Dispossession: How B.C. stole the lives of 22,000 Japanese Canadians

This is part five of a six-part series, exclusive to the Times Colonist, that examines the role of the provincial government in the uprooting, detention, dispossession and exile of Japanese Canadians, 1941-1949.

Torazo and Fuku Iwasaki had lived on Salt Spring Island for decades. They purchased a 598-acre property on the northern part of the island, land of the Cowichan Nation then and now.

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There they logged some of their property, cleared some of the land, farmed peas and raised milk cows, producing seven gallons of milk a day.

The land gave them their livelihood and there they raised five children — Hideko, Mitsuko, Setsuko, Tsuruko and Ray, all of whom attended Saltspring Central School.

The uprooting forced them off the island in the spring of 1942. Put on the Princess Mary to be taken to Hastings Park, Torazo escaped at Mayne Island — only fervid cajoling by friends and family convinced him to get back on board. It was Torazo’s first, but not his last, act of resistance.

Forced to move to the town of Greenwood, Iwasaki yearned to return to his Salt Spring farm, left in the hands of the Custodian of Enemy Property as a “protective measure only.”

But he, like thousands of other detained Japanese Canadians, woke up one morning in February 1943 to find that the federal government had passed Order-in-Council 469 authorizing the sale of all Japanese Canadian property without their owners’ consent. It was a radical measure dispossessing 22,000 Japanese Canadians in a single stroke.

How did it happen?

Roy Miki, in his landmark study Redress, has documented how Ian Mackenzie, Vancouver MP and federal minister of veteran affairs, began the assault. Declaring it was “his intention as long as I remain in public life, to see they [Japanese Canadians] never come back here,” Mackenzie used his cabinet position to first propose appropriating Japanese Canadian farms to give to returning soldiers.

This killed two birds with one stone — stopping Japanese Canadians from returning to B.C., and providing land to soldiers.

But the new law was hardly the work of Mackenzie alone: It arose out of a convergence of forces.

Many in Victoria shared Mackenzie’s determination to permanently rid B.C. of Japanese Canadians. In the legislature, MLA Nancy Hodges declared that all Japanese Canadians should “be returned to their own country,” echoing Mackenzie and the editorial stance of the Vancouver Sun.

J.A. Paton, MLA for Point Grey and provincial coalition member, ran an ad in the Vancouver Sun, asking organizations that had passed resolutions for “repatriation of the Japanese at the end of the war,” to forward these resolutions to him at the legislature in Victoria.

The B.C. government had early on collaborated with the federal Custodian in seizing properties. In August 1942, B.C.’s deputy minister of municipal affairs, E.H. Bridgman, pressured municipalities to provide the custodian with property assessment records of Japanese Canadians.

Also fishing in these troubled waters was the newly established B.C. Rehabilitation Council led by provincial cabinet minister H.G.T. Perry. The council was tasked with planning land use and establishing aid to returning servicemen. As leader of the Rehabilitation Council, Perry went to Ottawa in early December 1942, likely participating in discussions then taking place about Order-in-Council 469.

Municipal politicians also chimed in. As Ann Sunahara demonstrated in The Politics of Racism, Vancouver city councillor George Buscombe and city planners lobbied furiously to obtain Japanese Canadian properties around Powell Street: “We don’t want the Japanese to return here after the war. They are going to outbreed the whites and eventually outnumber us,” stated Buscombe.

For their own reasons, the Custodian of Enemy Property and the federal department of labour, responsible for supervising the detained, also pushed for dispossession, the former finding it impossible to look after the hundreds of properties they were supposed to protect; and the latter hoping any funds Japanese Canadians received would help finance their own detention, lowering potential costs to the government.

And thus was born Order-in-Council 469, enacted on Jan. 19, 1943, empowering the government to sell all Japanese Canadian properties even without their owners’ consent.

The editor of the New Canadian labelled it indefensible except as a “dictate of a race war.” Indeed, OIC 469 was the latest decree in what was adding up to an exercise in ethnic cleansing – a convergence of acute racism and heartless bureaucratic values, what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.”

Torazo Iwasaki, however, was not prepared to surrender. He joined hundreds of other Japanese Canadians who protested the dispossession, a cauldron that birthed the Japanese Property Owners’ Association. The association launched a lawsuit against the government that was tried in the Exchequer Court of Canada in the summer of 1943.

Appointed to try the case, Justice J.T. Thorson delayed his decision four years. Before becoming a judge of the Exchequer Court, he was a member of the federal cabinet when it made the decision to uproot Japanese Canadians.

When Thorson finally delivered his judgment in 1947, he made the ridiculous ruling that Custodian of Japanese Properties was not a servant of the Crown and had the case thrown out.

In the meantime, Iwasaki saw his property sold without his consent in 1946 — one of the purchasers was Gavin Mouat, agent for the Custodian of Enemy Property and purported friend of the community. The nearly 600 acres sold at the ludicrous price of $5,250.

Living in Greenwood, Iwasaki refused to cash the cheques. As the family’s financial circumstances declined, he was finally forced to cash them, but purposefully noted on the cheques that his doing so was “without prejudice” to future claims.

The Iwasaki family had nothing to return to on Salt Spring Island, nor did other Japanese Canadians who had all seen their property, their homes, possessions and, most importantly, their dreams, sold for a song.

The forced sale of about 1,700 properties, including large forest companies, farms, and shipbuilding businesses, not to mention homes and personal effects, is the single greatest case of dispossession in Canada since governments seized the lands of First Nations.

Still, Torazo Iwasaki never gave up. In 1967, at the age of 86, he launched a lawsuit against the government, demanding the return of his land or $1.5 million. He lost the case. On appeal, the Supreme Court declared in 1970 that the Custodian “had the power to sell and he did sell.”

Torazo Iwasaki died the following year at age 91. His legacy lives on.

The University of Victoria will soon publish As If They Were the Enemy: The Dispossession of Japanese Canadians on Salt Spring Island, Brian Smallshaw’s account of what happened to families such as the Iwasakis on the island.

The Landscapes of Injustice Research Collective at the University of Victoria, in collaboration with the National Association of Japanese Canadians, is mapping and documenting what happened to Japanese Canadian properties. Visit the website landscapesofinjustice.com.

And the Nikkei National Museum is undertaking to republish a new, electronic version of Ann Sunahara’s classic study The Politics of Racism. Sunahara has donated her research collection to the Nikkei National Museum, available now at https://bit.ly/37Mh8Bv

Next Sunday, Part 6: The Final Straw

John Price is professor emeritus (History) at the University of Victoria and the author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific and, more recently, A Woman in Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung (with Ningping Yu).

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