SEDAI: The Japanese Canadian Legacy Project

Sharing the unique history and experiences of Canadians of Japanese ancestry

World War II & Internment

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and the British colony of Hong Kong. Soon after, 1,200 Japanese Canadian fishing boats were impounded and Japanese newspapers and language schools were shut down. Only the English-language newspaper, “The New Canadian” was allowed to continue. In the months that followed, the government used the War Measures Act to remove men, women and children of Japanese ancestry from the ‘defense zone’ of 160 km (100 miles) from the B.C. coast. As a result, almost 22,000 of the approximately 24,000 people of Japanese descent living in Canada were removed from their homes and distributed to various locations across Canada. Seventy-five percent were Canadian citizens. Many spent the war years in ‘ghost towns’ and hastily created camps in the interior of B.C, such as: Lemon Creek, Kaslo, Slocan City, New Denver, Tashme, etc. Others were allocated to sugar-beet farms or other farming communities in Alberta and Manitoba or road camps or industries in Ontario. In addition, approximately 700 men were interned in POW camps in Ontario, first at Petawawa, then Angler. Many of these men were second generation Japanese Canadians who had opposed removal from the coast, mainly because they objected to the government’s policy of separating families.

While they were being distributed across Canada, the Japanese were required to sign their property and belongings over to the Custodian of Enemy Property. These possessions (including homes, land and businesses) were subsequently sold beginning in 1943. This was done without the permission of the owners, at a fraction of their actual value. The proceeds of these sales were used to pay for the living expenses of the internees.

Angler POW Camp, Ontario

Angler POW camp, Ontario. (Public Archives of Canada, JCCC Archives)

Winter at Tashme internment camp

Winter at Tashme internment camp, B.C. The houses were not insulated. (Public Archives of Canada, JCCC Archives)

As the war neared its end, it became clear that the Canadian government wanted to prevent the reestablishment of the West coast communities. Japanese Canadians were given two options: they could either accept paid passage to Japan or they could re-establish themselves east of the Rockies. In the end, almost 4,000 people were sent to Japan. About half were Issei. With the departure of this group the Japanese community in Canada lost an important link to their ancestral homeland. The other half were Canadian born. Many were dependent children with little choice but to go with their parents.

Those who chose to stay in Canada were again uprooted from the B.C. communities where they had settled during the war years and had to re-establish themselves in Central and Eastern Canada. It was not until 1949, four years after the end of the war, that the last of the wartime restrictions were removed and Japanese Canadians were allowed to return to the West Coast. In 1949, Japanese Canadians were granted the right to vote in British Columbia after gaining the Federal right to vote in 1948.

Boys playing baseball

Boys playing baseball at Lemon Creek internment camp, B.C. (JCCC Archive)