20th Anniversary of the Canadian Government’s Formal Apology for Japanese Internment during World War II

Shortly after Japan’s entry into World War II on December 7, 1941, Japanese Canadians were removed from the West Coast. “Military necessity” was used as a justification for their mass removal and incarceration despite the fact that senior members of Canada’s military and the RCMP had opposed the action, arguing that Japanese Canadians posed no threat to security. And yet, the exclusion from the West Coast was to continue for four more years, until 1949. This massive injustice was a culmination of the movement to eliminate Asians from the West Coast begun decades earlier in British Columbia (BC).

The order in 1942, to leave the “restricted area” and move 100 miles (160 km) inland from the West Coast, was made under the authority of the War Measures Act. This order affected more than 21,000 Japanese Canadians. Many were first held in the livestock barns in Hastings Park (Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition grounds) and then were moved to hastily-built camps in the BC Interior. At first, many men were separated from their families and sent to road camps in Ontario and on the BC/Alberta border. Small towns in the BC Interior — such as Greenwood, Sandon, New Denver and Slocan — became internment quarters mainly for women, children and the aged. To stay together, some families agreed to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba, where there were labour shortages. Those who resisted and challenged the orders of the Canadian government were rounded up by the RCMP and incarcerated in a barbed-wire prisoner-of-war camp in Angler, Ontario.

Despite earlier government promises to the contrary, the “Custodian of Enemy Alien Property” sold the property confiscated from Japanese Canadians. The proceeds were used to pay auctioneers and realtors, and to cover storage and handling fees. The remainder paid for the small allowances given to those in internment camps. Unlike prisoners of war of enemy nations who were protected by the Geneva Convention, Japanese Canadians were forced to pay for their own internment. Their movements were restricted and their mail censored.

As World War II was drawing to a close, Japanese Canadians were strongly encouraged to prove their “loyalty to Canada” by “moving east of the Rockies” immediately, or sign papers agreeing to be “repatriated” to Japan when the war was over. Many moved to the Prairie Provinces, others moved to Ontario and Quebec. About 4,000, half of them Canadian-born, one third of whom were dependent children under 16 years of age, were exiled in 1946 to Japan.

In September 1988, the Government of Canada formally apologized in the House of Commons and offered compensation for wrongful incarceration, seizure of property and the disenfranchisement of Japanese Canadians during WW II.

“I know that I speak for Members on all sides of the House today in offering to Japanese Canadians the formal and sincere apology of this Parliament for those past injustices against them, against their families, and against their heritage, and our solemn commitment and undertaking to Canadians of every origin that such violations will never again in this country be countenanced or repeated.”

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s remarks to the House of Commons, September 22, 1988

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