The core of the Japanese experience in Canada lies in the shameful and almost undemocratic suspension of human rights that the Canadian government committed during World War II. As a result, thousands of Japanese were uprooted to be imprisoned in internment camps miles away from their homes. While only a small percentage of the Japanese living in Canada were actually nationals of Japan, those who were Canadian born were, without any concrete evidence, continuously being associated with a country that was nothing but foreign to them. Branded as "enemy aliens", the Japanese Canadians soon came to the realization that their beloved nation harboured so much hate and anti-Asian sentiments that Canada was becoming just as foreign to them as Japan was. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Canadians lost almost everything, including their livelihood. Their dignity as a people was being seriously threatened.
Without any proper thought, they were aware that resistance against Canada's white majority would prove to be futile. Racial discrimination had its biggest opportunity to fully reveal itself while the Japanese silently watched the civil disdain take action, the time slip by throughout the evacuation and internment, and their daily lives simply fall apart at the seams. The term "Canadian" offered no redemption as the Japanese Canadians were involuntarily regarded as potential treats to national security by their own fellow citizens. In a country they knew only as home, the "yellow" race was a culture many felt they could never accept with open arms. In essence, as the prejudice impelled the Japanese to enclose themselves in a separated society, they were decidedly doomed to remain a permanently alien, non-voting population. As visible minorities, the Japanese were easy targets for discrimination in every social aspect of their lives.
In 1907, a race riot took place in a district called "Little Tokyo" in Vancouver. There, an estimated five thousand racist Canadians sought to destroy the homes and stores of the Asian community. By 1928, W. L. Mackenzie King proposed that one hundred fifty Japanese immigrants be permitted to enter Canada each year to prevent future mishaps. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was merely a trigger point for the public distaste to truly emphasize itself.
With such close relations with the United States, Canadians feared that Japan would also attempt an assault against them. It was naively assumed that if there was an attack, the response would be aid from the Japanese Canadians in British Columbia through the accessibility of the Pacific Ocean. The initial reaction to Pearl Harbor was to take cautious emergency actions to avert civil unrest. Soon, the Canadian government passed the War Measures Act.
It gave permission to intern all undesirable Japanese, tie up every Japanese-owned fishing boat in British Columbia, close all Japanese language schools, forbid the publishing of newspapers in Japanese, and seize all Japanese property. All of which were subsequently carried out. In 1941, there were twenty-three thousand five hundred Japanese persons in Canada, residing mainly on the coast of British Columbia. Of that, six thousand seven hundred were Canadian born, seven thousand were naturalized citizens, and the rest were nationals of Japan.
However, nothing could make any difference. To the typical, white British Columbian, the Japanese were all lower-class citizens. Five hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour, forty-eight Japanese planes bombed Hong Kong where two Canadian battalions were stationed, and were inflicted with heavy casualties. The "problem" of the resident Japanese in British Columbia was then quickly set into the mainstream focus. Prior to declaring war on Japan, Mackenzie King had stated that the "enemy country" had "wantonly and treacherously" attacked British territory, and that "Japan's actions [were] a threat to the defence and freedom of Canada." On December 30, 1941, Ottawa was told there were going to be "interracial riots and bloodshed", and was advised that the Japanese be removed from the Pacific coast. Government officials insisted they could not trust anyone of Japanese origin.
The Japanese Canadians had unfortunately come to witness the true extent of the bitterness that reeked from the Caucasian population. In addition to the feelings of hostility towards the Japanese, all their hard work to successfully develop a stable living became worthless as evacuation and internment were seen to be the only logical solutions. The "partial" evacuation of the Japanese nationals was still not enough. All had to go. A multitude of political, economic and social organizations, as well as other pressure groups from British Columbia began a constant flow of propaganda against the Japanese. They demanded that further, immediate action be implemented.
It was the pressure from these regional groups, who were anxious to expel the Japanese forever, that eventually propelled the government to sway in their favour. By early 1942, it was decided that all Japanese Canadians be rounded up and relocated to the interior of British Columbia where they were to be held in detention camps. Mass internment had begun. The Japanese were fingerprinted, photographed, and then given identification numbers, which were considered as "formal tokens of their second-class status." Just one suitcase was allowed to be brought to the camps, while all other property was taken into government possession to be auctioned off for costs of the internment. The Japanese captivity called for the division of all families into three groups: Japanese nationals or aliens in one, women and children in another, and men over eighteen in the last to be sent to road-construction camps. All those who resisted were sent to a concentration camp in Angler, Ontario.
In many of the camps, the Japanese were forced to reside in uninsulated tar paper shacks, while other families had to share one and its facilities. Their confinement created large amounts of tension and anxiety, but overriding even those emotions was an atmosphere of complete hopelessness. In 1945, the Japanese Canadians were faced with yet another dilemma. They either had to be deported to Japan or once again be displaced, this time east of the Rocky Mountains to Central Canada. Without any rights that would allow them to refuse, the evacuation of Japanese Canadians clearly exposed an issue not of national security, but of national ignorance and prejudice.
Prior to the evacuation, the country's racial suspicion had come to a degree at which the Japanese Canadians recognized solely as the onset of the deterioration of their lives. Many Japanese people did not resist the internment for culturally, they were inclined to follow norms of conformity and obedience. The elderly often quoted that "one must not make a nuisance of oneself to other people." Due to this, the evacuation was easily made successful. Within the camps, they no longer felt a sense of national pride, but of great shame. The men who were separated from their families constantly wondered if they would ever see their wives and children again, or if they could survive the heartache.
Some of the Japanese even hoped that justice and morality would still have a chance to prevail. Many had begun with much faith in the government and expected aid, but none ever came. When the attack of Pearl Harbor was announced, the Japanese Canadians appeared to live their lives with two convictions. On one hand, they had huge amounts of love and nationalism for their country, as well as deep devotions to the Union Jack, like many other Canadians. Some had even served as World War I veterans for the Allied forces.
On the other hand, they lived only in Japanese communities, spoke Japanese, and knew all too well that anyone person of Japanese descent was made to feel unwelcome in Canada. As time passed, the Japanese had come to a sense of finality in them -- -British Columbia did not ant them back. Along with that, they had to deal with great depths of pain and outrage for they felt betrayed, but still clung to their loyalty to Canada. It was only until 1988 when the Canadian government recognized that the Japanese were treated "unjustly." The survivors and family members were then given compensation money, yet it was no where near enough to repair the damage.
The Japanese Canadian existence meant almost nothing to all those who disliked them, and soon that same conception was being adopted by the Japanese minority. The Japanese Canadians had no other option but to endure the constant assaults to their social welfare. As aliens, they could only do so much in a country that was populated mostly by the white race. However, little did it upset them in the beginning, since they were still proud to be Canadian. When the public scorn, evacuation and internment took place, the Japanese were compelled to remain in a stagnant state as all they had earned through much labour became stripped away.
After Pearl Harbor, their small and restricted world so abruptly collapsed that nothing would ever be the same again. The government lacked the courage and political will to refuse public opinion in British Columbia, and so chose the path of least resistance. Consequently, the Japanese became subjected to serious limitations of their civil liberties as citizens, and more importantly, human beings. The passing years, have brought overdue regrets and apologies, but the memory of the internment acts as a reminder that the denial of an entire race's rights is never the solution.