Behind multiculturalism in British Columbia : The history of Japanese internment camp

From UBC Wiki

British Columbia is known for its multiculturalism, and one of the major ethnicity is Japanese. Japanese immigration to British Columbia started in the 1870s.[1] In 1942, the Canadian government started to detain and dispossessed Japanese immigrants and their descent living in British Columbia after Japanese invasions of Hong Kong and Malaya (Current Malaysia and Singapore), and the attack on Pearl Harbour. The interned and evacuated Japanese have suffered from severe discrimination during WWII for the sake of the Canadian national security.[1] The narrative work about the past and the redress movement have brought and reshaped the Canadian nationalism and immigration policies. In spite of the fact that British Columbia claims its inclusiveness and multiculturalism, discrimination that Japanese immigrants have faced should not be forgotten.


Japanese Immigration before WWII

Japanese immigration to British Columbia started in 1870s. Once Japan opened its boarder to the rest of the world, many Japanese males came to British Columbia to gain Western knowledge, and earn profits for family and village members back in Japan. While hundreds and thousands of Japanese travelled to Asia, South America, Hawaii, the United States, less than 40,000 people were destined for Canada[2]. The first Japanese immigrant arrived in BC in 1887 followed by 10,000 Japanese people by 1914[2]. Japanese had little incentive to assimilate into Canadian culture from the beginning, which made them preserve their own Japanese identity. Japanese community in Canada was really secluded as a minority group in a large host society.

The Canadian government restricted Japanese male immigrants to Canada 400 per year due to the public opposition towards Japanese based on the racist sentiments[3]. As a result, the majority of Japanese immigrants were female for next 30 years[2]. Some were brought by husbands who had returned to Japan already, while some were brought as brides to potentially wed with men in Canada, who they had never even seen before[2]. In British Columbia, while Japanese men worked as fishermen while many women worked in canneries as cheap labour at the westcoast[4]. In 1920s, Japanese fishers composed a large proportion of the fleet in BC. However, these fleets and canneries that they depended on were run by the white population and Japanese and also Chinese fishermen faced social segregation and discrimination in terms of their housing[4].

WWII Interment Camp

They gradually started to have partners, children, and families with the intention of eventual permanent settlement in Canada[2]. By 1930s, there were many second and third generation of Japanese-Canadian who were born in Canada and raised as Canadians.

As the World War II proceeded, Canadian attitudes changed social norms toward Japanese. Provincial authorities became alarmed and concerned about the presence of Japanese in the coast of British Columbia[5]. By 1940, the authorities hired Japanese informants for further surveillance. On December 7th,1941, the Japan attack on Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong where Canadian armies were stationed led them to declare the war on Japan and anti-Japanese sentiment became drastic[2]. Japanese people working for fishing industries in the BC coast were suspected to link the coastline of Japanese Navy and to spy on Canada’s moves in the war. The RCMP and the Royal Canadian Navy cooperated to arrest suspected Japanese agents and impounded fishing their boats. Japanese schools and newspapers were also shut down to avoid racist backlash[5].

The fear toward Japanese increased rapidly among Canadians and the Prime Minister at that time, Mackenzie King, finally announced to send Japanese to internment camps in 1942[1]. Japanese were sent to Hastings Park first where women and children stayed behind in livestock buildings. Men were further proceeded to interior areas of British Columbia including Greenwood and Sandon[1]. Some were offered to work for sugar beet crops in Alberta and Manitoba. More than 22,000 Japanese Canadian were sent to the Internment camp[1].

Family members were separated. As men acting as the head of households were sent to somewhere else, women needed to protect their children and survive without husbands[5]. Furthermore, all property of those Japanese people were taken into government custody, including business, farms, housings and all personal belonging[1]. They were forced to stay in livestock buildings and some were surrounded by wire fences as they were close to the border with the United States. The camps were too crowded and conditions were too poor to have electricity or water[1]. Sugar beet farmers forced Japanese heavy duty labour and put Japanese labours tiny shacks[6]. This treatment was applied even to the Japanese descents who identified themselves as Canadian. For them, it was betrayal from their own homeland. The resistance of Japanese Canadians also existed. Those who refused to be interned were sent to Prisoner of War (POW) camps at Ontario[1].


The 90% of the interned Japanese-Canadians were the second or the third generation and already naturalized to get fishing business. After the war ended in August 1945,  those people wished to come back to the west coast. On the other hand, about 4,000 Japanese Canadian were deported to Japan, including 2,000 aging first generation immigrants and 1,300 children under 16 years  who wished to restart their own life again[2].Those who wished to the west coast needed to wait until 1949 April when the government removed the wartime restrictions on Japanese Canadians. Its emotional borders they felt within the same state was thick and challenging to overcome.

Starting in 1950s, Japanese community in British Columbia started to be active again. Powell street in Vancouver is one of the examples of flourished Japanese communities in Vancouver[7]. However, at the same time, Japanese Canadians started to gather to gain compensation of the wartime treatments in 1980s when the first novel to trace Japanese internment camp Obasan by Joy Kogawa was published[5]. The National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) opened negotiation with the Canadian government for the monetary compensation that counted all the loss that Japanese Canadian lost from the wartime treatment and human rights abuse. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for injustice,which included compensation payments to individuals and community funds, and abolition of the War Measures Act which permitted legal action of removal and internment of Japanese[1].

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa is a Japanese-Canadian author of Obasan (1981), a story of the narrator Naomi Nakane overcoming the history of WWII as a Japanese-Canadian. This story has helped Canada reshape its concept of nationalism and emphasizes the reconstruction of the national memory of traumatic events. It has also been instrumental in the success of the redress movement after WWII[8]. This narrative text illustrates the narrator from silence signified as a stone to speech and overcoming the trauma of the war. "There is a silence that cannot speak. There is a silence that will not speak" (1) [9]. This quote signifies her struggle with overcoming her past. The narrator struggles the mixture of social-cultural and political forms of oppression at the intersection of social locations. However, many critics have argued that this novel would work in the way that it ignores ongoing racism in Canada and treats multiculturalism as if it is a mission accomplished as she overcame her past. [8] This narrative works demonstrates the powerful resistance to the racial discrimination and the importance of remembering the past, yet it does not mean Canada has not change from a racist past to an anti-racist present[8].

British Columbia Multiculturalism

Since Canada introduced an official policy embracing the idea of multiculturalism with Francophone population in 1971[10], Canada’s response to immigration has been open, and envisioned to protect the rights of individuals and their cultural practices. Immigration policy is an integral part of governance at the federal level in Canada. The current Canadian immigration policy has no longer explicitly discriminate specific "unwanted" race; however, it still has discriminatory requirements, such as education, skill, employment and finance, which some social groups struggle to meet.

British Columbia is considered as the most ethnically diverse province in Canada.  Its multiculturalism is enforced by a variety of immigrants of economic, family reunification, and refugees. By 1990, 90% of population growth in British Columbia was due to its incoming immigration[11]. Geographically, British Columbia has become Canada’s gateway to the Asia-Pacific region and has received immigrants as well as investment capital. As such, Vancouver has played an active role as a Pacific urban city. Furthermore, British Columbia has a large population of First Nations as well to add to its diversity[10]. A consequence that this diversity has brought to British Columbia is that Vancouver now has the highest proportion of “visible minorities”[12].

In spite of its diversity and multiculturalism that BC seems to have, it is important to remember that there is always an unforgettable history behind this multiculturalism. British Columbia has celebrated its diversity for the past decades as a pacific gateway, yet the suffering Japanese Canadians have faced from unjust discrimination should not be forgotten. As the critics of Obasan mention, it is not yet complete. The memories and histories should be passed down to next generation of immigrants to appreciate what they have in British Columbia.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 "Japanese Internment: Banished and Beyond Tears".
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Ward, W. Peter (1982). The Japanese in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association. ISBN 1715-8605 Check |isbn= value: length (help).
  3. Roy, E. Patricia (1989). A White Man's Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1854-1914. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Muszynska, Alicja (1996). Cheap wage labour : race and gender in the fisheries of British Columbia. Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1376-0.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Ward, W. Peter (2002). White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British Columbia. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2322-7.
  6. Sunahara, A. Gomer (2000). The Politics of Racism: THE UPROOTING OF JAPANESE CANADIANS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR. Toronto: Ann Gomer Sunahara. line feed character in |title= at position 24 (help)
  7. Fiset, L., Nomura, G. M., & Project Muse University Press Archival eBooks. (2005;2011;). Nikkei in the pacific northwest: Japanese americans & japanese canadians in the twentieth century (1st ed.). Seattle: Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest in association with University of Washington Press.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Karpinski, E. (2006). The Book as (Anti)National Heroine: Trauma and Witnessing in Joy Kogawa’s ObasanStudies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, 31(2). Retrieved from
  9. Kogawa, J. Obasan (Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1981), Proem.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Sandercock L., Brock S. (2009) Inventing a Multicultural Nation: Canada’s Evolving Story. In: Where Strangers Become Neighbours. Urban and Landscape Perspectives, vol 4. Springer, Dordrecht
  11. Brock S. (2009) Changing the Mind of the City: Preparing the Public Sector for a Multicultural Society. In: Where Strangers Become Neighbours. Urban and Landscape Perspectives, vol 4. Springer, Dordrecht
  12. Sandercock L., Brock S. (2009) Integrating an Immigrant Metropolis: Vancouver’s Diversity Mission. In: Where Strangers Become Neighbours. Urban and Landscape Perspectives, vol 4. Springer, Dordrecht