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Introduction

From 1942 to 1945, twenty-one thousand Japanese-Canadians were forcibly relocated from the British Columbia (B.C.) coast to the interior and the prairies. They were then sent to farms and construction camps as forced labour. Almost all their property was seized, and sold to white Canadians. Many Japanese-Canadians were not allowed to return to the coast until the 1950's(1). The story about the internment of Japanese-Canadians in World War II has always had strong emotional overtones. This has resulted in an unhealthy debate among historians, in which the discussion has become polarised into two artificial factions: the military justification model(2), and the racial discrimination model(3).

The current dominant paradigm is that the decision to intern was made on purely racial grounds, and is the result of a long history of bigoted thinking on the West Coast. The second paradigm is that the internment was a justifiable military exercise, and that while the treatment after internship was the result of racial prejudice, the initial decision was the result of careful consideration of their military threat, relatively free of the grass-roots racism occurring at the time.

The historical context and information available fails to justify either of these views. In response to the purely military claim, racial discrimination had a long history on the West Coast, and permeated into the upper echelon of the political and likely military command. The racial claim also fails, refusing to account for the historical context of warfare, from the likelihood of a Pacific attack from the Japanese, to a very understandable fear of a fifth column.

This essay will re-iterate the evidence of widespread racism in B.C. prior to the decision to intern, and will show how these attitudes resulted in the decision to intern all Japanese-Canadians living in B.C. at that time. This essay will also show the military justifications for internment that were present in Canada during 1939-1942. These two approaches do not contradict each other, as has previously been supposed, but instead show that the decision to intern was forced by the pressure of both evaluations. In the absence of military reasons, internship would have occurred for no other reason than public hysteria and intolerance. In the absence of racism, internship would also have been likely as a defensive and strategic measure.