Justice for Japanese Canadians after redress
Like many Japanese Canadians steeped in traditional Japanese stoicism, my grandmother was not one to express pain. But there was one story that hinted at her unspoken depths.
She once told my mother that while living in Greenwood, B.C., in the 1940s, she had great difficulty singing “O Canada” at public events. According to my mother, my grandmother stumbled over the lyrics “our home and native land” and “glorious and free”.
She was a Vancouver-born Nisei (second-generation Japanese Canadian), and Canada was her home and native land. But she was not free. She, like all other Japanese Canadians living within the 100-mile “protected zone” on the B.C. coast, was stripped of her rights under the War Measures Act, classified as an enemy alien, and interned in the B.C. Interior after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
She and my grandfather had their business, Steveston’s only grocery store, and their home seized and sold by the government. They and their five children were sent to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood, with only two bunk beds to share among the seven family members.
Their story, of course, is only one of an almost unfathomable number of tales. Others suffered far worse, from being housed in Hastings Park livestock barns stinking of urine and feces to enduring harsh conditions on sugar beet farms on the Prairies. Even one of Canada’s most famous public figures, David Suzuki, was interned.
Yet my grandmother, unlike my grandfather and many of his generation, would live to see justice served.
After the National Association of Japanese Canadians launched a redress campaign in 1984, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney presented a formal apology to Japanese Canadians in the House of Commons on September 22, 1988. The government issued a one-time payment of $21,000 to each individual directly affected by the internment, created a $12-million fund to help rebuild the community, allocated $24 million for a Canadian Race Relations Foundation, reinstated citizenship for those exiled to Japan, and granted pardons to those wrongfully convicted under the War Measures Act.
This year is the 25th anniversary of redress, and it will be commemorated at the third annual Nikkei Place Community Awards event, which honours outstanding local Nikkei (Japanese diaspora) individuals, on September 21 at Nikkei Place. At the same time, the Nikkei National Museum will launch a travelling exhibit, A Call for Justice: Fighting for Japanese Canadian Redress (1977–1988), inspired by the anniversary.
No amount of money will ever compensate for the psychological and emotional impact the experience had on individuals and the community, and the residual effects that ripple through the generations. Yet there was another type of justice for my grandmother, one she may not have recognized.
Japanese Canadians were given an ultimatum to move out of the 100-mile zone or move to Japan. Those who repatriated often suffered hardship in a famine-stricken country languishing in postwar defeat.
Ignoring ostracism from relatives who went to Japan (and who later returned with tales of starvation and suffering), my grandparents chose to stay in B.C. Here, they raised six children, who in turn raised 13 grandchildren, who are now raising eight great-grandchildren. Our extended family—but one example typical of Japanese-Canadian families with pre-war roots—now integrates Chinese, British, German, and Polish heritage.
An oft-touted statistic is that Japanese Canadians, partly due to the dispersal from the coast and low immigration rates, have the highest rate of intermarriage among ethnic minorities in Canada. While this may have altered the community’s homogeneity, it has also woven Japanese Canadians inextricably into Canada’s multicultural fabric. And because of this, no blow against Japanese Canadians can ever be struck again without having an impact resonating far beyond them.
This is true of other minorities as well, whether ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, or sexual, to lash out against one group is to affect numerous others whose connection may not be readily apparent. For example, in his book Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice, author Roy Miki notes how NDP Leader Ed Broadbent was brought to tears as he spoke at the 1988 apology in the House of Commons; his first wife was Japanese Canadian.
We need only consider redress movements in other communities to see the widespread reach of discrimination in this country: the head tax for Chinese Canadians, the continuous-journey legislation and the Komagata Maru incident for South Asian Canadians, innumerable First Nations injustices, and women’s and LGBT rights issues. Our government’s addressing and apologizing for injustices not only acknowledges the past but highlights the diversity that has existed throughout Canadian history, although it was often stifled, erased, or inhibited through discriminatory laws.
Ultimately, the Japanese Canadians who remained in Canada—like my grandparents—or eventually returned helped lay the groundwork for the community’s future, even in the face of lingering postwar discrimination.
While redress may be associated with the community’s past, it was also about the future. Nikkei Place in Burnaby was built with redress community funding, and in turn it has served as a focal point for both Japanese Canadians and new waves of Japanese immigrants, essential for the community’s growth. Nikkei Place’s inaugural family-oriented Nikkei Matsuri: The Heart of Nikkei festival, set for this Saturday and Sunday (August 31 and September 1), is but one example of how the centre brings together the various generations and ensures the community’s longevity.
In a city now awash in sushi restaurants and Asian trends, it’s stunning to think that just over half a century ago, even in postwar Vancouver, there were still restaurants that refused to serve Japanese people and apartment buildings that would not rent rooms to “Orientals”. But as testimony to the perseverance of my grandparents’ generation, further justice beyond redress can be found in their continuing contributions to a country that once betrayed them. In doing so, they helped the True North evolve into the progressive nation that it is today.
Aug 28, 2013 at 10:16am
Unfortunately there are still Restaurants that refuse to serve those of Asian and/or South Asian descent in the Lower Mainland.
The BC Human Rights Tribunal recently awarded damages against one well known Restaurant in the Lower Mainland.
And furthermore most Work Places especially at the Management level at large Canadian Corporations a lacking Asian's and/or visible minorities not to mention (White forget about Colored) Women.
Canada is still pretty White Bread :)
Aug 28, 2013 at 10:16pm
It is humbling to hear that an apology and monetary package was given to these unfortunate people for the unbearable and unnecessary hardships that were placed upon them by the then government.
We have right here in the Kootenays an atrocious incident that happened during the 1950's when children were forcibly ripped from the arms of mothers during the night and whisked away to destinations that were strange and unknown to these children that were forced to be housed in an asylum and forced to forfeit their language, customs, religion and the list goes on. Only because their parents refused to let them go to public schools. When they (parents) offered to home school them. That was against the then governments rules. These children even today (some fifty years later) are still waiting for a formal apology and a reasonable monetary settlement similar to what the Japanese received for their unfortunate mistreatment by the then government. Many even today are still stressed and emotionally injured by this abuse.
In this day and age it is long overdue to open and bring this travesty to rest and bring solace to these victims of injustice to an end.
Aug 29, 2013 at 6:31am
Thank you for a moving article on one of the darkest periods in Canada's history.As descendants of those who suffered before us, it is our duty to speak out against the injustices of the past and the present. While we applaud and celebrate our gains, we have to remind ourselves that like America who is celebrating Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" this month we still have a long way to go to achieve equality for all.
The insidious poison that racism breeds still lurks underneath the benign face of Canada.
The struggle continues for the Aboriginal people, Japanese, Chinese,Hindus and Filipinos who labour as indentured modern-day slaves under the Live-in Caregiver Program.
We should be linking arms in solidarity with each other and articles like this help to raise the awareness that is needed to arouse and mobilize us.
I commend the Straight for its commitment to provide a forum for our struggles.
Tom from Burnaby BC
Aug 30, 2013 at 9:28am
Every country has atrocities against people of all races including whites, child poverty and homeless people all colors.
Lets deal with apologies for our ancestors and move on to deal with new issues and problems that never seem to go away.
Aug 31, 2013 at 10:48am
Wonderful summary and thought provoking piece. Thanks.
My family (Uno and Funamoto) has, of course, a similar history. As a resident of Montreal, my latest concern is the shrinking rights of all in Quebec.
Aug 31, 2013 at 2:29pm
We've certainly come a long way, though of course, social justice is a process, not an achievement. Takeuchi's passage "just over half a century ago, even in postwar Vancouver, there were still restaurants that refused to serve Japanese people and apartment buildings that would not rent rooms to 'Orientals'", reminded me of a West End apartment building in which I lived, where the resident caretaker was the sole the adjudicator of who became a tenant. There were some 50+ suites in the building, but despite a market-standard turnover rate in an increasingly culturally diverse city, by the early 2000s there still wasn't a single tenant of colour. The caretakers were a somewhat elderly (British-immigrant) couple who weren't vocally racist, but nevertheless distrusted as potential tenants applicants whose pigmentation was darker than their own.
I might also add that, though I lived there for a number of years, I didn't even notice this demographic inconsistency until one day when I saw a young black woman inquiring about a vacancy and it suddenly dawned on me at that moment that her application would never be approved. It's so easy for those of us who chanced into being born white to believe that racism is over, when we simply don't look at it.