1945 Japanese Canadians

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Immigration from China and Japan began during the Fraser River gold rush of 1858, and by 1910 East Asians constituted 10 percent of British Columbia’s population. In 1880, at the insistence of the provincial government, Ottawa imposed a head tax of fifty dollars on all Chinese immigrants; this tax would expand to five hundred dollars in 1900 and would remain in play until 1923. Despite authorizing the tax, the federal government acted as a brake on local discrimination against Asian immigrants. In 1900, 1903, and 1905, when the BC government tried to introduce English-language requirements in hopes of curtailing Chinese immigration, Ottawa frustrated its efforts on the grounds that it, not Victoria, had jurisdiction over immigration. The Chinese were also denied the provincial franchise, and though they were permitted to vote federally, Ottawa based its list of electors on that of the provinces, which effectively denied all voting privileges to the Chinese in British Columbia. Once the Japanese population began to exceed that of the Chinese in the 1930s, legislators focused on curbing its influence in the province. In 1928, Japan agreed to limit its emigration to 150 people per year. After years of encouraging racist policies, the provincial branch of the Trades and Labour Congress and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) called upon the provincial and federal governments to enfranchise Asian residents. A partial success in 1931 won the vote for Japanese veterans of the First World War, but, learning from this experience and wishing to avoid setting a precedent, the Liberal government exempted all citizens of Japanese descent from military service. These developments created the context for the evacuation and deportation of Japanese Canadians.

During the Second World War, twenty-two thousand men, women, and children of Japanese descent were moved from the BC coast to the interior of the province. As Whitaker and Marcuse explain in Cold War Canada, under “wartime powers, these citizens were forcibly relocated to camps in the interior, had their property confiscated, and were seriously threatened with mass deportation to Japan (including Canadian-born among them) at war’s end. All of this was done without proof of a single case of espionage or sabotage by a Japanese Canadian.”

On 15 December 1945, cabinet passed Orders-in-Council PC7355, PC7356, and PC7357 to send 10,347 Japanese Canadians to Japan. Three-quarters of them were Canadian citizens, and half were Canadian-born. Mobilized by this shocking initiative, civil libertarians throughout the country energetically opposed the government’s decision to deport its own citizens (even the most heinous criminals, including murderers and rapists, cannot be deported). In a letter sent to fifty-five newspapers on 4 January 1946 (which was published in eleven papers), CCF national chair Frank Scott condemned the deportation of Canadian citizens as “a farce of citizenship … To find it sponsored by a government bearing the name Liberal and not objected to by a vigorous public protest, warns us how far our standards have sunk during these past years.” [Scott, Essays on the Constitution]

In 1944, under intense pressure from government officials, many Japanese Canadians had agreed to repatriate to Japan, but when the Orders-in-Council were finally passed in 1945, thousands applied for cancellation. The Mackenzie King government initially refused to rescind the orders, but following a failed court challenge to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London and a massive lobbying effort by various advocacy groups, including civil liberties associations, it agreed in 1946 to do so. Soon afterward, however, it disenfranchised all the Japanese Canadians who remained in the country.

Further Reading

Bangarth, Stephanie. Voices Raised in Protest: Defending North American Citizens of Japanese Ancestry, 1942-49. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

Lambertson, Ross. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Roy, Patricia. Mutual Hostages: Canadians and Japanese during the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Whitaker, Reg, and Gary Marcuse. Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State, 1945-1957. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

The readings lists available on this site deal with a range of topics from human rights to biographies and specific events.

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