The Politics of Racism by Ann Gomer Sunahara
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Abuse of Japanese Canadians did not begin with the Second World War. Rather, the uprooting, confinement, dispossession, dispersal and attempted deportation of Japanese Canadians were the culmination of a long history of discrimination resulting from Canadian social norms that cast Asians in the role of second-class citizens. Stripped of their political rights, Asians had traditionally been politically castrated targets for the rhetoric of B.C. politicians seeking scapegoats for the province's ills. The war only provided an ideal atmosphere for the seeds of repression to flourish.
It only took twelve weeks for those seeds to flower. Exploiting the normal insecurities following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, traditionally intolerant elements in B.C. society – and the politicians who sought their support – resurrected every racist charge ever made against Japanese Canadians, emphasizing that Japan intended to invade British Columbia with the help of B.C.'s Japanese. Significantly, the groups making these charges did not reside on the Mainland where most Japanese Canadians lived. Nor did they have any basis for their allegations. What they had was the support of B.C.'s non-CCF politicians. Assuming that the prejudices of this vocal minority were representative of the attitudes of all British Columbians, B.C.'s politicians quickly demanded the removal of Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast. The war with Japan provided an ideal opportunity to rid B.C. of the Japanese "economic menace" forever.
B.C.'s politicians were opposed by Canada's senior military and police officers and by senior civil servants. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, aware that Japanese Canadians were controlled from within by their own leaders, was confident that they presented no danger of sabotage. The military in Ottawa were equally confident, having long recognized the practical impossibility of an invasion of Canada's Pacific coast.
In Ottawa, Asians, long considered second-class citizens, were a secondary and very unimportant matter to federal politicians. It was not the role of government to champion a despised minority, especially when doing so could unleash a backlash against the government by politicians from the opposing Party, the Conservatives. Asians were only significant as a political thorn in the side of the B.C. Liberals. Thus, Asian matters were left to the "expertise" of the only member of the Cabinet from British Columbia, the rabidly anti-Asian Ian Alistair Mackenzie.
The Cabinet in Ottawa, preoccupied by the larger war issues, chose a simplistic and politically safe solution to the Japanese problem, against the counsel of Canada's senior police and military officers and of experts within the civil service. Unwilling because of the conscription crisis to acknowledge that the invasion fears of West Coast residents were unfounded, the Cabinet chose to uproot an innocent but despised minority because their in-house expert told them only that would satisfy the apparently hysterical people of B.C. The fact that the American president had chosen the same solution only made the decision to uproot 20,881 men, women and children that much easier and plausible.
The government's excuse of "national security" used to justify the uprooting of B.C.'s Japanese Canadians branded them traitors, making it impossible for them to appeal to their fellow Canadians for help to combat that libel and the injustice attending it, and leaving them virtually friendless. To Japanese Canadians, unaware that the military had opposed the entire policy, the excuse of "national security" raised the spectre of military intervention should they try to resist.
Powerless to stop their uprooting, Japanese Canadians sought to mitigate the attending conditions. Some cooperated with the authorities and rendered social assistance to their fellow Japanese Canadians. Some volunteered as sugar beet labourers in Manitoba and Alberta in an attempt to keep their families intact. Others moved themselves, their families and friends to self-support settlements in the Interior of British Columbia. Still others, mostly married Nisei and Kibei, disobeyed the orders sending them to road camps to protest the separation of men from their families. Although their protest was tainted by the participation of pro-Japan elements, their disobedience eventually secured the reunification of married men with their families.
In the detention camps of the Interior and the sugar beet fields of Alberta and Manitoba, Japanese Canadians worked together to solve the problems facing them: poor housing, inadequate sugar beet contracts and relief allowances, unsympathetic staff or sugar beet farmers, and the lack of schooling for their children. Organization was possible because the prewar social ties remained largely intact. The mechanism of removal had situated together people from the same factions and communities, and had also created a nucleus of maturing Nisei in Ontario, who would quickly make contact with sympathetic Caucasians to build a power base for protest.
Having uprooted 20,881 Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast, the federal government was faced with the problem of compensating for the economic effects of their removal and the cost of confining 12,000 of them in detention camps. The Cabinet recognized the opportunity for veteran settlement afforded by Japanese Canadian farms in the Fraser Valley: it froze the sale of those farms, stripped the uprooted Japanese of all property, and reserved the 769 most suitable farms for veterans. The funds derived from the subsequent property sales – after deductions for the expenses of the sale and the repayment of relief benefits – were used by the inmates to buy the necessities of life within the detention camps.
Stripping Japanese Canadians of their property was a politically inspired act. It retarded the return of Japanese Canadians to the Pacific Coast and accelerated their dispersal eastward. Liberal politicians in B.C. could claim credit for having rid B.C. of the Japanese menace. Veterans falling heir to Japanese Canadian property could be expected to vote for the Liberal party. Lastly, the funds derived from the sales minimized the cost of detaining Japanese Canadians by forcing them to pay for their own incarceration.
When the policy of voluntary resettlement east of the Rocky Mountains proved too slow, the federal authorities implemented a deportation policy. In April and May 1945, they forced the inmates of the detention camps to choose between immediate, but not necessarily permanent, resettlement in eastern Canada, and repatriation to Japan at some unspecified future date. To keep their jobs, to avoid another move, to hide from hostile Caucasians, in despair, in confusion, and in ignorance, 6,884 Japanese Canadians, sixteen years of age and over, signed repatriation requests. With their 3,500 dependents, these potential deportees represented 43 per cent of Canada's Japanese minority.
With the capitulation of Japan in August 1945, the federal government sought to make those repatriation requests binding. In November 1945 the Cabinet sought from Parliament the power to deport any resident of Canada, and were refused. Six weeks later C two weeks before the powers of the War Measures Act were to expire – the Cabinet granted itself that power by Order-in-Council under the War Measures Act, and ordered the deportation of 10,000 Japanese Canadians.
This most blatant abuse of the powers of the War Measures Act did not pass unnoticed or uncensored. Canadians had believed the government's claim that the uprooting of Japanese Canadians was a national security measure. Most Canadians outside B.C. had never learned of the sale of Japanese Canadian property. Once aware of the fact and of the impending deportation of 10,000 Japanese Canadians, the Canadian public told their government to halt its deportation of Japanese Canadians.
While the deportation issue continued in the courts, Japanese Canadians underwent a second uprooting. The right to employment in British Columbia was denied to all unemployed and "relocateable" Japanese Canadians. They had two choices: shipment to a starving Japan or resettlement in eastern Canada. Four thousand chose Japan; 4,700 resettled in the provinces east of Alberta. By the time the federal government withdrew the threat of deportation in January 1947, only 6,776 Japanese Canadians remained in British Columbia.
The time had come to rebuild. By 1949 Japanese Canadians would achieve full citizenship, but not before their exile from the Pacific Coast was extended for a seventh year, in the mistaken belief that this final act of discrimination was necessary to ensure the election of Liberal candidates in B.C. by-elections. Not only did those candidates lose, but the press and people of B.C. chastised the B.C. government in 1948 for attempting to reimpose racial discrimination in employment. Perhaps the people of British Columbia never were quite as racist as their politicians had assumed.
Full citizenship, however, did not mean an end to the battle for justice. The legacy of the Issei was gone, sold on the auction blocks by order of Cabinet. The direct economic losses sustained by Japanese Canadians were heavy. The social losses, the cost in pain, sorrow, shame and mental anguish, were even greater. To Japanese Canadians it was only just that they be compensated.
The federal government preferred to avoid publicly acknowledging any losses, economic or social, since that would reflect upon governmental policies. However, since some losses had to be acknowledged, the federal government sought to minimize the amount of compensation and, hence, the implication of injustice. With the restriction of the terms of reference of the Royal Commission on Japanese Canadian losses to those occurring in sales by the Custodian of Enemy Property at less than the "fair market value" and to theft, the administration of the dispossession policy, not the policy itself, would be open to public censure. With this tactic, the compensation paid was reduced to a mere $1.2 million, and the issue was effectively killed.
The abuse of Japanese Canadians in the Second World War had its villains and its heros. Some of the villains are obvious: Ian Mackenzie and the B.C. M.P.'s, Halford Wilson, Humphrey Mitchell and their confederates. These obvious villains succeeded to the extent they did, not because they were clever or powerful but because, until very late in the game, they were unopposed in Cabinet, the forum in which the policies abusing Japanese Canadians were ultimately decided. The obvious villains supplied merely the ideas, or, in Mackenzie's case, husbanded those ideas through the policy-making process. The ultimate responsibility for the abuse of Japanese Canadians rests with the Cabinet. Without the tacit consent of the Cabinet as a whole, none of the proposals of the B.C. racists could have become law and none of the abuses of Japanese Canadians could have been carried out.
As with the villains, there were several levels of heroes. For the most part, the heroes fought losing battles and came dangerously close to losing the war. There were public heroes like Hugh Keenleyside, Henry Angus and Frederick J. Mead who did not hesitate to say what their political superiors did not wish to hear, and who, as in Keenleyside's case, put their careers on the line for Japanese Canadians. At another public level, Andrew Brewin and Robert J. MacMaster fought long legal battles for Japanese Canadians, in MacMaster's case at considerable financial cost. Other heroes intervened at the administrative level. People like Amy Leigh, Walter Hartley and Henry Lougheed, who did their best to ease the shock and discomfort of uprooting and exile, fall into this group. With them are the Women's Missionary Society workers and the individuals and social agencies who helped Japanese Canadians in the camps and upon resettlement. The most effective heroes were the anonymous ones: the hundreds of men and women who as private citizens in 1946 told their government to stop abusing Japanese Canadians.
Throughout it all the greatest heroes were the Japanese Canadians themselves. Libelled as traitors, caught up in events over which they had no control, divided, confused and frightened, they won in the end. The cost was terrible. The world the Issei had known was gone. The social ties and economic security they had built up through forty years of labour had vanished. Yet they were not broken. Japanese Canadians have been compared to a stand of bamboo that bends in a storm but straightens up once the storm has past, quickly regenerating its broken shoots and continuing to thrive. Like the bamboo, Japanese Canadians absorbed the blows directed at them. Uprooted, stripped of their property, scattered across Canada, rejected, insulted and abused, Japanese Canadians stood once the storm was past and, like the refugees from Europe's holocaust, rebuilt their lives.
Apologists looking at the dramatic rise in the socio-economic status of Japanese Canadians between the 1930s and the 1960s have called the wartime experience of Japanese Canadians a blessing in disguise. By attributing the cause of the postwar success of Japanese Canadians to their uprooting, dispossession and mandatory dispersal, the apologists ignore the fact that they are comparing two very different populations, having only their Japanese ethnicity in common. They are comparing the income and status of a poorly educated group of immigrants, inhibited by language difficulties, racial discrimination and a worldwide economic depression, with the income and status of well-educated, English-speaking Canadians living in a healthy economy and in a society in which discrimination has been severely reduced. By comparing the success of the Issei with the success of the Nisei, the apologists are comparing apples and oranges.
Japanese Canadians did not become Canada's third most highly educated and prosperous minority – right behind the Jews and the Chinese – because of the war.1 Japanese Canadians succeeded for the same reasons that the Jews and the Chinese succeeded. They succeeded because they had the cultural and moral strength to overcome the setbacks of the war and prewar periods. They succeeded because the Nisei were able to take their Canadian educations into a booming postwar economy and, through culturally valued hard work and thrift, rebuild their lives. They were not alone. The displaced persons from Europe and the Hungarian refugees of the 1950s did the same. Moreover, the fact that Chinese Canadians did better than Japanese Canadians after the Second World War suggests that the war, by destroying the economic legacy of the Issei, actually inhibited Japanese Canadians.
Although outwardly they appear to have recovered, Japanese Canadians still carry the scars of their wartime experience. The poverty of the Issei, the social silence of the Nisei, and the cultural ignorance of the SanseiA are all legacies of the war. The Issei are poor because they were dispossessed. The Nisei are silent because they are good Canadians, and as such they want to believe that their government is benign, that it embodies the British fair play in which they were taught to believe in the public schools of their childhood. They would prefer to think that they were not betrayed, but that the federal government did what it did for good reasons.
The reasons the Nisei were given in the 1950s reinforce their silence. Japanese Canadians, they were told, were uprooted, dispossessed and dispersed because they had failed to assimilate – that is, failed to deny their Japanese heritage and to submerge themselves in the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture. By clustering visibly on the Pacific Coast in culturally separate communities, they became the target of West Coast fears.2 In the explanations of the 1950s, the West Coast populace was the villain; the federal government was only trying to protect Japanese Canadians.
In the 1950s there were no other explanations. In the midst of postwar idealism and under the shadow of McCarthyism, few were prepared to closely scrutinize the actions of the Canadian government. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Nisei blamed themselves for what had happened to them. Like the rape victim who has been told that she lead her attacker on by simply being there to be raped, Japanese Canadians were confused and ashamed. They sought refuge from the trauma of their experience in the safety of middle-class Canadian culture. Avoiding the public eye and cutting back to the social level their ties to the Japanese minority, the Nisei plunged into acquiring the outward manifestations of success: suburban homes and jobs in middle management. Their organizations, surviving only in a very weak form, kept a low profile, going public only on motherhood issues like human rights and more liberal immigration laws – and always in the company of other ethnic and religious groups.3 In the 1950s and early 1960s, Japanese Canadians were principally concerned with ensuring that doubts about their Canadian loyalty were eradicated so that they would never again be victims of public insecurity.
It is also not surprising that many Nisei have swallowed the blessing-in-disguise argument without question.4 They know that they are doing better economically and socially than their parents did. They know that the overt racism that inhibited their parents and themselves in the 1930s and 1940s has virtually disappeared. They have been told that the reason for that racism was the alien presence of the Japanese subculture in British Columbia. The destruction of that subculture in the war, they conclude, is the reason for the success of the Nisei. The Nisei who accept the blessing-in-disguise rationale overlook the fact that their postwar success comes, not from the shattering of the prewar Japanese subculture, but from the cultural values they learned from the Issei. The qualities of enryo (reserve or restraint), gamen (patience and perseverance) and shikataga-nai (resignation) allowed the Nisei to bend rather than break under the restrictions of the war. The same qualities made it possible for them to await opportunity through the 1950s without feelings of defeatism and then to grasp that opportunity, making their claims for promotion and status on culturally based records of hard work and educational achievement. The qualities that made the Nisei good middle managers were ultimately Japanese qualities.5
The Nisei who accept the blessing rationale also overlook the fact that the postwar reduction in discrimination is not attributable to their wartime experience. After the Second World War traditional racial prejudice and colonial attitudes were rejected by most free world nations, at least in theory. The legacy of the Nazi death camps and the emergence of colonial states into independent nations demonstrated the inherent flaws of "white supremacy." Overt racism, practised by a loud minority, became socially and, more importantly, politically unacceptable in Canada.
Wanting only to forget their wartime experiences, the Nisei felt no pressing need to emphasize things Japanese in the rearing of their children. As a consequence, the Sansei grew up knowing little and caring less about their heritage. They also grew up ignorant of the wartime experience of their parents and grandparents. There seemed no need to teach them. It was enough to give them middle-class advantages to ensure their success in Canadian society. Indeed, some felt that the exposure of the Sansei to the bitterness of the war might be counterproductive, undermining the assumption of the Sansei that they were no different from their Caucasian friends.6 Moreover, to teach the Sansei about the war, the Nisei had to understand it themselves, in itself an impossibility. To question the explanations of the 1950s was to question the ideas that had shaped the way they had built their lives. To deny the blessing-in-disguise rationale was to admit that their youth had been wasted in the detention camps of British Columbia, and their heritage sold on the auction blocks along with everything the Issei owned. To deny the blessing rationale was to admit that they were betrayed by their government, something which, as Canadians, they do not wish to admit.
The ability of a victim to recover, at least outwardly, from an assault or a rape does not undo the crime. Nor does slapping a Band-Aid on part of the wound absolve the assaulting party of guilt. Unrepentant and unreformed, the guilty party remains capable of committing the crime again. Forty years after the abuse of Japanese Canadians, there still exists no insurance against its happening again. There is still no means of preventing unscrupulous and self-seeking politicians, like Ian Mackenzie, from using a "real or apprehended" emergency to effect a political end. The powers of the War Measures Act under which Japanese Canadians were uprooted, detained, dispossessed, dispersed and almost deported remain unaltered. It is still possible for the Cabinet to deny without censure the rights of any individual or group in Canada in the name of national security.
Only one effort has been made to curb the powers of the War Measures Act. In 1960, during the debate on the Bill of Rights, Lester B. Pearson, Liberal leader of the opposition, urged that the bill be given teeth by giving it precedence over the War Measures Act. Pearson wanted the power of the Cabinet to detain people under the War Measures Act made subject to review by a Supreme Court justice . He was unsuccessful . Arguing that when Canada' s national security was threatened, the rights of the individual were secondary, the former opponent of the deportation of Japanese Canadians, Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, joined with his fellow Conservatives to defeat Pearson's amendment.7
The War Measures Act has been used only once since the Second World War: in the October Crisis of 1970. Citing an "apprehended insurrection," the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act with the apparent approval of 87 per cent of Canadians.8 No proof of insurrection was offered. As in 1942, Canadians, including Japanese Canadians, simply assumed that the claims of their government were true and that the French Canadians detained under the War Measures Act were potential revolutionaries. Most probably still hold these assumptions, although none of the detained French Canadians were ever convicted of a crime. Not personally affected, most Canadians remain unconcerned that their government used the axe of the War Measures Act rather than the scalpel of the Criminal Code to solve a kidnapping.
There is no way of ensuring that the Ian Mackenzies of this world are never placed in positions of power. There are ways of ensuring that their power is limited. At present Canadians do not possess that protection; the civil liberties of every Canadian may be peremptorily suspended at Parliament's whim. In a country that prides itself on its democratic tradition, it is sobering to note that everything done to Japanese Canadians was, and still is, legal under Canadian law.
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Politics of Racism Home
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Copyright © 2000 Ann Sunahara
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