The Japanese-Canadian Internment – 75 Years After

Hosted by the Vancouver Historical Society, The Japanese-Canadian Internment – 75 Years After will take place on Sept. 28 at the Museum of Vancouver. The talk will feature Japanese-Canadian activists Mary Kitagawa and her partner Tosh.

In 1896, Mary Kitagawa’s grandfather moved from the prefecture of Hiroshima to Canada. He would make up the first wave of Japanese immigrants to Canada, known as Issei (first generation), who embarked on the transpacific journey to find opportunities abroad in the late 19th century.

“At the time when my grandfather came, a lot of the people living in [the outskirts of cities and villages] of Japan were having a hard time making a living,” Kitagawa says. “My grandfather thought that he would do better in another country and being the adventurous person that he was, he decided to come to Canada.”

Japanese-Canadians being relocated across British Columbia in 1942. | Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

Kitagawa’s grandmother later joined her grandfather in 1903 as a picture bride, and the two ran a prosperous fishing business.

“When my grandfather first came he became a fisherman, so he and his wife fished for a very long time. They owned about 15 boats, so they were very successful,” she says.

Kitagawa says fishing opportunities decreased after 1922 when the federal fisheries department reduced the number of fishing licenses issued to Japanese-Canadians. Her grandparents felt they had no choice but to move to Salt Spring Island to start farming. They continued to live there until 1942 when the federal government issued an Order in Council to remove Japanese-Canadians from their homes and to exile them into remote areas.

Deeply rooted in history

At age seven, Kitagawa was forced to leave Salt Spring Island, following the order. Her grandparents had already retired and amassed assets consisting of 200 acres of land, a two-storey home and a domestic helper who assisted in managing the Kitagawas’ farm. However, their property was at risk of confiscation after that year as the properties of Japanese-Canadians were liquidated by the government to fund the internment.

“When the war between Japan and Canada started, the government decided that all Japanese-Canadian people were a danger to the country,” says Kitagawa. “And so they uprooted us, took away all of our property and they dispersed us all across the country.”

The internment that began in 1942 is microcosmic of the anti-Asian sentiment in the province, starting with the exclusion of Asians from the B.C. voters’ list following confederation in 1871. Kitagawa believes that these racist sentiments are unjustified and founded upon prejudice.

“[The white people who governed the province, and also the ordinary citizens,] accused the Asians of not being able to assimilate into the mainstream society because [they thought that] we’re not able to speak English, to achieve the same things as they did or to even understand what a vote means,” she says. “Today we know that Asian people can assimilate, are intelligent and that they contribute a lot to the society of Canada.”

Creating a legacy

For Kitagawa, she believes that Japanese-Canadians are ultimately responsible for their history and heritage.

“The people that went through the incarceration and the uprooting did not tell their children what happened to them. I think it was because it would pain them to talk about it or they were ashamed of the fact that they were made a victim,” she says.

According to Kitagawa, many third-generation Japanese-Canadians were surprised when they found out what their immediate family members had gone through, and that they should speak up and make their Japanese-Canadian history known.

Michael Kluckner, President of the Vancouver Historical Society, sees the upcoming talk as an opportunity to not only educate the public but also to address the wider issues of racism in B.C.

“The Japanese-Canadian experience was only a part of a much wider attempt over 50 years to make B.C. into a ‘White-Man’s Province.’ Other immigrants, notably the Chinese and the Sikhs, suffered from systematic discrimination throughout this period,” he says.

Kluckner says that even today’s provincial and federal Canadian government policies may surprise people, and hopes the talk will inform them.

“With a little imagination, attendees will see parallels between what happened to immigrants then and what is happening now in North America, while also learning that the human rights framework, in Canada at least, is much different than it was 75 years ago,” he says.

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