This is the fourth 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
PERHAPS NO OTHER ISSUE CLEARLY REVEALS THE CALLOUSNESS of the BC government in regard to Japanese Canadians than its maltreatment of the communities’ children.
It began the day after Pearl Harbor when S.J. Willis, BC superintendent of education, ordered all Japanese language schools shut down on authority of the Council of Public Education, a cabinet agency. (35)
On the basis of a single complaint about Japanese Canadian kids in Duncan schools, BC education minister H.G. Perry then ordered school inspectors to undertake a province-wide investigation, indelibly marking Japanese Canadian students in the public school system. (36)
Ironically, A.S. Christie, trustee and chair of the Victoria School Board’s education committee reported “that there had been no signs of anti-Japanese feeling in Victoria’s schools, and such tolerance is a credit alike to the white and Japanese pupils.” (37)
Seventy-six Japanese Canadian students attended public schools in Victoria and boys in grade six and above had been participating in cadet training. That was not to last, however.
On February 20, 1942, Perry introduced a provincial Order-in-Council stating it was “not deemed advisable under existing circumstances that any student of Japanese racial origin be allowed to wear the uniform of a school Cadet Corps,” and therefore that “no such student be allowed to enroll in a Cadet Corps or to wear a cadet uniform in the Public Schools of the Province.” (38)
Similarly, the University of British Columbia expelled Japanese Canadians enrolled in the Canadian Officers Training Corps.
The uprooting that took place in April 1945 saw children torn from schools up and down the coast. Michiko “Midge” Ayukawa recalled: “I am twelve years old and should be back at Strathcona School. One day, restless and bewildered, I went for a walk with my six-year-old brother. We went to my school and sat on a low fence and I stared at the window from which my Grade Seven teacher had often looked outside. I ‘willed’ her to spot me and perhaps wave a greeting; but to my disappointment, she didn’t.” (39)
Shunted away from the coast and into camps, parents and volunteers scrambled to establish makeshift schools.
The BC government announced legislation in early 1943 that would exempt the province and local governments from providing education to Japanese Canadian youth in the camps.
The New Canadian, the only journal published by Japanese Canadians during the war, responded: “The British Columbia Provincial Government should continue to bear its share in educational costs, just as it had been doing for over forty years before Pearl Harbour, and in accordance with its constitutional responsibility.” (40)
Matters came to a head after Humphrey Mitchell, the federal labour minister, learned of the “unqualified refusal of the Government of the Province of British Columbia to assume any responsibility, either financial, or in the matter of administrative direction, in respect to the education of children of Japanese persons evacuated from the protected areas of British Columbia to other parts of the province.” (41)
Mitchell communicated with Mackenzie King, the prime minister, who immediately cabled provincial premier John Hart. In the cable, and a longer letter that followed, King urged Hart to refrain from introducing such legislation, asking for the province’s assistance in establishing courses, directing work and training of teachers.
Hart agreed to drop the legislation in return for King’s promise not to press for the province’s share of education funding but gave no response to King’s request for provincial administrative assistance. Frank Moritsugu and the Ghost Town Teachers Historical Society concluded in Teaching in Canadian Exile: “the BC government refused to bear any responsibility for the education of the children moved within the province. Not only that, the BC department of education refused to even provide free textbooks for the children, or read their papers.” (42)
As a result, over 3,000 school-aged children had to make do with makeshift schools and volunteer teachers.
High school students faced even greater challenges. Because there were no qualified teachers, students could only take correspondence courses that their parents had to pay for.
Mary Keiko Kitagawa, whose family was detained in Roseberry for over two years, recalls her older sister had to walk miles from Roseberry to New Denver to get help with her correspondence courses. (43) The Kitagawa family scraped together the money to pay for the course—but for them and others it was an incredible hardship. “One mother sold her sewing machine rather than ask for help to buy books for her children,” The New Canadian reported at the time. (44)
Not only did the detained Japanese Canadians have to pay for correspondence courses, they were charged exorbitant fees. In the legislature CCF MLA Grace MacInnis demanded Perry explain why Japanese Canadian students had to pay nine dollars for a single course that cost others only one dollar. (45)
Perry said it was federal matter. Asked why he didn’t ask the federal government to cover the cost, Perry declared that letting Japanese Canadians into the schools would be “selling a birthright for a mess of potage.”
“I would be selling the whole school system for $65 a kid.” This was the yearly per capita amount the province was supposed to pay for each student enrolled.
Such “savings” allowed the province to project a budget surplus for 1942–43. Non-funding of the Japanese Canadian children’s education over the internment years amounted to an estimated $17 million (in current dollars).
Volunteer teachers from the community, often just out of high school, stepped in to organize basic education services for elementary schools under the supervision of Hide Hyodo (Shimizu), one of the first accredited Japanese Canadian teachers in the province.
Communities organized to build makeshift schools and many students found school classes offered a semblance of normality. The fact that communities banded together to meet the challenge does not exonerate the provincial government for abandoning its constitutional responsibility, a fact noted in a 1944 Royal Commission report:
Your Commission finds that although education is and always has been a provincial right and obligation, the Department of Education of the Province of British Columbia has refused to take any responsibility for the education of the Japanese children in the Interior Settlements although before these same children were evacuated from the Defence area this responsibility was recognized and assumed. (46)
35 S.J. Willis to Tsutae Sato Esq, as cited in Tsutae and Eiko Sato, Kodomo to tomo ni 50 Nen [Teaching Japanese Canadian Children for 50 Years], December 8, 1941; “Japanese Schools to Close in BC by Special Decree,” British Colonist, December 11, 1941, 9.
36 “Study Status of Japanese,” British Daily Colonist, December 9, 1941, 9.
37 “Tolerance is Given Praise,” British Daily Colonist, January 16, 1942, 11.
38 Council of Public Instruction, Order-in-Council, February 20, 1942. Appreciation to Patrick Dunae who
unearthed this document a number of years ago.
39 Midge Ayukawa, “Lemon Creek Memories,” Nikkei Images, Vol. 17, No.1, Spring 2012. Available at: http://
40 As summarized in its editorial “Some Facts on the School Issue,” New Canadian, February 13, 1943, 2.
41 A. MacNamara, “Memorandum to the Minister of Labour,” February 9, 1943. LAC, MG27III, B-5, 67-29, 1
42 Frank Moritsugu and the Ghost Town Teachers Historical Society, Teaching in Canadian Exile (Toronto: The
Ghost Town Teachers Society, 2001), 60.
43 Mary Keiko Kitagawa, in discussion with the author, September 26, 2019.
44 “Some Facts on the School Issue,” New Canadian, February 13, 1943, 2.
45 As cited by Patricia Roy, Triumph of Citizenship (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), 113
46 Canada. Department of Labour. Report of the Royal Commission on the Welfare and Maintenance of Persons of Japanese Race Resident in Settlements in the Province of British Columbia. [Ottawa], 1944, 10.
Last 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.