The final straw: Japanese Canadians offered an impossible choice

This is the final column in 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.

Grace Eiko Nishikihama (Thomson) was eight years old when her family was forced to leave the coast in April 1942. It would be decades before she could return.

Even today, she recalls the plaid, pleated skirt and knitted sweater her mother had made and that she wore for her last day at Strathcona Elementary when she said goodbye to her classmates.

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She also recalls how stressed her mother was: Expecting her fifth child, Sawae Nishikihama had been forced to sell the new electric stove the family had just purchased.

How do you move a family when allowed to pack only a few bags on short notice?

“My family was feeling really good living near Powell Street in those days,” says Grace. “My father went to work at his job in the fisherman’s co-op every morning in a three-piece suit. They had come to Canada with a dream, but their whole life turned into a mess.”

After discussions with fisher relatives in Steveston, the family opted to go to a “self-supporting” camp at Minto. The uncles had a bit of money, but Grace’s family had little in the way of savings.

Once at Minto, her father worked in a sawmill to make ends meet. Grace recalls how happy her father was to see his children when he returned home.

Initially, the family hoped to return to the coast and, as Allied forces began to take the offensive in the Pacific war, that seemed like a possibility. But then the government sold all their possessions — and there was nothing to return to.

Even as the tides of war turned, members of the B.C. legislature agitated for a final solution to what they perceived as the “Japanese problem.”

B.C. deputy premier and attorney general R.L. Maitland, president of the Canadian Bar Association and a key figure in the early campaign to uproot, remained resolute. Stopping Japanese Canadians from returning to the province was essential, he told the Native Sons of British Columbia in late 1944.

In the United States, however, the Supreme Court had forced the Roosevelt government to end its policy of incarceration and many Japanese Americans began to return to their homes on the coast in early 1945.

But not in Canada.

Panicked by U.S. developments and under continuous pressure from B.C., the Mackenzie King government made a fateful decision: Anyone over the age of 16 in the camps and elsewhere was forced to sign a declaration indicating whether they wanted to be “repatriated” to Japan or move east of the Rockies.

This was a choice that was not a choice — an ultimatum, in fact, to stay out of B.C.: Either go to Japan, a place most had never seen, or move east of the Rockies. Those who chose Japan would be stripped of citizenship.

There was to be no return to B.C.

Premier John Hart thought that was just fine, and argued for forced deportation of Japanese Canadians at the dominion-provincial conference on reconstruction in August 1945.

Even with the war ending, the provincial and federal governments had declared Grace’s family and 22,000 other Japanese Canadians persona non grata in B.C., revealing a bitter truth — the uprooting, dispossession, and exile that had begun in 1942 was more about virulent racism than anything else.

The possibility of forced deportations prompted an upwelling of protest from Japanese Canadians and their friends. The Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians launched a lawsuit against the War Measures Act and federal measures stripping the rights of those who opted to go to Japan.

Arguing the case for expulsion at the Supreme Court in early 1946 was none other than Maitland, determined to force Japanese Canadians into exile. Maitland and his federal associates largely won the legal battle but lost in the court of public opinion — many had become concerned about citizenship rights, even in B.C.

Grace’s parents initially chose to go to Japan but, like others pressured to make that decision, they soon recanted and indicated they preferred to move east. In 1945, they moved to a farm near Middlechurch, Manitoba.

Grace’s mother, Sawae, recorded in her diary: “Manure clinging on straw hung stuck to these walls. A bare light bulb hung from the high ceiling. I stood in the middle of this barn, which was to be home to our family of six, and couldn’t hold back the tears.”

Like Grace’s family, more than 10,000 Japanese Canadians were coerced to move, a second time, to be spread out across the country. The forced dispersal gave rise to a new diaspora — Japanese Canadians whose roots are in B.C. but who ended up east of the Rockies.

As well, close to 4,000 Japanese Canadians were essentially deported to Japan, a country many had never seen, a travesty documented by Tatsuo Kage in Uprooted Again.

In 1947, B.C.’s Hart government refused to reinstate voting rights of Japanese Canadians and First Nations, though Chinese and South Asian Canadians won back those rights.

And in 1948, the new premier, Byron Johnson, advised the federal government not to allow Japanese Canadians to return to the coast, otherwise the Liberals might lose a byelection. As a result, the prohibition on returning to the coast continued, to be lifted only in 1949.

Not a single family from Victoria ever returned to live there; of 3,000 Japanese Canadian Islanders, only about 150 determined souls returned.

Japanese Canadians were struggling just to survive. Grace and her family left the poverty of Middlechurch for Whitemouth, and then moved to Winnipeg.

Grace finished high school in Winnipeg and then went to work, attending classes at business college in the evenings. The family could not afford to send her to university.

After working for years and inspired by her creative mother, Grace finally was able to pursue her passion for art, registering at the University of Winnipeg as a mature student. She graduated in 1977 with a fine arts degree and did graduate work in Asian art history at the University of B.C., where she gained a deeper appreciation of her heritage.

She returned to Winnipeg to work as assistant director/curator of the University of Manitoba art gallery, where she began to advise Inuit printmakers. Travelling to the north regularly, she began to understand the impact of colonialism.

Her feminist consciousness also bloomed, leading her to do a graduate degree in the social history of art at the University of Leeds. Told that “another feminist wasn’t needed,” she found herself unemployed on her return.

Taking a position as director/curator of the Prince Albert gallery, Grace began extensive work with Saskatchewan’s aboriginal artists. Before “decolonization” was even a buzzword, she was doing it — co-curating an exhibit, Separate Identities, Shared Worlds, with the late Bob Boyer of the Indian Federated College.

Moving to Vancouver to be with her mother, Grace took a position with the Burnaby Art Gallery, where she continued her cross-cultural explorations.

In 1995, Grace was asked to co-ordinate a gathering of Japanese Canadians artists from dispersed communities across the country. Tsudoi/Gatherings finally brought Grace home. She reconnected with her community and never looked back.

Appointed director/curator of the Japanese Canadian National Museum when it opened in Burnaby in 2000, Grace resigned that position after two years but went on to curate landmark exhibits including Shashin: Japanese Canadian Studio Photographers to 1942 and Levelling the Playing Field: Legacy of Vancouver’s Asahi Baseball Team.

She later served on the board of the National Association of Japanese Canadians and was president from 2005 until her retirement in 2010.

“I really feel that, of everything that happened, I am very sad for my father. After 1942, his life was totally destroyed. He worked in odd jobs, but had serious ulcer issues. He went to cooking school in 1960 and got a job in the kitchen at Misericordia Hospital. He finally found a few happy moments in later life.”

“My mother, Sawae, was quite emotional and unhappy in the last few years of her life,” recalls Grace who has recently completed her family memoir, which she hopes to publish soon.

At 86, Grace Eiko Thomson (Nishikihama) remains a force to be reckoned with as she continues to write, agitate and reflect: “B.C. redress is long overdue — it’s 2019, for goodness sake.”

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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