdrawals to $100 per month. Japanese Canadians were forced to use the funds to pay for their confinement.

Dispersal and Deportation

After 1942, the Canadian government pushed Japanese Canadians to resettle east of the Rockies — and at their own expense. However, government agencies retained control over the lives and businesses of Japanese Canadians, even when they moved out of the restricted area.

In 1945, even as Japanese Americans began to leave the US government camps and return to the West Coast in large numbers, Prime Minister King issued a new order-in-council. It presented Japanese Canadians with two options: resettle outside of British Columbia, with a minimum of government assistance, or sign up for “voluntary repatriation” to Japan once the war ended, in which case they could stay where they were and receive financial assistance. Though officially neutral, Ottawa’s policy was designed to pressure Japanese Canadians into giving up their citizenship and leaving the country entirely.

The majority of Japanese Canadians agreed to move east of the Rockies, though they still faced legal restrictions. However, once the war ended in August 1945, Ottawa issued orders to deport the 10,000 people who, by refusing to move, were deemed to have “agreed” to “voluntary” repatriation. Japanese Canadians and their allies, notably the Toronto-based umbrella group Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians (CCJC), mobilized to block involuntary deportation. The matter went to the Supreme Court of Canada and later to the British Privy Council, which upheld the constitutionality of wholesale involuntary deportation. Although King ultimately abandoned the policy in the face of public opposition, almost 4,000 people were shipped to Japan. Many were forced to wait for years before they could return. Meanwhile, the government maintained the wartime restrictions on Japanese Canadians, who were not permitted to return to the West Coast until 1 April 1949.

Campaign for Redress

During the postwar years, Japanese Canadians and their allies began lobbying for compensation for their wartime treatment. During 1946, the Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy did a survey among Toronto-based Japanese Canadians, which found that property worth an estimated $1,400,395.66 had been sold for $351,334.86. In response to public pressure, the government issued Order-in-Council P.C. 1810 on 18 July 1947, establishing a commission, led by Justice Henry Bird of the British Columbia Supreme Court, to inquire into fraud and mishandling by the Custodian of Enemy Property. In spring 1950, the Bird Commission produced its report, which found that the amounts paid to Japanese Canadians for their properties were substantially below fair market value. In all, the report recommended a payment of $1,222,929.26 to cover losses on some 2,400 claims. In the end, Japanese Canadians were generally unable to recover much of their losses.

The wartime treatment of the Japanese Canadians remained a largely taboo subject throughout the postwar years. In a 1961 television interview, former Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent defended the removal decision on racial grounds, stating that, “Blood is thicker than water.” In 1964, however, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson publicly referred to confinement as “a black mark” in the nation’s history.

During the 1970s, Japanese Canadians, like their counterparts in the United States, began to organize remembrances and educational campaigns. The National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) and other groups opened a campaign for reparations. However, the so-called “redress movement” met with official resistance. Canadian war veterans who had been confined in Japanese prisoner of war camps during the war opposed reparations for Japanese Canadians. Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, though he expressed public regret for the wartime actions, remained hostile.

Japanese Canadians
September 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs the agreement to compensate the Japanese-Canadians for the expropriation of their property and their internment during World War II (photo by Mike Binder).

The Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was sympathetic to claims by Japanese Canadians, and opened negotiations in the mid-1980s. However, the government hesitated to place a dollar amount on a settlement, and activists debated whether to press for individual payments or a collective settlement. In mid-1988, Mulroney assigned Secretary of State Lucien Bouchard to broker an agreement. In September 1988 (some six weeks after a similar redress bill was enacted in Washington) an agreement was reached in Canada. The terms of the Canadian settlement included an official apology, a redress payment of $21,000 to each surviving individual affected by official policy, a community fund of $12 million and funding for a Canadian Race Relations Foundation to support human rights projects.

Further Reading

  • Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During The Second World War (2000)

  • Peter C. Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Towards Orientals in British Columbia (2002)

  • Roy Miki and Cassandra Kobayashi, Justice In Our Time: The Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement (1991)

  • Greg Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement In North America (2009)

  • Patricia Roy, J.L. Granatstein, Masako Lino and Hiroko Takamura, Mutual Hostages: Canadians and Japanese During the Second World War (1990)

  • Patricia Roy, The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941–67 (2007)

External Links