Opinion: Premier's omission has 'offended' Japanese Canadians

Premier John Horgan began a June 3 media conference with a statement about racism and the “blemishes” on B.C.’s history.

Horgan mentioned the Chinese head tax and the Komagata Maru incident that highlighted discrimination against immigration from India.

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But he failed to mention Japanese Canadians or the central role of the B.C. government in uprooting, incarcerating and exiling 22,000 Japanese Canadians between 1941 and 1949, stripping them of their homes, possessions and businesses.

Canadians have already deemed this episode, initiated and carried out by the province together with the federal government, one of the most blatant examples of state-initiated racism in our history.

Horgan’s omission is puzzling when his government is currently in reparation discussions with the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) based on a brief (partially funded by the B.C. government)  submitted last November. Those recommendations included the creation of an independent body to combat racism.

British Columbian governments and officials played a major role in the incarceration and dispossession of Japanese Canadians and in other racist actions over the years, including passing 170 anti-Asian laws from 1895-1950 that seriously impacted the Japanese Canadian community.

In 1942, B.C. premier John Hart, along with his attorney general Royal Maitland, a notorious racist who deemed Japanese Canadians “a menace to Canada,” were among the first to go to Ottawa to demand that Japanese Canadians be removed from their homes and forcibly relocated.

Internment
1,200 Japanese-Canadian fishing boats were confiscated by the Navy during the internment. - National Archives of Canada

Provincial minister George S. Pearson was sent to Ottawa in January 1942 to demand Japanese Canadians be uprooted. Many in the federal government didn’t buy the government’s claims that Japanese Canadian were spies, but the B.C. delegation persisted and ultimately succeeded.

B.C. opposition leader Harold Winch and Hart together called MP Ian Mackenzie, a well-known racist, in February, 1942, to demand that all Japanese Canadians be detained. This despite the fact that the army and RCMP did not believe that Japanese Canadians were a security risk. 

The B.C. government appointed Winch, Pearson and Maitland to the advisory committee to the B.C. Security Commission that supervised the uprooting of Japanese Canadians and ordered the provincial police to round up the community and to patrol the incarceration camps throughout the province. They separated men from their wives, splitting up families, refused to pay for the education of Japanese Canadian children in the camps and caused trauma that echoes across generations. They also enabled the mass dispossession of all property of Japanese Canadians without compensation. 

After the war, BC legislators demanded that Japanese Canadians be sent to Japan, a country most had never seen, or be dispersed across the country. Today, 60 per cent of the community resides outside the province. BC premier Byron Johnson refused to allow Japanese Canadians to return to the coast until April 1949. 

We hope Horgan’s omission, which has deeply offended Japanese Canadians, does not indicate that he doesn’t take their concerns seriously.

Horgan and his government have an opportunity to acknowledge and set right this historical blight. We look forward to the government arriving at an agreement with the National Association of Japanese Canadians that appropriately addresses this historic wrong.

As demonstrations against racism sweep much of the world, the tide of history will be on the side of governments that act to rectify and address their racist past. 

Maryka Omatsu is a judge, national advisor to the National Association of Japanese Canadians and a member of the association’s 1988 redress negotiation team that won a settlement with the federal government. John Price is a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and the author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific.

 

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