With news of the attack on the American naval base at Hawaii on December 7, 1941, years of smoldering fear and resentment against Japanese Canadians exploded into panic and anger in British Columbia.
At the time there were about 22,000 Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, some descendants of the first immigrants who sought work in Canada in the late 1800s. From the beginning, these newcomers had been subject to intense discrimination by a largely white Canadian society.
Muriel Kitagawa, a young mother of Japanese descent, wrote to her brother Wes, a medical student at the University of Toronto.
"We have been tempered for the anti-Japanese feeling these long years. It has only intensified into overt acts of unthinking hoodlumism like throwing flaming torches into rooming houses and bricks through plate glass."
Within days of the Pearl Harbor attack, Canadian Pacific Railways fired all its Japanese workers, and most other Canadian industries followed suit. Japanese fishermen in British Columbia were ordered to stay in port, and 1,200 fishing boats were seized by the Canadian navy.
In Ottawa, top RCMP and military officials said fears of disloyalty and sabotage by Japanese Canadians were unfounded. But the war had offered a convenient excuse for British Columbians to act on entrenched anti-Asian sentiments.
Ian MacKenzie, the federal cabinet minister from British Columbia pushed the Canadian government to take action.
"It is the governments plan to get these people out of B.C. as fast as possible. It is my personal intention, as long as I remain in public life, to see they never come back here. Let our slogan be for British Columbia: No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.’"
Persecution intensified on December 18th, 1941 when Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong and killed or imprisoned most of the 2,000 Canadian soldiers defending the island.
"B.C. is falling all over itself in the scramble to be the first to kick us out from jobs and homes … it has just boiled down to race persecution, and signs have been posted on all highways … JAPS … KEEP OUT." Muriel Kitigawa wrote to her brother. "We are tightening our belts for the starvation to come. The diseases … the crippling … the twisting of our souls … death would be the easiest to bear."
On January 14, 1942, a 100-mile wide strip along the coast was designated a “protected area” by the federal government and all male Japanese Canadians between the ages of 18 and 45 were to be removed from the area and taken to road camps in the interior
On March 4, 1942, all people of Japanese racial origin were told to leave the protected area. A dusk to dawn curfew was imposed and enforced by police. Most of the Japanese with either naturalized citizens or born in Canada.
Japanese Canadians were told to pack a single suitcase each and taken to holding areas, to wait for trains to take them inland. Vancouver’s Hastings Park was one of areas where families waited, sometimes for months, to be relocated.
"Hundreds of women and children were squeezed into the livestock building," remembered Yukiharu Misuyabu, an interned teenager. "Each family separated from the next by a flimsy piece of cloth hung from the upper deck of double-decked steel bunks. The walls between the rows of steel bunks were only five feet high, their normal use being to tether animals."
After months in animal stalls, the Japanese-Canadians were shipped on sealed trains to the interior Husbands and wives, parents and children were separated — the men to work on road gangs: women and children to shantytowns in the B.C. wilderness.
Yukiharu Misuyabu and his family went to Lemon Creek, where 2,000 Japanese lived in shacks.
"The walls of our shack were one layer of thin wooden board covered with two-ply paper sandwiching a flimsy layer of tar. There was no ceiling below the roof. In the winter, moisture condensed on the inside of the cold walls and turned to ice."
In January 1943, the Canadian government succumbed to more pressure from B.C. politicians and authorized the sale of all the properties seized from Japanese Canadians. The homes, cars, businesses and personal property left behind were sold for a pittance. The lives Japanese Canadians had built in Canada were erased.
Kitigawa raged against her government.
"The bitterness, the anguish is complete," wrote Kitigawa. "You, who deal in lifeless figures, files and statistics, could never measure the depth of hurt and outrage dealt out to those of us who love this land. It is because we are Canadians, that we protest the violation of our birthright. "
The movement of 23,000 Japanese Canadians during the war was the largest mass exodus in Canadian history.
After the war, the federal government decided to remove all Japanese Canadians from British Columbia. They forced them to choose between deportation to war-ravaged Japan or dispersal east of the Rocky Mountains. Most chose the latter, moving to Ontario, Québec and the Prairie provinces.
Public protest would eventually stop the deportations, but not before 4,000 Japanese Canadians left the country."
— Excerpt from Japanese Internment