Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese military’s sweep through the Asia-Pacific region in December 1941, the Canadian government ordered the forced relocation of Japanese Canadian citizens from their homes in Vancouver, Victoria, and other areas of coastal British Columbia. Their property, including private dwellings, businesses, and personal possessions, was confiscated and never returned. Some 19 000 people of all ages were moved to primitive camps in the rugged interior of the province, where they were detained until 1949, four years after the nation of Japan surrendered at the end of World War II.

This episode of Canadian history is widely – and properly – remembered today as a disgraceful violation of democratic freedoms, driven by racism. British Columbians of Japanese origin posed no threat to Canadian security; Canadian military and intelligence officials (who were dealing with far more urgent problems) advised against the internment; local legislators and others behind the policies were acting out of bigotry and economic opportunism as much as any concern for the national war effort. In 1988 the Canadian federal government issued a formal apology to the country’s Japanese community for their deprivations, and their experiences have been widely documented in such books as Ken Adachi’s The Enemy That Never Was (1991), Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981), and Barry Broadfoot’s oral history Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (1977).

None of this might seem relevant to our current quarantine, masking, and vaccination mandates. No one during today’s COVID-19 pandemic is being uprooted from their residences, no one today is having their houses or belongings appropriated and sold off by the state, and no one today is being officially subject to particular restrictions on the basis of their race or ethnicity. It’s worth recalling, though, that the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians, which seems so unjust and unwarranted in 2022, wasn’t merely the program of a few ignorant or cynical politicians, but was broadly supported by average citizens and their leading media outlets of the era. Consider just these editorials from Canada’s most prominent newspaper then and now, the Toronto Globe and Mail:

A large proportion of the fishermen who work for the salmon canneries in British Columbia are Japanese, and they have been summarily deprived of their fishing boats and compelled to stay on shore. Naturally, the loss of their normal employment entails hardship, but war involves considerable sacrifices for certain elements of the community, and there is no alternative but to accept them. (January 6, 1942)

The appointment of a body to be known as the British Columbia Security Commission to arrange the evacuation of Japanese residents from the districts of British Columbia scheduled as “defence areas” should not encounter criticism…[T]he Canadian public can feel confident that the work of evacuation will be handled with despatch and efficiency, and the hardships of the Japanese, forced by the grim necessities of war to move temporarily from their homes, will be made as light as possible. (March 2, 1942)

The policy adopted toward [Japanese Canadians], which has no flavor of oppressive harshness, has rendered them incapable of serious mischief…One thing, however, is clear, namely that public opinion in British Columbia will not readily acquiesce in the return of the deported Japanese to their former properties and vocations, and the recovery of their old status in the community. (November 22, 1943)

The great majority of [Japanese Canadians] have remained stubborn Japanese patriots, giving their primary allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, and comparatively few have shown any keen disposition to become assimilated into Canada’s social structure. About the subversive activities of a substantial number of the British Columbia Japanese since the present war began there can be no shadow of a doubt. (November 30, 1943)

Sure, hindsight is 20/20. Times were different. “Given what we know now…,” and so on. To be fair, Canada was once at war with Japan, a formidable adversary which did indeed launch small attacks on the west coast of North America during the conflict, and whose treatment of Allied prisoners of war (including Canadians) was far harsher than anything authorized against people of Japanese descent living in BC. There may even have been a tiny handful of internees who really were loyal to the Japanese emperor and who might have provided useful service to their ancestral homeland if given the chance. Yet we can still hear echoes of contemporary attitudes – call it groupthink, call it a mob mentality, call it hysteria – in the pronouncements of the early 1940s: all those sober, responsible voices assuring us how Canadians can feel confident that the government is handling the crisis with despatch and efficiency, that the considerable sacrifices forced by grim necessities should not encounter criticism, that the hardships will be made as light as possible and have no flavor of oppressive harshness, that there is no alternative but to accept them, and above all that there can be no shadow of a doubt. I know what parallels I detect, but draw your own conclusions.

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