Vancouver exhibit on Japanese Canadian fishing vessel seizures asks if history will repeat itself

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      A new Vancouver exhibition about fishing vessels raises the question as to whether we are heading down a path toward repeating history.

      The Lost Fleet is on display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum from today (March 24) until next year (March 25, 2018).

      In time for both the 75th anniversary of the Japanese Canadian internment as well as Canada's 150th anniversary, the exhibit takes a historical look back at the seizure of B.C. Japanese Canadian fishing vessels during the Second World War and what impact that had.

      It includes three models, 15 replica documents, seven archaeological artifacts, five fishing and boat-building tools, two internment suitcases, two items related to fishing companies, and about 37 photographs. The items are from the museum's collection, the Nikkei National Museum, the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, the Vancouver Public Library, Simon Fraser University's Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Vancouver Sun and Province archives, the City of Richmond archives, and the personal collections of two individuals.

      Museum curator Duncan MacLeod explained that this subject has been something the museum has been one of many topics that they've wanted to address for some time.

      MacLeod told the Georgia Straight that as he was working on this exhibition, he was struck by the similarities in discussions between people arriving over 100 years ago to contemporary debates about refugees, immigration, and various cultural groups.

      "One of the things I've learned is that there's still such a connection to this history through members of the Japanese Canadian community, through the legacy that's left by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and what they fought for in terms of acknowledgement of the incarceration and dispossession," he said.

      Vancouver Maritime Museum curator Duncan MacLeod
      Craig Takeuchi

      The first waves of Japanese immigration

      The exhibit begins with the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in the late 1800s to Vancouver, Steveston, Victoria, other parts of Vancouver Island, and the Fraser River area.

      The exhibit includes Japanese beer bottles and ceramics excavated from Don and Lion Islands near Annacis Island in Fraser River where a small Japanese Canadian community formed.

      MacLeod said the Japanese Canaidan fishermen "became a powerful force" in B.C.

      He pointed out that the Japanese Fishermen's Benevolent Association, or the Dantai, created a Japanese fishermen's hospital in Steveston.

      "It was the first example in Canada of universal healthcare," he said, explaining that all members could receive treatment for free.

      Craig Takeuchi

      By 1919, Japanese Canadians held the majority of B.C. fishing licenses, created their own nets, and were quick to integrate new technology such as gasoline engines for fishing boats, which allowed for larger boats to be built, could travel further distances, and could carry more fish. They also created new markets for fishing, such as salted fish which they exported to China and Japan.

      They also brought techniques new to the B.C. boat-building industry.

      "They pioneered continuous plank frames that allowed stronger boats to be built," MacLeod said.

      Examples of traditional Japanese tools are on display in the exhibit, such as pull saw, which operated in the opposite direction of push-stroke European saws.

      Craig Takeuchi

      The rise of resentment

      Unfortunately, a backlash arose from non–Japanese Canadians.

      "Because of all the successes of the Japanese Canadians in the fishing industry, there was some resentment from the other fishermen and politicians who felt they were beginning to take over," MacLeod said.

      Anti-Asian sentiment was growing in B.C. The arrival of 8,000 Japanese immigrants in Vancouver in 1907, MacLeod explained, resulted in creation of Anti-Asiatic League and the race riots of 1907, in which Japanese Canadian residents had to defend their community around Powell Street from attacks from mobs.

      Restrictions were placed on Japanese immigration: only 400 Japanese males were permitted year, which was eventually reduced to 150 immigrants from Japan including family members and wives.

      After 1919, Japanese Canadian fishermen could only obtain a certain number of licenses and only for specific locations, rather than multiple locations, and they also were not allowed to use gasoline engines on the Skeena River even though Caucasian and First Nations fishermen were allowed to.

      "Those [restrictions] were overturned in the court system," MacLeod said, "but there'd been a lot of damage done already and by the seizure of the fishing vessels in World War II, the Japanese Canadian fishermen only held 16 percent of the fishing licenses when only a few years before they held 50 percent of them."

      Craig Takeuchi

      Japan attacks, B.C. reacts

      The bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese Imperial Army on December 7, 1941, led set off a chain of events in B.C.

      Within hours of the bombing, Canadian government issued order for all Japanese fishermen to bring boats into port. MacLeod said he was struck by how fast this took place. He pointed out it was enabled by the War Measures Act, which has since been repealed.

      On December 8, the Canadian navy rounded up boats, searched for evidence of Japanese Navy or Army interaction, confiscated all weapons, and impounded 1,130 vessels.

      MacLeod pointed out that some boats were mishandled and dragged in groups to holding stations.

      "This caused them to be damaged and not reusable," he said. "So some of these vessels are actually used as fill on Annacis Island, where they had originally been impounded."

      The museum is displaying two models of Japanese Canadian–built fishing vessels that were seized. They also created replicas of original documents from the Nikkei National Museum that details information about the seized vessels, including their assessed values in comparison to the often much lower value they were sold off for.

      One example shows a vessel assessed at a $1,000 replacement value with a $350 market value but sold for only $75.

      Craig Takeuchi

      Attacks in B.C.

      What is a little-known fact is that there were attacks along B.C. coast in 1942 by the Japanese Imperial Army.

      MacLeod talked about how a Japanese Imperial I-26 submarine torpedoed a U.S. freighter, chartered by the U.S. Army to carry newsprint, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and later fired at an Estevan Point lighthouse. A fragment of the shell from the latter attack is on display.

      Although fears arose as to whether Japanese Canadians would support attacks by the Japanese Imperial Army, MacLeod stated that "there were investigations done which proved there was never any intent, there was no evidence of espionage by any of the fishermen or Japanese Canadians".

      Another little-known fact is that there were many members of the military and RCMP who spoke out against internment.

      The exhibit includes quotes from RCMP security expert Frederick J. Mead who reported to RCMP Commissioner S.T. Wood in 1940 that there is "no fear of sabotage need to be expected from the Japanese in Canada". This was agreed upon by Major General H.G.D. Crerar and Major General Ken Stuart. There were also assurances from the American Federal Bureau of Investigation that Japanese residents in Honolulu and Manila posed no threats after attacks on those locations.

      Craig Takeuchi

      After the war

      Although the Second World War ended in 1945, Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return to the coast until 1949.

      "Only a few returned to the fishing industry, and those who did felt some of the lingering resentment," MacLeod said, adding that many Japanese Canadian fishermen had their equipment stolen or nets cut, or found that they would not be hired by their former fishing company employers.

      In 1988, the Canadian government issued redress and an official apology to Japanese Canadians. After redress, the National Association of Japanese Canadians formed a human-rights committee, which has spoken out to denounce attacks on numerous Canadians groups, including Islamic Canadians, Jewish Canadians, and LGBT people.

      Craig Takeuchi

      Despite the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, MacLeod observed that there are still "strains of intolerance today".

      While learning about Japanese Canadian history from the exhibit, he hopes that visitors will also learn to appreciate that "we shouldn't take multiculturalism for granted".

      He pointed out that during the time of debates about Japanese immigration, many people argued that Japanese people couldn't assimilate into Canadian society and didn't hold the same values as Canadians.

      "We want to impress upon people that this is an important discussion to have about equality among all groups within Canada and the importance of studying history in order to have these types of discussion today," MacLeod said.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook