Japanese fishing boats seized and corralled at Annieville Dyke of the Fraser River.
Courtesy: Vancouver Public Library
The evacuation of the Japanese Canadians, or Nikkei Kanadajin, from the Pacific Coast in the early months of 1942 was the greatest mass movement in the history of Canada. By the eve of Pearl Harbor, nearly 23,000 people of Japanese descent made their home in Canada, principally in British Columbia. Three-quarters of that number were naturalized or native-born citizens. The Nikkei were foresters and fishermen, miners and merchants. Except for the industrialists who profited from cheap Asian labor, much of white British Columbia regarded the Japanese Canadians with suspicion, if not rabid hostility. Over the years, the Nikkei had been targets of unremitting discrimination and occasional violence.
When war was declared on Japan in December 1941, the cry to rid British Columbia of the Japanese menace was taken up in many quarters, including provincial and municipal government halls and influential local newspapers. Tensions mounted and early in 1942, the Ottawa government bowed to West Coast pressure and began the relocation of Japanese nationals and Canadian citizens alike. While this forced resettlement mirrored the wartime policy of the American government, in Canada there were some important differences. Unlike the United States, where families were generally kept together, Canada initially sent its male evacuees to road camps in the B.C. interior, to sugar beet projects on the Prairies, or to internment in a POW camp in Ontario, while women and children were moved to six inland B.C. towns created or revived to house the relocated populace. There, the living conditions were so poor that the citizens of wartime Japan even sent supplemental food shipments through the Red Cross. During the period of detention, the Canadian government spent one-third the per capita amount expended by the U.S. on Japanese American evacuees.
Not until 1949, four years after Japan had surrendered, were the majority of Nikkei allowed to return to British Columbia. By then most had chosen to begin life anew elsewhere in Canada. Their property had long before been confiscated and sold at a fraction of its worth.
Injustices suffered as a result of these policies fueled a redress movement in the 1980s which coincided with a similar movement in the United States. These efforts, while not uniformly supported by the older Nikkei community, challenged Canada to consider and affirm the depth of its oft-stated commitment to a multicultural society. In 1988, 111 years after the first Japanese entered Canada, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally apologized to Japanese Canadians and authorized the provision of $21,000 (Cdn.) to each of the survivors of wartime detention.
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