Our History: After Pearl Harbor, province lobbied for displacement of Japanese Canadians

This is part two 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.

On Dec. 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 licences), and the shuttering of three Japanese-language newspapers.

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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 Dec. 7, 1941.”

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.

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 about 23,000 were citizens.

However, over the next 11 weeks, Ottawa radically shifted its view. On Feb. 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 their properties, and attempted to permanently banish them from the province.

What happened in those 11 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 11 weeks reveals how the B.C. 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 B.C.’s first legislative actions after Confederation in 1871 was to disenfranchise the majority of B.C. inhabitants — about 40,000 First Nations and Chinese — while enfranchising all white males. A minority of white, male settlers had seized power.

The B.C. 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 B.C. government refused to accept two lower court decisions overturning its voting ban. Instead, the B.C. 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.”

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, B.C. premier 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 [1941], the seriousness of the Japanese problem was discussed with federal authorities, and officials were urged to remove the menace of Fifth Column activity.”

Hart said he was consulting defence 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 B.C. cabinet minister George Pearson led a delegation to Ottawa to meet with federal officials. At Victoria’s behest, the head of the B.C. 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 whom they considered “untrustworthy,” and a “menace to public safety.”

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 B.C.

Maurice Pope, vice-chief of the Army, recalled that after he and others had expressed few security concerns regarding Japanese Canadians in B.C., “all hell broke loose. I thought for a moment that my former friends might charge across the table to manhandle me. Their rage was a sight to behold.”

Escott Reid recalled that when he heard these views, he felt “that this was surely the way the Nazis talked about Jewish Germans.”

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 Jan. 14, the federal government began to concede to provincial pressure, announcing new measures including the forced removal of Japanese nationals.

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.”

In opposition, Grace MacInnis, newly elected 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.

Undaunted, B.C. 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.”

Battle losses during the war might have incited prejudice among some in B.C., but it was people in positions of power and influence that fomented the policy coup. The provincial government’s words and actions gave licence to racist ideologues, municipal governments, and editorialists — fusing what had been a diffuse and contested racist campaign into a co-ordinated, multi-level effort.

Parsons, the head of the provincial police force who had gone to Ottawa, wrote to provincial attorney-general Maitland, supporting mass removal of all Japanese Canadians. Maitland contacted federal cabinet minister Ian Mackenzie with the information.

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.”

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.

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 Feb. 23, when CCF leader Harold Winch made a special trip to Victoria to meet with Hart. 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 PC 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 B.C. 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.

From their positions of power, the B.C. premier, cabinet members, and government officials had helped co-ordinate a campaign that encouraged racist demagogues, editorial writers and municipal councils to pressure Ottawa and scapegoat Japanese Canadians for Japan’s war.

The B.C. government’s successful campaign for mass displacement was only the beginning of its involvement — more was to come.

Next, Part 3: Policing the Camps

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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