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.