When Racism Reigned: Japanese Internment in Canada

Norm Gibbons


Seventy-three years ago on December 7, 1941,  the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. In response, the United States Congress declared war upon the Empire of Japan that same day.  Canadian Prime Minister, W. L. Mackenzie King, announced the Cabinet’s decision to declare war on Japan the next day, Dec. 8, 1941.


Responding to hysteria that persons of Japanese descent in coastal communities such as Steveston, ten kilometers south of Vancouver on the Fraser River delta, would help Japan invade British Columbia, the federal government arrested Japanese-Canadian community leaders and confiscated Japanese-owned homes, fishing boats, vehicles, businesses – family heirlooms – everything. The government authorized a Custodian of Enemy Property to hold all land and property in trust. These assets, however, were sold for a pittance to local Caucasians, and the proceeds used to fund the Japanese internment program. Our government confiscated eighteen-hundred fishboats, many of the fishermen from Steveston, B.C.


In early 1942, the federal government ordered the evacuation of all Japanese males over the age of 18 and later expanded the order to include women and children. The government moved 2,600 men, women and children of Japanese descent from Steveston, by train, to the BC interior and interned them there during the war. The majority of internees were either Canadian by birth or naturalized citizens. They were stripped of their rights and categorized as “Enemy Aliens.” Lemon Creek is one of the hastily built camps. In total, the government interned 23,000 Japanese-Canadians in facilities across Canada, most of them in the interior of BC.


The Right Honourable, Ian Alistair Mackenzie, member of the Canadian Parliament, representing the riding of Vancouver Centre, pandered to anti-Japanese sentiment in British Columbia by declaring to his constituents at his 1944 nomination meeting, “Let our slogan be for British Columbia: ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.‘” As BC’s senior cabinet minister, Mackenzie played a key role in the government’s decision to intern Japanese-Canadians, some of them third generation Canadians. The government held these families for the duration of the war, despite the fact that Canada’s senior military and RCMP officers opposed the removal order, declaring that Japanese-Canadians posed no threat to Canada’s security. Not until 1949 — 4 years after the end of World War II — did Canada pass a law allowing Japanese families to return to the coast.

Canadian environmental leader David Suzuki was among the children sent to these camps and he confirms the fair-mindedness of the RCMP. During a recent fiery speech to Kinder Morgan protesters on Burnaby Mountain, Suzuki recalled his experience growing up in the internment camps. Addressing the line of officers enforcing the injunction by separating protestors from the pipeline work site, he said, “I have nothing but great thoughts of the RCMP, and how they treated me and my family then, but today I’m disappointed, and it grieves me, because of the respect we have for you.”


In the 1960s, Richard Trueman of Cortes Island painted this watercolour, a scene of Steveston fishing boats up on their blocks for bottom painting and repairs.


Richard’s friend, Gordon Payne, painted this gauche below, about the same time.


In 1973, Rex Weyler, who, at the time, worked as the Greenpeace photographer, also participated in the preparation of the book, Steveston Revisited, edited by Daphne Marlatt. The book used aural history and black and white images to examine the aftermath of the Japanese-Canadian experience during internment. After the war, the Canadian government sent many Japanese-Canadians back to Japan, yet most of the Steveston families returned to Canada, purchased new fishing boats, rebuilt their lives, and re-established their fishing community on the Fraser River, where Weyler photographed them for the documentary:


Scan 4

Scan 2

Net mender, Steveston, 1973. (09)

Cannery women, 1973. (03)

Scan 3

Dorothy Livesay, Canadian poet, journalist and activist, twice winner of the Governor General’s Award in the 1940’s, participated in and wrote a CBC radio, documentary production, Call My People Home. The poem-radio-play addresses our government’s mistreatment of Japanese-Canadians. Below is a reproduction of the original script. Note the hand written section: Japanese refer to Issei as the generation born in Japan, whereas Nissei refers to the generation born in Canada.



In 1988, 111 years after the first Japanese immigrant entered Canada, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally apologized to Japanese-Canadians and authorized the provision of $21,000 to each of the survivors of wartime detention.


In her blog, Monica Nawrocki recounts the participation of Cortes Island in this tragedy. “On Cortes, three Japanese-Canadian families are mentioned in the local archives of the early years, although only one, the Nakatsuis, were living here at the time of the internment. The truck (Archives, Cortes Island Museum), one of few on the island at the time, was also the vehicle used to transport the Nakatsui family from their home. June Cameron’s book, Destination Cortez Island, A sailor’s life along the BC coast (1999), described the ‘Jap ranch,’ as it was known then, as a well-kept property. She called it, ‘aesthetically pleasing as well as tidy and purposeful’ (p.200). June also had this to say about the Nakatsui family (she used a different spelling of the name than my research supplied): ‘As neighbours, they were courteous and well-liked, but after Pearl Harbour and the alleged sightings of submarines off the B.C. coast, even before the declaration of war, the locals became understandably nervous. The Nakasuis were evacuated to internment camps along with all Japanese people living on the coast, and the fruit from their orchard was left to rot. When we went by in the fall to pick some apples to take back to the city with us, we found their home stripped of belongings. Unwanted objects littered the ground. It made me ashamed to be a Canadian.’ (p. 199)”

 In the summer of 2015, under the imprint of Salmonberry Publishing, Monica Nawrocki will launch a middle-grades novel, Full Moon Lagoon. The fictional story is an action packed adventure taking place on Cortes Island, partly during the internment period. Without saying more, Salmonberry Publishing takes great pleasure in publishing Monica Nawrocki’s novel underpinned by the internment history.


Ravi Shergill uploaded this comprehensive, pictorial  history of Japanese Internment in Canada on Youtube, six years ago. Each segment is about 7 minutes in length and well worth the visit. No information accompanies these videos and a  search of Ravi yields nothing. Listening to the young voice and perspective, his account may have been a school assignment.

For those interested in investigating the historical build up to the United States and Canada entering the war, the link below is a comprehensive chronology of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Since 1941, substantial and revealing documentation has come to light, providing a narrative that is substantially different from the one found in the official record. http://jamesperloff.com/2014/11/06/pearl-harbor-roosevelts-911/


Facts and Figures:

  • Prior to World War II, 22,096 Japanese Canadians lived in British Columbia; three quarters of them were naturalized or native born Canadians. During the war, 21,460 were forcibly removed from their homes; families were broken up and sent to internment camps. After the war, 3,964 were deported to Japan; one third of them were Canadian citizens.
  • In 1950, the Bird Commission’s report resulted in an offer of $ 1.2 million compensation to Japanese Canadians. A 1987 Price Waterhouse study estimated real property loss at $ 50 million, total economic loss at $ 443 million.
  • The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian military advisers did not consider the Japanese Canadian community on the West Coast as a threat to domestic security.
  • The Japanese in Canada were treated harsher than the Japanese in the United States.
  • In the U.S., families were interned together. In Canada, initially, families were separated.
  • In the U.S., constitutional protections forbade the sale of property. In Canada, the government seized and sold land and personal property. In the U.S., housing and food were provided. In Canada, internees paid for food, clothes and basic improvements in housing from savings and proceeds of property sales.
  • In the U.S., the government moved quickly in 1944-45 to rescind exclusion orders and to allow the return of citizens to the West Coast. In Canada, Japanese Canadians were forced to decide on deportation to Japan or relocation to parts east of the Rockies.
  • The 10 internment camps, 3 road camps, 2 prisoner of war camps, and 5 self-supporting camps were scattered throughout Canada. During the war years, Japanese Canadians were regarded as possible threats to Canada’s domestic security. Their actions were monitored; their rights suspended. No hearings or trials were ever held and no charges of treason were ever laid.

Resources used in compiling this history: