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Racism as a factor in the decision to intern Japanese-Canadians

Racism in the British Empire against Asians was an endemic condition. Australia instituted a White Australia policy and restricted Japanese immigration in 1901. Later, a 'non-discriminatory method' consisting of a English literacy test was adopted that had much the same effect. The attitudes in B.C. were not much different(4).

Initially the Japanese were preceded by the Chinese, the attitudes of white Canadians towards which can be summed by Sir John A. Macdonald:

Well they do come and so do rats. I am pledged to build the great Pacific Railroad in five years, and if I cannot obtain white labour, I must employ other(5).

In 1885, immediately after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Canadian government instituted the Head Tax to discourage immigration. Once cheap labour was no longer needed, neither were the Chinese(6).

In some ways the Japanese were considered more desirable as a race than the Chinese in early B.C. history. They were considered more intelligent, curious and well adapted to Occidental ways(7). This positively bucolic interpretation was relatively short lived, and it lasted only until large numbers of Japanese began to immigrate to the province. At this time the racial division lumped the Japanese in the same contextual framework as the Chinese.

Soon after widespread Japanese immigration started in 1885, the strong antipathy that had developed in white society towards the Chinese grew to encompass the Japanese as well(8). In the late nineteenth century the legal restrictions on the Chinese were applied to the Japanese. The franchise laws were changed to deny the Japanese as well as the Chinese any political power that could be gained through possessing the vote(9). Measures were also taken to limit their economic power. This was accomplished by limiting employment opportunities, and preventing the purchase of crown lands(10). These examples were not the result of a 'higher' government attitude, but a reflection of the widely held beliefs of many British Columbians themselves.

The anti-Asian attitudes were widespread, and had little opposition. Special interest groups such as the labour movement crusaded strongly against Asians(11). Popular racism enjoyed frequent outbreaks. This was initiated by increases in immigration, economic conflict, and expansionist Japan in the 1930's. These outbreaks were not isolated incidents, but rather surges of ingrained racial prejudice held by the majority of the population(12).

Before expansionist Japan's actions after 1930, there were many anti-Oriental expressions of this popular racism. In 1878 unrest was initiated by a local labour union in Victoria, and was sparked by an increase in Chinese immigration(13). A decade later in Vancouver, Chinese labourers were the victim of a systemic campaign to prevent them from entering the city. The antagonism in this instance developed into mob violence. This resulted in a newly arrived group of Chinese labourers being driven out(14). In 1907 there was an anti-Asiatic riot in Vancouver conducted by the Asiatic Exclusion League. This major race riot resulted from the aroused public fury and outcry over a sharp increase in Japanese and Chinese immigration(15). The forcible expulsion from Vancouver of a ship full of Sikh immigrants in 1914 was an act against Canadian immigration law, as India was a part of the British Empire(16). In the early 1920s both small businessmen and farmers' organisations launched a smear campaign warning of the growing 'Yellow Peril'(17).

The Provincial government also took part in overt discrimination. On 19 September, 1907, a Vancouver MP left for Ottawa to give his views on the Asiatic situation:

B.C. is to be white man's country. The majority of the residents are utterly opposed to the present flinging wide the gates to Asiatics. If the Government does not step in and put a stop to the already humiliating condition of affairs there will be another little episode like the one which occurred in Boston harbor when tea was thrown overboard(18).

In addition, in 1924 the B.C. Legislature passed a resolution requesting that Japanese and Chinese immigration be prohibited, and that restrictions be placed on the industrial and commercial activities of Orientals(19). It eventually became common practice for employers and government to discriminate against the Japanese in almost every endeavour(20).

After the invasion of Manchuria in September of 1930, the climate against Japanese became worse. Most were now labelled as 5th columnists (secret agents) working for the Japanese government(21). In 1938 the federal Conservative government was in favour of the complete exclusion of all Asians from Canada. At the same time some newspapers were reporting men from the Japanese Navy to be hiding amongst the Japanese-Canadians(22).

That the principal political leaders at the time were also specifically racist is also documented. Ian Mackenzie was a B.C. provincial politician, and a blatant racist. Mackenzie successfully used anti-Asian tactics to win the 1935 election against the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Later Ian Mackenzie switched to federal politics, and in 1935 was a Minister in William Lyon McKenzie King's Liberal government. Federally Mackenzie downplayed his anti-Asian stance as a colourful part of B.C. politics. As a result of this, and as the only Minister from British Columbia, Mackenzie was able to strongly influence Federal responses to the 'Japanese problem'(23).

William Lyon McKenzie King has been attributed with merely being susceptible to the voting power of prejudice, rather than being explicitly racist himself; however the adoption of discriminatory practices for votes is no less repugnant than holding such views oneself. As a result of following this policy King had tried to remove Japanese-Canadians from the fishing industry, strongly curtailed Japanese and Chinese immigration, and continued with the disenfranchisement of Japanese-Canadians. His diary also suggests that such prejudicial views were in fact his own, his comment on the appropriateness of using the bomb on the Japanese rather the 'white races', is especially revealing(24).

Documentation about the racial views of those in Canada's military is sketchy at best. Statements by senior members before Pearl Harbor and in 1943 (25) later in the war suggest that the General Staff saw little threat in the Japanese-Canadian community. Other sources however have pointed out that these opinions were reversed when the Joint Services Committee, Pacific Coast, concluded that the presence of Japanese-Canadians posed a strong danger to the defence of the Canadian coast(26). Major General R.O. Alexander, a commanding officer in chief of the Pacific Command did show overt prejudices against the Japanese-Canadians, and argued for their internment on this basis (27). Whether the racial views of Alexander affected the rest of the military is largely unknown. One can assume, given the evidence of widespread open racism shown such far, that racism in the military was likely present to a significant degree.