This is the second chapter of B.C. historian John Price’s six-part series, The BC Government and the Dispossession of Japanese Canadians (1941-1949), which was co-published in 2020 by the National Association of Japanese Canadians and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It’s available in its entirety on the CCPA website.
By John Price
ON DECEMBER 7, 1941, the Japanese imperial air force bombed Pearl Harbor.
Soon after, Ottawa passed regulations that required all Japanese nationals and anyone naturalized after 1922 to report to the Registrar of Enemy Aliens. Further measures included the arrest and internment of 38 Japanese designated potential threats to national security, the impounding of nearly 1,200 fishing boats operated by Japanese Canadians (only Canadians were permitted licenses), and the shuttering of three Japanese-language newspapers.
The provincial government ordered the closure of 59 Japanese-language schools in the province.
To many people, then and now, these measures were only to be expected—it was war and British Columbia faced Japan’s imperial forces across the Pacific. To Victoria-born poet Eiko Henmi, however, it was a “terrible ordeal which started for many of us on December 7, 1941.” (8)
Japanese Canadians complained that the initial and subsequent measures far exceeded those taken against Germans or Italians after Canada declared war on Germany and Italy in 1939: “There is some foundation to the complaint,” conceded undersecretary of state Norman Robertson, even at the time. (9)
After the initial restrictions, the federal government was reluctant to take further measures. It saw little security threat and was leery of further trampling on the rights of the Japanese Canadian minority since nearly two-thirds of approximately 23,000 were citizens.
However, over the next 11weeks Ottawa radically shifted its view. On February 24, 1942 it introduced the first in a series of laws and regulations that forcibly evicted all Japanese Canadians from the coast, moved them into detention camps, confiscated and sold off their properties, and attempted to permanently banish them from the province.
What happened in those 11 fateful weeks?
Japanese Canadian researchers such as Ken Adachi, Ann Sunahara, and Roy Miki, among others, have illuminated the events that led to this uprooting. Close scrutiny of these crucial 11weeks reveals how the BC government was a key instigator in a policy coup that redirected federal policy, and forever changed the lives of Japanese Canadians.
By the time of Pearl Harbor, a racist state dominated the coast.
Among BC’s first legislative actions after confederation in 1871 was to disenfranchise the majority of BC inhabitants—approximately 40,000 First Nations and Chinese—while enfranchising all white males. A minority of white, male settlers had seized power.
The BC legislature proceeded to dispossess First Nations of their lands, refused to discuss treaties, successfully lobbied for federal restrictions against Asian immigration, and added South Asian and Japanese Canadians to those prohibited from voting.
When Tomekichi Homma challenged the ban on voting in 1900, the BC government refused to accept two lower court decisions overturning its voting ban. Instead, the BC government alone appealed to the judicial committee of the Privy Council in London without federal backing. The ban was upheld.
British Columbia had become a province like no other.
When Japan, a Pacific power, declared war, racist ideologues on the coast including Hilda Glynn-Ward, author of the infamous novel The Writing on the Wall, Sidney D’Esterre of Comox, and others raised the cry to round-up Japanese Canadians.
But they were met with opposition. The first-wave feminist Nellie McClung had begun to work with Japanese Canadian writers in the 1930s and defended them: “Canadian Japanese are not to blame for the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor…We must have precautions, but not persecutions.”
Muriel Kitagawa, a writer for the English-language newspaper The New Canadian recorded: “The majority of the people are decent and fair-minded and they say so in letters and editorials.” (10)
Eiko Henmi and Victoria’s Japanese Canadian community had gone out of the way to prove their loyalty to Canada. The Japanese Tea Garden in Gorge Park, built by the Takata family, had become a favourite, the community celebrated the visit of King George in 1939, and had raised funds for the war effort.
Nevertheless, BC premier at the time, John Hart, head of the newly formed Liberal-Conservative coalition, initiated the move to uproot: “When Attorney-General Maitland and I were in Ottawa before Christmas , the seriousness of the Japanese problem was discussed with federal authorities, and officials were urged to remove the menace of Fifth Column activity.” (11)
Hart said he was consulting defense officials and had made direct representations to Mackenzie King, the prime minister. Hart and many others in his coalition cabinet wanted all people of Japanese heritage out.
A turning point came in January, when BC cabinet minister George Pearson led a delegation to Ottawa to meet with federal officials. At Victoria’s behest, the head of the BC Provincial Police, T.W.S. Parsons, accompanied Pearson to Ottawa where they lobbied hard for the forced eviction of all Japanese Canadians (citizens and residents).
Pearson and his delegation ran into opposition. Lt. Gen. Maurice Pope, vice chief of general staff, Hugh Keenleyside, Henry Angus, and Escott Reid of External affairs, and RCMP commissioner S.T. Wood all opposed their agenda that, according to the minutes of that meeting, included ridding the province of all Japanese Canadians who they considered “untrustworthy,” and a “menace to public safety.” (12)
Unable to force through mass evictions, Pearson warned the federal government not to expect “the Government of British Columbia to be enthusiastic or very effective,” in selling federal policies in BC. (13)
Maurice Pope, vice-chief of the Canadian Army recalled that after he and others had expressed few security concerns regarding Japanese Canadians in BC, “all hell broke loose. I thought for a moment that my former friends might charge across the table to man-handle me. Their rage was a sight to behold.” (14)
Escott Reid recalled that when he heard these views he felt “that this was surely the way the Nazis talked about Jewish Germans.” (15)
Such resistance to mass removal of Japanese Canadians incited Hart, Pearson, Maitland and others to develop a concerted campaign to force the federal government’s hand.
On January 14 the federal government began to concede to provincial pressure, announcing new measures including the forced removal of Japanese nationals.
John Hart congratulated the federal government on the measures and clarified the provincial role: “The government of this province made strong representations to the Dominion government in connection with the Japanese resident in British Columbia. Attorney-General Maitland and myself took the matter up personally in Ottawa when in Ottawa before Christmas, and since our return further representations have been made by letter.” (16)
In opposition, Grace MacInnis, newly elected Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) member of the legislature, asserted that certain coalition members offered race hatred as a substitute for democratic practice and urged the provincial government to work for democracy. (17)
Undaunted, the BC attorney-general, R.L. Maitland stated in the legislature: “I do not feel safe with the Japanese on this coast…I am rather sorry that our position is not so well appreciated at Ottawa. (18)
Battle losses during the war may have incited prejudice among some in BC, but it was people in positions of power and influence that fomented the policy coup. The provincial government’s words and actions gave license to racist ideologues, municipal governments, and editorialists—fusing what had been a diffuse and contested racist campaign into a coordinated, multi-level effort.
T.W.S. Parsons, the head of the provincial police force who had gone to Ottawa, wrote to provincial attorney-general R.L. Maitland, supporting mass removal of all Japanese Canadians. Maitland contacted federal cabinet minister Ian Mackenzie with the information. (19)
Premier Hart, responding to a Victoria City Council resolution demanding mass removal, assured council that “every effort has been made by the Provincial Government to have Japanese aliens moved from vulnerable zone.” (20)
The province set the tone, encouraging demands where few existed. Canadian soldiers in Victoria continued to bring their uniforms for cleaning to Japanese Canadian-run businesses, a fact that so disturbed the Women’s Auxiliary of the Canadian Forestry Corps that they demanded the removal of “all Japanese wherever born, irrespective of age or sex,” and an end to patronage of Japanese businesses. (21)
The campaign escalated with threats of violence from ideologues. Though there were only isolated cases of violence or intimidation, the threats created a new notion—Japanese Canadians had to be “saved” from violence, generating a brilliant rationalization—what was needed was a mass “evacuation.”
The only problem? Japanese Canadians felt no need for evacuation.
A turning point came on February 23 when CCF leader Harold Winch made a special trip to Victoria to meet with John Hart. (22) Together they phoned federal cabinet minister Ian Mackenzie in Ottawa to demand the mass removal of all people of Japanese heritage from the coast. The provincial CCF had abandoned the nascent anti-racism of Grace MacInnis and efforts by the federal party to obtain the franchise for Japanese Canadians.
The next day, the federal cabinet met and passed Order-in-Council P.C. 1486 empowering the cabinet to expel anyone, including Canadians, from the coast, now designated a protected area.
Two days later the government issued a proclamation expelling all people of Japanese heritage, regardless of gender or age, from the coast. It was the beginning of the end for thriving Japanese Canadian communities in BC. As curfews were imposed, Eiko Henmi responded in The New Canadian:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
The bowing Japs wind slowly out of sight,
The refugee homeward plots his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and the whites. (23)
From their positions of power, the BC premier, cabinet members, and government officials had helped coordinate a campaign that encouraged racist demagogues, editorial writers and municipal councils to pressure Ottawa and scapegoat Japanese Canadians for Japan’s war.
The BC government’s successful campaign for mass displacement was only the beginning of its involvement—more was to come.
8 Eiko Henmi, “Centennial Year – 1977,” (MG4247-31-Part 1, McGill University Archives, Montreal), 1.
9 In response to accusations about racism towards Japanese Canadians, Norman Robertson, the undersecretary of state for external affairs wrote “it must be admitted that there is some foundation” to the complaint of discrimination. Norman Robertson to Mr. MacNamara, June 5, 1942, (Library and Archives Canada, MG 27 III, B-5, Vol. 25, 67–25 (3).
10 Muriel Kitagawa, This Is My Own (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1985), 71.
11 “BC Gov’t May Act in Japanese Problem,” Vancouver Sun, January 5, 1942, 13.
12 Conference on the Japanese Problem in British Columbia Minutes, January 8–9, 1942, Library and Archives Canada, RG 117, Vol 1, 2 (part 1), 6.
13 Ibid., 8.
14 Maurice A. Pope, Soldiers and Politicians: The Memoirs of Lt.-Gen. Maurice A. Pope (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 177.
15 Escott Reid, Radical Mandarin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1922), 163.
16 “Premier Hart Pleased by Action on Japanese,” Vancouver Sun, January 14, 1942, 1.
17 “Woman MLA Cautions BC on ‘Race Hatred,’” Vancouver Sun, January 16, 1942, 4.
18 “BC Government to Create Permanent Postwar Committee,” Victoria Daily Times, January 31, 1942.
19 As cited in Patricia Roy, Triumph of Citizenship (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), ft. 79, 328.
20 John Hart to M.F. Hunter, Esq., February 16, 1942, Special Communication Received, City of Victoria Archives, BC. CSR 13.
21 “Women Seek Removal of All Japanese,” British Daily Colonist, February 14, 1942, 5.
22 “Winch Insists Japs’ Removal Be Immediate,” Victoria Daily Times, February 23, 1942, 13.
23 Cinderella, “Femme-Fare,” New Canadian, February 27, 1942, 4
Earlier this year, then premier John Horgan, announced a new $100-million initiative providing funding for: “enhanced health and wellness programs for internment-era survivors; creating and restoring heritage sites for all British Columbians to explore and learn, including a monument to honour survivors of the internment era; and updating B.C.’s curriculum to teach future generations about this dark chapter in B.C.’s history”.
Premier David Eby’s mandate letter to Mable Elmore, parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, includes this sentence: “Work with the Japanese Canadian Legacies Society to deliver the Province’s redress initiatives that honour the legacy of Japanese Canadians in B.C.” The letter was written on December 7, which was the 81st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.