February 24, 1942: Canada Interns Japanese Canadians!

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A Brief History

On February 24, 1942, an “order in council” was passed by the Canadian government that authorized the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry in Canada. (On the same day, the United States passed a measure under the “War Powers Act” to also intern Japanese Americans. See our article, “Forced Internment of Japanese During World War II”) The internment order followed a series of other measures taken against Japanese people in Canada, including the seizing of Japanese owned fishing boats, interrogations, curfews and general harassment and discrimination. Incredibly, some of these measures stayed in effect until 1949!

Digging Deeper

As in the United States, persons of Japanese heritage that were removed from the West Coast (the province of British Columbia in Canada) left behind most of their possessions and lost ownership of their homes and property. These Japanese Canadians were sent East to internment camps or to work on farms in the interior of Canada where they presumably could not sabotage the defense of Western Canada.

Internment camp, June 1944

Measures taken against Japanese Canadians started immediately with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and continued until the order for internment was made under the War Measures Act (enacted in 1914 in response to World War I), which declared Japanese Canadians to be “enemy aliens” in December of 1941. By January of 1941 1200 Japanese owned fishing boats had been seized, and all males of Japanese ancestry between 18 and 45 were ordered to remain more than 100 miles East of the West coast of British Columbia, most sent to Alberta. Japanese Canadians were forbidden from fishing, owning or operating radios and could not buy gasoline or dynamite.

Based on the decision to issue the removal order of February 24, 1942, the next day the order was sent out for immediate enforcement, and 27,000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from British Columbia and 21,000 of them were sent to internment camps, the remainder relocated or deported. (The US had sent 110,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps.) These Japanese Canadians were gathered up and detained without the benefit of a hearing or trial and lost almost everything they owned. Some were even deported to Japan. Japanese Canadians that refused to be sent to forced labor on farms or work camps (logging, etc), were sent to prisoner of war camps!

A road crew of interned men building the Yellowhead Highway.

The separation of men from their families was a point of contention among the Japanese Canadians and resulted in work strikes until Canada relented and made efforts to reunite families. The social and cultural order of Japanese Canadian families and communities was disrupted with little regard for empathy or compassion. Of course, there were many Canadians, including some politicians, that objected to the shabby treatment of Japanese Canadians, but those voices were muted by the demands of “national security.”

As in the United States, patriotic Japanese Canadians were eager to prove their loyalty by putting their lives on the line while serving in the military. During World War I about 185 Japanese Canadians served in the Canadian Army, some of which were decorated heroes. Sadly, some of these heroes were among those Japanese Canadians sent to interment camps (just as the US sent some of their own Japanese veterans into internment). During World War I the Japanese Canadian community raised a battalion of 277 men, equipped and trained at the expense of Japanese Canadians, which was rejected by the Canadian government! Later, Canada allowed individual Japanese Canadians to enlist in the military. During World War II, 200 Japanese Canadians served with the Canadian military, many assigned as interpreters in the Pacific War. Japanese Canadians were exempt from being drafted, and all that served were volunteers.

Incredibly, after World War II, Japanese Canadian veterans returned to Canada to find themselves not permitted to return to their pre-war homes in British Columbia, and even not having their Canadian citizenship reinstated! (Some kind of thank you, eh?)

In 1943 the Canadian government auctioned off all property seized from Japanese Canadians, including boats, farms, and homes. Outraged Japanese Canadians complained, to no avail, and then by 1944 sued the government, their case delayed until 1947. Japanese owned property had been sold for less than half its value. Eventually, a small fraction of seized property was reimbursed to Japanese Canadians, but at ridiculous rates, only 12.5% for fishing boats, and only 25% for fishing equipment, cars, trucks and other equipment. Those that had lost homes, farms and other property were lucky to get half the value of those properties. Personal items were mostly ignored by the government, and those that were reimbursed got a paltry 6.8% on the value of seized and sold items. Of these awards, the largest was to the owners of the seized Royal Lumber Company, less than $70,000 on a value of almost $270,000. The “Bird Commission” that oversaw claims and reimbursement dealt with property claims, but no personal damages or civil rights violations were considered.

Irate Japanese Canadian internees often asked the Canadian government to repatriate them to Japan, requests that were refused during the War. After World War II, many Japanese Canadians were forcibly repatriated to Japan against their will, those persons (about 4000) not wanting to go to a burned out and starving country! Following the lead of the United States, which had finally made an apology and restitution to Japanese Americans that had been interned, a month later in 1988 Canada followed suit and issued an official apology to Japanese Canadians and granted a reparation/restitution payment of $21,000 to each person that had been interned. All Japanese Canadians that had been stripped of their citizenship, including those deported, were reinstated as Canadian citizens. (Of the 29,000 Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia at the start of World War II, about 80% were Canadian citizens.) An additional payment of $12 million was made to the National Association of Japanese Canadians. Another $24 million was allocated for improvement of race relations in Canada. Those persons that had been interned and were no longer alive, did not receive compensation.

Thus ended a sad chapter in the history of Canada, unfortunately mirroring the similar actions in the United States. Do you think internment of Japanese Canadians (and Japanese Americans) was justified? Feel free to express your thoughts on the subject. If Canada or the US went to war with China, Russia, or any other country today should we intern persons of that national heritage? Let us know what you think.

Epilogue: Canadians are generally seen by Americans and others as a friendly, outgoing, and genial people. That is exactly the experience I have had on scores of trips to Canada. Sadly, this better nature was eclipsed by war hysteria during World War I when some Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, and large numbers of Ukrainian Canadians (mostly farmers) were interned and persecuted under the War Powers Act. (Much of the Ukraine was in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the enemies of Canada during World War I.) (Note: Wayne Gretzky is a Ukrainian Canadian and so is Alex Trebek.) During World War II smaller numbers of Germans and Italians were also interned, both in Canada and in the US. In fact, the parents of New York Yankees star center fielder, Joe DiMaggio, had their travel limited and their fishing boat seized, and Joltin’ Joe had to angrily intercede on their behalf! Do you remember French fries being called “Freedom fries” when Americans were upset that France did not support the invasion of Iraq in 2003? An echo of calling sauerkraut “Liberty cabbage” during World War I. Stupid, nationalistic jingoism that divides people and causes hate. Do you believe we will ever learn? When?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Grunewald, Mary Matsuda. Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps. New Sage Press, 2005.

Hickman, Pamela and Fukowa, Masako. Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Japanese Canadian Internment in the Second World War. Lorimer, 2012.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.