An inglorious chapter

Jul 13th, 2008 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Our parish book club is reading David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars this month. Only when travelling through southern British Columbia last week did it occur to me that the places described by Guterson were not so far from the Canadian border and only visiting the fishing village of Steveston, south of Richmond, on Friday morning did I discover, by accident, that the experiences of the Japanese in the San Islands which is the centrepiece of Guterson’s book differed little from the experience of the Japanese in Steveston – some thirty miles north.

The first Japanese arrived in Steveston in the late 19th Century, they made it their home. Wikipedia describes what happened in the life of that community in 1942.

Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, prominent British Columbians, including members of municipal government offices, local newspapers and businesses called for the internment of the Japanese. In British Columbia, there were fears that some Japanese who worked in the fishing industry were charting the coastline for the Japanese navy, acting as spies on Canada’s military. Military and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) authorities felt the public’s fears were unwarranted, but the public opinion quickly pushed the government to act. Canadian Pacific Railway fired all the Japanese workers, and most other Canadian companies did the same. Japanese fish boats were first confined to port, and eventually, the Canadian navy seized 1,200 of these vessels. Many boats were damaged, and over one hundred sank.

In January 1942, a “protected” 100-mile (160 km) wide strip up the Pacific coast was created, and any men of Japanese descent between the ages of 18 and 45 were removed and taken to road camps in the British Columbian interior, to sugar beet projects on the Prairies, or to internment in a POW camp in Ontario . . .

Most of the 21,500 people of Japanese descent who lived in British Columbia were naturalized or native-born citizens. Those unwilling to live in internment camps or relocation centres faced the possibility of deportation to Japan. On February 24, 1942 an Order-in-Council passed under the War Measures Act giving the federal government the power to intern all “persons of Japanese racial origin.”

In early March, all ethnic Japanese people were ordered out of the protected area, and a daytime-only curfew was imposed on them. Some of those brought inland were kept in animal stalls for the Pacific National Exhibition at Hastings Park, in Vancouver for months. They were then moved to ten camps in or near inland British Columbia towns, sometimes separating husbands from their wives and families. However, four of those camps in the Lillooet area and another at Christina Lake were formally “self-supporting projects” (also called “relocation centres”) which housed selected middle and upper class families and others not deemed as much a threat to public safety. Officially, those living in “relocation camps” were not legally interned – they could leave, so long as they had permission – however, they were not legally allowed to work or attend school outside the camps. Since the majority of Japanese Canadians had little property aside from their (confiscated) houses, these restrictions left most with no opportunity to survive outside the camps. Canadian MP Ian MacKenzie declared, “It is the government’s 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.”

Steveston today has a boardwalk along the shore where the canneries once stood. Dotted along the way are photographs and captions telling the story of the development of the fishing industry and the community that grew up around the industry. Guterson’s pages come alive as you walk through the history.

At one end of the boardwalk is the Britannia Heritage Shipyard park, which includes amongst its exhibits a reconstruction of the home of the Murakami family alongside the building in which they made their living as boatbuilders, until losing everything in 1942. It was 1988 before the Canadian government made restitution to those affected by the measures of 1942.

In 2002 the Japanese Canadian Fishermen erected a memorial statue to mark the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese at Steveston. The inscription beneath the salmon holding fisherman acknowledges the contribution of the community to the fishing industry and pays tribute to their courage and perseverance. It makes no mention of the injustices they suffered – an act of graciousness of which David Guterson’s characters would have approved.

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  1. We did the same here to the few Japanese and some Italians who lived in Australia during the war and interred them in Western NSW at Cowra. There was a famous and bloody breakout. It was doomed to failure four Australian guards and 231 Japanese died, and 108 prisoners were wounded. It’s now the location of a UN Peace Bell and fantastic Japanese gardens. Sounds like you made much of your trip Ian.

  2. I enjoyed reading Snow Falling on Cedars.

    I remember Jack telling me how the local residents of Italian extraction in the UK were rounded up during WW11 and sent to the Isle of Man.

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